Jimmy Stewart stars in a screwball comedy from 1947, alongside Jane Wyman and about a dozen faces (but not necessarily names) that will be familiar to anybody who watches a lot of movies of this vintage. How could this go wrong?
And yet, Magic Town somehow misses the mark.
The movie starts out promisingly enough: Stewart plays a pollster who has an unorthodox, unproven method of polling. His lack of results has caused the collapse of his business and, when we see him, he is down to two faithful employees and a room that still has numerous telephones, though they now sit on the carpet where desks used to be. That is a striking image, and a well-timed edit to that absurd scene had me laughing hard. Never underestimate the importance of editing in comedy.
A glance at a newspaper makes Stewart realize what has been missing in his formula, as he learns of a small town where the opinions of the populace just happen to be a microcosm for the entire country. He decides to go undercover in that town, surreptitiously poll the residents, and provide polls with 100% accuracy at a fraction of the cost of interviewing a large group of people. I wouldn’t have thought there would be so much money in polling, but Magic Town makes it out to be the most lucrative of all industries. Maybe there was a lot more demand for it in the late 40s (?).
Much like Stewart’s polling shortcut, here’s my Cliff Notes version of the plot: Stewart immediately butts heads with female newspaper editor (Wyman), coaches the boys’ basketball team and becomes a pillar of a community that does not realize he is secretly exploiting them.
But will Stewart’s subterfuge will discovered? Will the town be briefly thrown into turmoil? Will the boys’ basketball team win the tournament? Will Stewart and Wyman eventually set aside their differences and find love? Have you ever seen a movie before?
It is hard for me to say where my feelings towards this movie started to turn towards the negative, but I suspect it was around the time Stewart becomes fully accepted by the town. At least, in retrospect, that is when the manic energy was depleted, and all that was left was mushy sentiment.
Not that there’s anything wrong with mushy sentiment. Like anything else, it can be done right or wrong. But something didn’t ring true about the aw shucks, cornpone folksiness here.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I watch Magic Town again at some point, and I hope I enjoy it more a second time. Still, I suspect my recommendation will be largely the same: more screwball, less cornball.
Dir: William A. Wellman
Starring James Stewart, Jane Wyman, Ned Sparks (note: in a perfect world, every automated call service would have the voice of Ned Sparks)
Watched on blu-ray