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Tag Archives: Robert Riskin

Magic Town (Oct. 7, 1947)

Complaining that William A. Wellman’s Magic Town is built on a faulty premise is kind of like complaining that Cadbury Creme Eggs are too sweet, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Magic Town, which is written by frequent Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin, is about a public opinion pollster named Lawrence “Rip” Smith (James Stewart) whose small polling company has just gone out of business because of high overhead costs. To stay afloat, Rip starts looking for a mathematical miracle in order to conduct public opinion polls without nationwide coverage.

He finds the shortcut he’s been looking for in a little town called Grandview.

You see, Grandview has the exact same distribution of Republicans and Democrats, men and women, old and young, farmers and laborers, and so on, as the nation as a whole. In other words, Grandview thinks exactly the same way the entire United States does. Instead of exhaustive telephone polling of representative swaths of the nation, all Rip will need to do is find out what people in Grandview think, and he’ll be able to extrapolate the results.

The catch is that the people of Grandview can’t know what Rip is up to, otherwise they’ll become self-conscious, and it’ll kill the goose that lays golden eggs. So Rip and his partners, Ike (Ned Sparks) and Mr. Twiddle (Donald Meek), head for Grandview, where they pass themselves off as insurance men from Hartford, Connecticut. They’ll engage in stealth polling, pretending to offer insurance policies while they’re really making note of the current issues the citizens of Grandview are all too willing to sound off about.

Rip’s plan hits a snag as soon as he hits town, where he reconnects with an old friend from his days in the service — Mr. Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) — who is now principal of Grandview High School. The snag is pretty local girl Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who’s a civic crusader, and is constantly pushing to modernize the town and build a new civic center.

Rip’s “perfect” town and its “perfect” demographics can’t be altered in any way for his covert polling operation to work, so he opposes Mary’s plans. He tells the city council that Grandview is “A sturdy challenge to the evils of the modern era.” He encourages them not to modernize anything and not to change anything.

And herein lies the problem, and the reason I said that Magic Town is built on a faulty premise. Grandview supposedly perfectly mirrors the demographics of the United States as a whole, but it’s consistently represented as an idyllic Utopia, unchanging, and a refuge from the outside world. (It’s also oddly free of blacks and Jews.)

So Magic Town is less about a town that represents America in miniature than it is about one of the most enduring American myths — the sanctity and perfection of small-town life. Grandview doesn’t represent what America actually is, it’s what America wishes it was.

Rip finds happiness in Grandview. He and Mary fall in love. He and Hoopendecker relive old times. Rip coaches the boys’ basketball team and turns them into winners.

All this could have been funny, romantic, and charming, but the film persists with its idiotic plot about opinion polling. Eventually Mary finds out what Rip is really up to and “outs” him in the press. There follows a nationwide rush to move to this “mathematically perfect” town. The civic center is approved and the citizens of Grandview become full of themselves and start forming and selling their own opinions.

And just as Rip predicted, their self-consciousness destroys everything, and results in the following newspaper headline: “GRANDVIEW COMPLETES FIRST POLL. 79% Favor Woman for President. ‘RESULT RIDICULOUS!’ SAYS EXPERT.”

All the newcomers move out of the now not-so-magic town, but things don’t go back to normal. Grandview is in shambles, and it’s up to Rip to fix things.

Despite the weak story, I enjoyed all of the actors in Magic Town, especially Stewart. He’s been parodied and impersonated so many times that it’s easy to forget what a good actor he was. He didn’t always play good guys, but when he did, no one projected the same kind of sweetness, generosity, and earnestness.

Magic Town is sort of a “greatest hits” compilation of earlier, better films that Stewart starred in. There’s the same celebration of small-town life found in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and there’s even a scene in which Stewart gives an impassioned speech while being supported by a bunch of kids, just like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It’s nowhere near as good as either of those films, but it’s not without its modest pleasures, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

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The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (July 24, 1946)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Paramount Pictures

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is based on a short story called “Love Lies Bleeding” by playwright John Patrick, who published it under the name “Jack” Patrick. I don’t know why the name was changed when it was made into a movie; possibly it was deemed too gruesome. It’s a great title, but I’m glad that it was changed to a more generic one. I had no idea what I was in for.

The film begins in 1928, in a smoke-filled Pennsylvania factory town called “Iverstown.” (Pronounced “Iverston.”) A young girl named Martha Smith Ivers (Janis Wilson) runs away from home in the pouring rain, jumping a freight car with a streetwise little tough named Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). It’s not the first time she’s tried to escape.

Their plans hit a snag when they’re found by the police. Sam gets away, but Martha is taken home, and we see exactly what she’s trying to get away from. Her aunt, Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson), is a villain straight out of a fairy tale. Mrs. Ivers is fawned over by the sycophantic Mr. O’Neil (Roman Bohnen), Martha’s tutor. O’Neil keeps dropping none too subtle hints that his bookish son Walter (Mickey Kuhn) is perfect Harvard material, if only they had the money to send him one day.

The tongue-lashing and threats Martha receive from her aunt when she’s brought home by the police are bad enough, but later that night, when the little cat that Martha keeps hidden in her room gets out, Mrs. Ivers really goes over the top in the cartoonish villainy department and attempts to beat it to death with her cane. To protect her pet, Martha pushes her aunt down the stairs. She tumbles down the staircase and breaks her neck. Walter O’Neil witnesses Mrs. Ivers’s death. His father didn’t, but he suspects what really happened. However, when the children are questioned by the police, he backs up the story Walter and Martha concoct about a mysterious intruder.

There’s just one more wrinkle. That night, Sam Masterson had snuck into Martha’s bedroom, and was somewhere in the house. Did he see what really happened? We won’t know for awhile, because Sam runs off, and isn’t seen again.

The story jumps forward 18 years to 1946. Walter O’Neil (immediately recognizable by his priggish demeanor and his wire-rimmed spectacles) is now played by Kirk Douglas. When we first see him, he’s three sheets to the wind, but through his slurred exposition we learn that he’s now the district attorney of Iverstown, and is married to Martha, who is now played by Barbara Stanwyck. Walter clearly loves Martha, but she despises him.

After the death of Mrs. Ivers, Martha’s tutor, Mr. O’Neil, took control of her family fortune, and blackmailed her into marrying his son. Walter lived up to his potential and went to Harvard with the help of Ivers money, but he is tortured by the secret he and Martha share. Not only did he help cover up Martha’s role in her aunt’s death, but years later, he prosecuted the drifter the police picked up for the murder of Mrs. Ivers, and sent the man to the death house. Martha isn’t just an innocent victim in the affair, however, and as the film goes on, she becomes more and more villainous.

Then again, so does Walter. Douglas gives a really fine performance in this film — the first of many in his long career — as a vindictive man who is morally weak but who possesses enormous political and legal power. Stanwyck, also, is fantastic as always. I think the first movie I saw her in was Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and I thought she was really funny-looking. I couldn’t see what Fred MacMurray saw in her, or why he would go to such ridiculous and homicidal lengths to be with her. But after seeing her in this film and the excellent melodrama My Reputation (filmed in 1944 but released theatrically in 1946), I’m starting to see it. While not a great beauty, Stanwyck has a gritty, vibrant quality that demands attention. She is always fascinating to watch.

The present-day plot gets rolling when Sam Masterson (now played by Van Heflin) rolls back into town. Now a good-natured drifter and gambler, he doesn’t even intend to visit Iverstown, but when he carelessly drives his car into a sign while giving a hitchhiker (Blake Edwards) a lift, he’s forced to.

While paying a visit to the house he grew up in, Sam meets a beautiful young woman named Antonia “Toni” Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), who has just been released from jail. The two itinerants are immediately drawn to each other, but their budding romance is going to be put through its paces as soon as Walter and Martha discover that Sam is back.

Believing that Sam has purposefully returned to blackmail them, Walter sets his thugs on both Sam and Toni, jailing Toni for violating her probation and taking Sam for a ride and leaving him beaten on the side of the road outside of town. If you’ve ever seen a film noir before, you’ll know that guys like Sam don’t like to be pushed around, and when they are, it only strengthens their resolve not to turn tail and run. But you’ll also know that dangerous women attract them like honey attracts flies, and when Martha tries to get her hooks back into Sam, things won’t be easy for any of the four leading characters.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is on the long side (just shy of two hours), and the plot has a lot of moving parts, but the script by Robert Rossen and an uncredited Robert Riskin is excellent, and never bogs down. Lewis Milestone’s direction is sharp. Really, this is just a great film. Everyone who likes classic cinema should see it, not just fans of noir.

On a note completed unrelated to the film, I find it interesting that three of the four principal actors worked under pseudonyms. Kirk Douglas was born “Issur Danielovitch Demsky,” Barbara Stanwyck was born “Ruby Catherine Stevens,” and Lizabeth Scott was born “Emma Matzo.”

Incidentally, Scott was born into the Matzo family in 1922 in Scranton, Pennsylvania (the state where this film takes place). With her angular features and husky voice, Lizabeth Scott reminds me a lot of Lauren Bacall, but she’s even sexier, which I didn’t think was possible until I saw this movie.