Magic Town is too much of one thing, not enough of another, but also not enough of the first and too much of the latter. There’s a disconnect between Wellman’s direction and Robert Riskin’s script. While Wellman can handle the broad humor of the script–there isn’t much of it and it stands out like a sore thumb–he also finds the humanity of the characters. Riskin’s not so much interested in the small h humanity of leads James Stewart and Jane Wyman; he’s more interested in the big story.
Stewart is a cutthroat–or so we’re supposed to believe–New York pollster who descends on an idyllic small town. It has the perfect ratio of people and opinions to match the national opinions and trends. With him, Stewart brings sidekicks Ned Sparks and Donald Meek. Sparks gets a couple things to do, but he and Stewart’s relationship is never clear and needs to be. Meek barely gets anything.
Of course, being a pollster, Stewart knows if the people learn they represent the national average, they’ll spoil. Following the Prime Directive, he pretends to be an insurance agent. The only one of the townsfolk in on the scheme is Kent Smith, who’s one sidekick too many. Riskin’s script gives Stewart two and a half external consciences for the first half of the picture, while he’s romancing Wyman, apparently thinking have too many external consciences will make up for Stewart not having an internal one.
The first half of the picture is mostly Stewart and Wyman courting. They’re often lovely, thoughtful scenes completely out of place even in the first half. Looking back on them after Magic Town changes gears in the second half, they make almost no sense. It’s around the halfway point it becomes clear Wyman doesn’t really get to have a character in the film either. She doesn’t even get to take responsibility for her actions. And the last act treats her plain awful.
But she’s still good. Better than Stewart, who’s always likable, even when he’s being a complete jackass, if only because the film doesn’t recognize him having the ability to be responsible for his own actions.
Wellman approaches the filmmaking seriously when it comes to Stewart and Wyman’s ordeal. Magic Town looks like a dark noir, Joseph F. Biroc’s moody photography, Roy Webb’s emotive score. It’s just the script doesn’t recognize the ordeal. Riskin has some exposition he wants to get into the characters’ dialogue. He doesn’t have time to make the human drama work.
Nice support from Ann Shoemaker and George Irving.
Magic Town tries too hard with what its got without ever fixing what isn’t working.
Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Riskin and Joseph Krumgold; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Sherman Todd and Richard G. Wray; music by Roy Webb; production designer, Lionel Banks; produced by Wellman and Riskin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring James Stewart (Rip Smith), Jane Wyman (Mary Peterman), Ned Sparks (Ike), Kent Smith (Hoopendecker), Donald Meek (Mr. Twiddle), Ann Shoemaker (Ma Peterman), George Irving (Senator Wilton), Wallace Ford (Lou Dicketts), E.J. Ballantine (Moody), Howard Freeman (Nickleby), Mickey Roth (Bob Peterman), Mary Currier (Mrs. Frisby) and Harry Holman as the mayor.