Talk about full circle. One of Paul Newman’s early roles, before he’d done any movies, was as George Gibbs in a 1955 television production of Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece, Our Town. (It must have been an ideal property for those early, poverty-stricken TV days, as it requires no sets at all.) And but for Empire Falls and his voice work in Cars, his role as the Stage Manager in this PBS production was his last film appearance. I’d love to see that old B&W version. I’ll bet he was pretty raw. Forty-eight years later, for this one, he is clearly the master of his craft.
You gotta love Our Town if you’re a small-town—or any town—theater person. You can stage it literally anywhere. It takes no money at all for scenery and the props are two tables, two ladders, and a few chairs. (You could even dispense with the tables and chairs in a pinch.) There have been many versions of this play over the years, and the main role, the Stage Manager, has been tackled by Art Carney, Spaulding Gray, Hal Holbrook, and … no kidding … Frank Sinatra. The best-known version was the first, in 1940, with William Holden as George. I’m pretty sure this is the version I saw, many years ago, and it impressed me deeply. I wouldn’t watch it again, though, as they used sets and changed the ending so that young Emily’s death in childbirth is only a dream. She wakes up, and everything is okay. I think this totally ruins it, and even if it’s true that Wilder approved all the script changes, the author is not always right. I can only think that, script approval or not, Wilder’s philosophy toward Hollywood must have been pretty much like Ernest Hemingway’s, which was, basically, take the money and run, as fast as you can. This new, Newman production is vastly superior.