It’s a cold Sunday afternoon in January, so I take a look at the BBC’s iPlayer, hoping to find an old and vaguely interesting film to watch. Straight away my eyes are drawn to Magic Town, an odd-sounding comedy from 1947 that stars Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman. I hadn’t heard of it, let alone seen it, but according to the BBC’s blurb the plot revolves around the rarely-filmed world of public opinion polls. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film solely about opinion polls before, let alone a comedy, so my choice is made.
In the 1940s opinion polling was still a novelty, very much in the trial and error phase. Glaring mistakes were still being made with regard to the selection of representative samples of people that might seem obvious to us today, but pioneers like George Gallup (who is referred to early on in Magic Town) recognized the potential benefits both for corporations and politicians alike, and were busy developing polling techniques to ensure as much accuracy as possible. Here, Stewart plays ‘Rip’ Smith, an ex-serviceman plying his post-war trade as a pollster in New York. Smith has a theory that a single town can accurately represent the views of the whole of the USA when surveyed, and rather quickly he finds it in the shape of Grandview, as typical an example of small town America as you’ll ever see in the movies. (If it had been filmed in 1955 you could be forgiven for expecting the sudden appearance of Marty McFly on a skateboard, such is its apple pie mom-and-pop-ness.)
Smith relocates to Grandview and poses as an insurance businessman setting up a new company in town. He notes views held by the local population and makes huge savings in both time and money while, to all intents and purposes, accurately checking the pulse of America. But Grandview is only of value to Smith if it remains static, and so he begins to try and influence local town council planning matters in order to maintain the status quo.
Smith gradually warms to Grandview, and Grandview warms to Smith; he becomes coach of the junior basketball team, and finds himself attracted to Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), editor of the local newspaper. Peterman is a stronger than average female lead, given the era, and Wyman gets to deliver one or two of the film’s better lines. The leading couple begin with a little verbal sparring and have some decent on-screen chemistry in the first half of the film, but their relationship becomes straightforward – and pretty boring – all too quickly.
Eventually Smith’s little secret is exposed, but it doesn’t really seem weighty enough to provide any sense of drama or concern when it does eventually come out into the open. Peterman isn’t happy at Smith’s duplicity, and exposes him through a hastily-written newspaper article, which for some reason ends up causing a big fuss and is syndicated nationwide. In the ensuing aftermath, hundreds of pollsters from New York descend upon the town, threatening to change Grandview for the worse. Good, I say. The place is so wholesome it looks as though it could do with a red light district, a little fledgling reefer madness and a giant Wal-mart plopped right down next to that picture-perfect town square. Unfortunately no-one in the film agrees, and Stewart – after a brief spot of hilltop soulsearching – tries to make things right. As a dramatic climax and denouement, it’s hardly edge-of-the-seat material.
Magic Town was scripted by the legendary Robert Riskin, who collaborated with Frank Capra on 13 different films, including Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Meet John Doe (their relationship soured over time, with Riskin perceiving that Capra was taking too much credit for the success of their films). It definitely has a Capra-esque feel to it, and the presence of James Stewart certainly adds to that. In fact, Magic Town hit the screens a year after Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, and interestingly both films were critical flops. Stewart is charming as always here, but unusually his performance isn’t particularly confident, and you wonder whether the initial box office failure of It’s A Wonderful Life knocked him slightly.
Then again, his performance may have something to do with a lack of faith in the script. It feels rushed, with screwball elements at the beginning that seem to be forgotten when the action shifts from New York to Grandview. Like Stewart, Riskin was so prolific throughout the 1930s and 1940s it’s inevitable that there are going to be a few duds among the many gems, and unfortunately Magic Town is one of them. There are few laughs here, and while the tone is pleasantly lighthearted, with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to point out that perhaps opinion polling wasn’t – and isn’t really ever going to be – a fertile ground from which uproarious guffaws would spring. Within a few months of Magic Town‘s release, Stewart would be working with Alfred Hitchcock for the first time on Rope, a successful partnership that would carry on for four films in total. If there was a crisis in confidence it was gone by 1948.
Sadly supporting actor Ned Sparks, who plays Smith’s right-hand-man Ike, is vastly underused. After the first fifteen minutes, during which his eyeballs almost pop out in a series of hilariously-confused expressions, his appearances in the film gradually peter out. This is a shame, as his cantankerous barking (while a cigar jauntily moves up and down out of the side of his mouth) is ridiculous, but very watchable nonetheless. His chemistry with Stewart is pretty good too; they goof around dancing in their first scene together, and occasionally he mimics the lead’s stance for comic effect. In one early scene Stewart leans against a tree and Sparks, standing by his side, copies the angle of the lean perfectly. It’s a nice throwaway visual gag, and ever-so-slightly surreal, but moments like this are few and far between. If it’s a weak script then there’s little you can do for laughs except shout the lines in a silly fashion while forcing a cigar out of the corner of your mouth at a variety of angles.
Magic Town hasn’t aged well, but despite the strange subject matter there is an interesting idea at the heart of the film. You might describe it as a wry commentary on the homogenization of public opinion across the USA, or an evaluation of the differences between the naivety of the small town and the cynicism of the big city. It could even be read as an early warning about the calculating reach of Madison Avenue, stretching far too easily into the unsuspecting heart of American life, soaking up information before holding those very same communities in a vice-like grip as future decades unfurled themselves. But sadly it doesn’t grapple with these ideas to any great extent; in 1947 they were industries in fledgling, basic states, and so there is no thorough exploration here. We would expect a similar film today to be weightier and far more questioning, but unfortunately Magic Town doesn’t really deliver as a throwaway comedy either. With its warm depiction of smalltown 1940s America, it’s not the worst way to while away a cold afternoon, but perhaps the studio should have carried out a public opinion poll on whether to make the movie in the first place before they ploughed ahead with it.
Directed by: William Wellman
Written by: Robert Riskin
Starring: James Stewart, Jane Wyman
Running Time: 97 Minutes