I must admit that – even as a rather fanatical James Stewart devotee – I had never heard of ‘Magic Town’ before. His follow-up to ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (Frank Capra, 1946) – which is without doubt the greatest film of all time* – it sadly, and rather unsurprisingly, fails to live up to those standards.
The central premise of the film is a very interesting one though, and particularly unusual for its era. Rip Smith (James Stewart) works at a polling company, where he is determined to discover a “mathematical miracle”, a quick and efficient solution to the new and expensive business of polling. His brainwave is to find “the perfect town”, a town whose views are identical to those of America’s as a whole. Never mind a bell-weather state; he is looking for a bell-weather town. And he discovers Grandview.
The prospect of James Stewart in a film about political polling is almost too much for me. However, his “miracle method” is actually the biggest issue with the film. Although I understand that it exists to act as a McGuffin for Stewart to develop as a character by spending time with people in small town, ‘real’ America, the analytical deficiencies of it left me disgruntled. For the first half of the film, all I could hear was Jody Avirgan asking, “good use of polling, or bad use of polling?” Sadly, it is resoundingly the latter. And once this premise fell, so did much of the film.
Arguably the second biggest problem is that the film constantly (and probably accidentally) reminds you of far better films that Stewart made during this era. His character is called ‘Mr Smith’, bringing to mind ‘Mr Smith Goes To Washington’ (Frank Capra, 1939), while the ‘small town America’ in which the film is set is evocative of Bedford Falls from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (the greatest film of all time). Sadly, Grandview is no Bedford Falls.
Neither the direction nor the co-stars bring much joy either. Magic Town is directed by William A. Wellman, a moderately successful, journeyman Hollywood directors of this era, if often forgotten today. I personally have seen five of his films previously: the over-rated and mediocre ‘Wings’ (1927), the over-rated and mediocre ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931), the over-rated and mediocre ‘The Story Of G.I. Joe’ (1945), and the under-rated and exceptional ‘The Ox-Box Incident’ (1943). Sadly, Magic Town only avoids falling into the first of these categories on the basis that it isn’t highly rated to begin with …
The romance with Jane Wyman doesn’t engage either. (Two years later Jane Wyman’s real-life romance also failed, and she divorced the little-known American actor, Ronald Reagan (who was gearing up to co-star with a chimpanzee in ‘Bedtime For Bonzo’ (Fred De Cordova, 1951))).
However, there are some elements to be admired, which salvage something from what otherwise might be wreckage. Firstly, the film is quite funny at times, with several enjoyable, humorous moments (although this alone is not enough to hang the film on).
Secondly, James Stewart’s performance is of particular interest. While he would go onto play more duplicitous, less immediately decipherable characters in his career – think of “Scottie” in ‘Vertigo’ (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) for instance – at this stage in his career he was known more for the idealist figures such as Jefferson Smith in ‘Mr Smith Goes To Washington’ (Frank Capra, 1939), or for rom-com leads such as in ‘The Shop Around The Corner’ (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940). (Obviously he had played a brilliantly conflicted character in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, the greatest film of all time).
In Magic Town, Rip Smith is certainly not such an idealist. It is clear from the beginning that his character is there to exploit the townsfolk for his own personal benefit. Early on, he delivers a speech to the town council to convince them of his good intentions, and after feeding them a handful of lies, walks off and gives a secret wink to camera. As per usual, Stewart is capable of taking a sub-standard film, and raising it to a higher level. On a minor side note though, his ‘drunk’ acting is not up to the same standard as his remarkable hiccups in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (George Cukor, 1940).
The final positive note is that Magic Town has undoubtedly the best use of the Hawthorne Effect in cinema history. OK, it’s a small category, but it is very well depicted here. The mass of reporters who flood to “the perfect town” results in the citizens becoming all too aware of becoming a national goldfish bowl. This then changes their actions, behaviours and views, destroying their perfect, polling performance. Saddeningly, the moment the nation realises that the residents of Grandview have lost it, is shown when a newspaper headline reads, “79% favour woman for President. Result ridiculous says Expert”.
This theme running throughout the second half of the film results in a dramatic improvement from the first. It raises the film as a whole to ‘adequate’. Sadly, I don’t think you’re going to see Nate Silver judge their polling methods to be ‘adequate’ though.
*Please feel free to dispute this in the comment section below. Not that you’ll change my mind.