Monday, December 3, 2018

Jimmy is a Pollster

Lawrence Rip Smith (James Stewart) is forced to close down his small survey business.  Rip is a pollster, and though good at his job, he is unable to compete with the larger firms.  He dreams of discovering a way of polling that is accurate, but fast and inexpensive; believes he has found it when his friend Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) sends him the results of a survey that he took in the small town of Grandview - a poll in which the results exactly match the results of a nationwide, weeks long interview process performed by one of his large competitors.  Rip believes he has found his dream, a Magic Town (1947), that is a microcosm of American society, where in, in a few days, he and his colleagues Ike Sloan (Ned Sparks) and Mr. Twiddle (Donald Meek) can take a poll that would exactly mirror the opinions of the nation.  The problem - keeping it a secret both from his competitors and from the town itself.

This is a very peculiar film. It wants to be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Meet John Doe, but has a postwar anxiety that undercuts those ambitions. Rip Smith, as portrayed by James Stewart, is an ambitious young man who spent his years in the military mocking the small town life, but who in reality longs for the peaceful existence outside of the bustling city. Mr. Stewart does an excellent job in displaying the conflicts within Rip. He is, however at war with a script that isn't quite sure where it wants to go. The role was written with Mr. Stewart in mind, and it is obvious that he is comfortable both with the character, and his co-star, Jane Wyman.
The chemistry between Ms. Wyman (Mary Peterman) and James Stewart is excellent. Much of this is thanks to Mr. Stewart's subtle display of his growing affection for Mary. But frankly, Mr. Stewart's part is more fleshed out that that of Mary. Ms.Wyman takes what is given to her and is able to make Mary a more realistic character albeit one who doesn't know her town as well as she thinks she does.

Jane Wyman was not the first choice for Mary. Director William Wellman first wanted Janet Blair; he later considered Arleen Whalen and Loretta Young (AFI Catalog). After years of playing light comedy, Ms. Wyman had finally started getting challenging parts. In 1945, she was Ray Milland's fiance in The Lost Weekend, and in 1946 she portrayed Orry Baxter in The Yearling, for which she was nominated for her first Oscar. The year after this film, she would appear in Johnny Belinda, and finally win an Oscar for her amazing performance (she would receive two more nominations after this, for The Blue Veil (1951) and Magnificent Obsession (1954)).
When the film was shown to a preview audience, it was three hours long; the final running time as the film exists today is 103 minutes. It's hard to imagine what was covered in three hours that is not dealt with in 103 minutes. The film falls apart when hoards of people begin to stream into the town because of the publicity that is garnered by its ability to predict poll results. The question is why? What would make that meager event beckon to so many people?

What makes the film even more reminiscent of Meet John Doe is the presence of Regis Toomey and Ann Doran playing the Weavers, pretty much the same parts they played in Meet John Doe (though with different names). While the Weavers are conciliatory (just as they were in Meet John Doe), the other town folks are not all sweetness and cream; they reflect the darkness of a new post-war mentality. 
Donald Meek appears briefly in the film as a statistician who works with Rip, then the character just disappears from the film, with Ned Sparks informing us the character left on an earlier train. Mr. Meek died suddenly during filming, and rather than eliminate or recast the part, director Wellman cobbled up a means for him to be gone from the action (TCM article).

This New York Times review by Bosley Crowther was not very complimentary towards the film; it ended up losing $350,000, bankrupting Robert Riskin Productions. It did have a bit of an afterlife, however. In December 1947, James Stewart and Jane Wyman reprized their film roles for a Lux Radio Theatre production.

Mr. Stewart (and his best friend, Henry Fonda), were cat lovers and frequently took in strays (James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life by Lawrence J. Quirk and Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart by Scott Eyman), so it seems fitting to that the film has a cat.  While we can't really recommend this one, here's a clip  in which James Stewart interacts with Jane Wyman - and a kitten.

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