Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The James Stewart Blogathon – Mr. Smith Goes to Grandview in Magic Town (1947)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The James Stewart Blogathon, currently underway from April 14-17 and hosted by The Classic Film and TV Café.  For a complete schedule of the movies and topics discussed in the blogathon, click here.

Actor James Stewart emerged from World War II as a full Colonel after originally enlisting as a private—one of the very few Americans to achieve that honor during the war.  Upon being demobbed, Stewart took a bit of time off from motion picture making; he was a little uneasy as to whether he’d be able to restart his acting career (it had been nearly five years since his last picture), but after briefly reconsidering a change of profession to working in the aviation industry (he had distinguished himself as a combat pilot during the war) Jimmy decided the actor’s life was for him.  He no doubt believed he made the right choice when his first postwar film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), snagged him a third Best Actor Oscar nomination (not to mention nods for Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Capra).

It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered by many film buffs both a true movie classic (it was put on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990) and a Yuletide viewing tradition…but at the time of its release, it had only moderate success at the box office.  Audiences, it would seem, were a little frosty towards the cheery optimism of the picture—preferring the pessimistic reality of a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) instead.  It took the failure of a similar film released after IAWL to convey this to the actor, who then “grew up” with more mature movies like Call Northside 777 (1948) and Rope (1948) before hitting upon a winning streak in the 1950s with the westerns of Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River) and additional Alfred Hitchcock thrillers (Rear Window, Vertigo).  The movie that echoes much of IAWL is 1947’s Magic Town—humorously referred to by some as “the greatest Frank Capra film not directed by Frank Capra.”

Former GI Lawrence “Rip” Smith (Stewart) has but one goal in life: he wants to be rich.  His chosen profession is polling, taking the public’s pulse on the issues of the day…and Rip is convinced that if he could just stumble on to the perfect mathematical formula—one that doesn’t involve the intensive time-and-effort of statistical sampling and the like—his fortunes would be assured, since he’s financially strapped and lagging far behind his survey competitors.  He’s even been forced to close his business and excuse his staff of employees…and may wind up working for the number-one polling concern, headed by a man named Stringer (Selmer Jackson).

But from out of the blue, Providence arrives in the form of a letter from a Professor Hoopendecker (Kent Smith), who was one of Rip’s service pals during the war.  Hoopendecker has taken a survey whose results match Stringer’s painstakingly-taken results on the nosey; further examination reveals that Hoopendecker’s town, Grandview, harbors the precise demographics that would making polling a dream.  Rip and his co-workers, Ike (Ned Sparks) and Mr. Twiddle (Donald Meek), catch the next train to Grandview and their suspicions are confirmed: they will be able to ascertain the opinion of the average man, at one-tenth the cost.  The townsfolk are naturally going to get wise after a while, what with Rip and Company asking so many questions…so Rip invents a cover story that the three men are opening up an insurance firm.

Dickey, one of the paper's employees, used to be in the sausage business.  (Yes, that's "Weenie King" Robert Dudley from The Palm Beach Story.)

One Grandview citizen is already convinced that Rip is not entirely on the up-and-up: Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who runs the local newspaper with her mother (Ann Shoemaker) and has been trying for years to get Grandview’s council to approve a new civic center, a pet project of her late father.  When Rip overhears Mary’s pitch to the council—and fearing that any “change” could scotch his polling plans—he makes an impassionate speech against the civic center, and the council members vote the proposal down.  An incensed Mary publishes a nasty editorial about Rip, who by this time has become quite taken with her and even volunteers to coach the high school basketball team her brother plays on in an effort to get into her good graces.

On the eve of completing their polling assignment—which was completed in two weeks simply by getting the population of Grandview involved—Rip is paid tribute by Ma Peterman at a high school dance celebrating the school’s victory over a hated basketball rival.  Rip is noticeably touched by the affection shown to him by the inhabitants of Grandview, and is wracked with a little guilt over “using” them even though he rationalizes he’s done them no actual harm.  But when Mary overhears Rip’s phone conversation to Ike discussing more assignments—not to mention finding evidence of the “insurance” office’s true intent—she publishes a story revealing Rip’s deception to Grandview…something that will have great repercussions for the town and its people than either she or Rip could have imagined.

The Capraesque (or “Capra-corn,” if you prefer) qualities in the DNA of Magic Town can be chalked up to the participation of former Capra collaborator Robert Riskin, who wrote and co-produced the film directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman.  Riskin wrote or co-wrote most of the major Capra classics—It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, etc.—until he had a falling-out with the director, whom Riskin believed had an annoying tendency to hog a lot of the credit.  (Crazy, I know. The apocryphal story goes that R.R. handed Mr. C a blank sheet of paper one day and shouted “Put the famous ‘Capra touch’ on that!”)  There’s an engaging whimsicality to Magic Town that is echoed in Riskin’s previous work with Capra, even if the movie can’t quite sustain itself to the end; the ending on this one (which I’m trying to keep under wraps in order not to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film) drifts into the unbelievable.

Two of the finest cinematic "second bananas" make Magic Town their swan song: Donald Meek (L) and Ned Sparks (R).

Because there are so many Capra tropes in Magic Town—the idyllic small community where life is preferable to the big city; the engaging Everyman hero; the endearing eccentrics that make up its populace, etc.—it could be effortlessly argued that much of Frank’s success was Robert Riskin’s success as well.  Director William Wellman mimics the Capra style quite well (compare Town to Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, in which small-town life isn’t portrayed as quite so attractive), even copying the darker portions of IAWL in a Town scene where Stewart and Wyman’s characters regret that their actions have, in Jane’s words, “killed a town.”  The flavor of the 1930s Capra films is also captured with some first-rate casting choices of veterans who previously appeared in the director’s films: Stewart (of course), Ned Sparks, Donald Meek, Regis Toomey, Ann Doran…and many of the unbilled supporting players (like George Barbier—who plays Grandview’s mayor here but was also the high school principal in IAWL).  (Leading lady Wyman would go on to work with Capra in his 1951 comedy Here Comes the Groom.)

Character great Regis Toomey (R) and TDOY fave Ann Doran (L) are billed sixth and seventh in the opening credits of Magic Town...yet only appear in the final five minutes of the movie.  I suspect much of their initial footage wound up on the cutting room floor; my BBFF Stacia, on the other hand, chalks it up to the amazing negotiating prowess of The Toomster's agent.

Howard Freeman, the actor who so memorably played Captain Burkholtz in the classic Car 54, Where are You? episode “The Beast Who Walked the Bronx” is in Magic Town as the villainous Nickelby, and movie veteran Wallace Ford generates many giggles as Lou Dicketts, a real estate salesman/council member who has difficulty completing coherent thoughts without throwing in a “whaddya-call-it.”  There are scads of character greats in the movie—George Chandler, Frank Fenton, Dick Elliott, Bess Flowers, Paul Maxey, Snub Pollard, OTR fave Vic Perrin and Emmett Vogan (plus Tom Kennedy and Dick Wessel can be spotted as movers)—but it’s Julia Dean who steals the proceedings as the wife of a U.S. Senator (played by George Irving) whose muffins have acquired a reputation as being particularly inedible.  “Oh, yes,” Stewart’s Rip replies when offered one, “I’ve heard about those muffins.”

“Take one anyway,” Dean snappishly retorts.  A few minutes later, after Stewart has set in motion the events that bring Town to a close Dean cries out: “Good heavens—I’m so excited I nearly ate one of my own muffins!”

A number of people have criticized Stewart’s “aw shucks” performance in Magic Town.  I didn’t have any real problems with it; I like to think of Jimmy’s turn in the film as a sort of “valedictory fare-thee-well” to the type of boy-next-door roles that originally made him an audience favorite on the silver screen.  It’s just impossible to dislike Rip Smith, even when he’s made to look a little foolish chasing after basketballs (he’s even hit on the head with one) and performing other awkward bits of physical humor; even his subterfuge in setting down roots in Grandview while hiding his real intentions is earnest and sincere in the hands of Stewart.  I also thought his romance with Wyman’s character was sweet; a review I read of the film complained that they had no chemistry and that Janie was “an ice cube.”  The reviewer compared it to the Stewart-Donna Reed relationship in IAWL, forgetting that in that movie it’s Reed who’s carrying a torch for Jimmy (who displays much disinterest a lot of the time) and here it’s Stewart who’s taken a shine to someone cool to his advances, necessitating a little work to win her over.

Still, I can see why the box office reception to Magic Town was so tepid at the time of its release; its evocation of 1930s small-town life doesn’t quite mesh with a period in which life in these United States was becoming more modern and urbanized (though that’s sort of the main theme of the film—the nostalgia for those little burgs in which we grew up, even if it’s not always like we remembered).  I remained convinced that it’s a worthwhile feature with which to sit down; it’s been off the radar for a number of years (I originally caught it on AMC back when the channel’s initials stood for something) but resurfaced in April 2013 as a DVD and Blu-ray release from Olive Films.  And it features James Stewart in his All-American icon glory…playing the role with which audiences were most familiar and one that he did so well.


Rick29 said...

Ivan, an insightful review of an interesting movie that never quite works for me. I love the description you included: “The greatest Frank Capra film not directed by Frank Capra.” And you're right, a 1930s Capra film probably seemed out of place in the 1940s (without having today's nostalgic charm). After World War II, even Capra went a little dark in the "future" scenes in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Today, there could never be a perfect polling town like Grandview--because the cable news channels would find about out it, publicize it, and ruin the "magic."

Caftan Woman said...

This movie has always been on the list headed "one of these days I'll have to catch up with this one". I'll promptly move it over to the "one of these days soon I'll have to catch up with this one".

Kevin Deany said...

In my mind, Regis Toomey and Ann Doran are playing the same characters in MAGIC TOWN that they played in MEET JOHN DOE, only they moved out of the big city into suburbia. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

toto2 said...

You truly revealed the magic in this little picture, Ivan. I especially enjoy reading about films from someone who has a sincere appreciation for them. You made an excellent comparison between the relationships of James Stewart with Donna Reed (the pursuer in IAWL) versus here with Jane Wyman (the pursued). Different relationships and performances for different reasons. Well done!

policomic said...

I've got to agree with Kevin Deany--it's almost as if this film just spliced in the footage of Toomey and Doran from "Meet J.D.," the scenes are so similar.

If "Magic Town" helps demonstrate Riskin's contribution to those earlier Capra hits, it also gives some indication of what Capra brought to the collaboration. I don't know if Capra could have made that hard-to-swallow ending work, either, but I wonder if it would have seemed quite so glaringly implausible in his hands. Wellman's great, but schmalz is not his metier.

Cliff Aliperti said...

Looks like I came to the right place just after reading Rich's Stewart in WWII post! I've always snubbed this title for some reason, now I've got to check around to see if I still have a copy. Never looked into it, so I didn't no about the Riskin/Wellman team-up or that great supporting cast. Definitely won't let Magic Town pass me by again!