Magic Town (1947) is a slightly forgotten James Stewart film that really should be better known, and is well worth seeing for any fan of It’s a Wonderful Life. Like IaWL, Magic Town did badly at the box office, but for some reason despite it’s charm, it never really got picked up later. A shame, because it is really a terrific little flick.
Now frankly, I was probably always going to like this film whatever the content. Because James Stewart. Oh my, do I have a thing for Jimmy Stewart. He might not be your typical stud-muffin, but that soft drawling voice and those expressive eyes and slight looming gangliness get the old tummy fluttering in a full-acrobatic-troupe-doing-a-dare-devil-circus-routine type way. Jane Wyman, too. Big girl-crush territory. Smiling eyes and a cheeky grin and generally a bit sassy and smart with a cute little snub nose. She is great. Both of them together? Ka-pow! Shazam! Gadzooks! Etc etc.
Magic Town follows Rip (James Stewart), an opinion pollster who discovers a small town that exactly mirrors average public sentiment across America. Rather than wasting time and money collecting opinions from all over, he realises he can just take them from one town! The trick is, he has to make sure nothing changes in the town so that opinions will stay as average as possible – cue underhand shenanigans. This doesn’t sit well with Jane Wyman’s pro-change character Mary – cue flirtatious bickering. Meanwhile Rip starts to find he enjoys living in a small town community – cue general schmaltz and heart-warminess.
At the time when this film was made, opinion polls were still a New Thing. In fact, the movie was inspired by a real life opinion poll study done by a husband and wife called the Middletown studies. This, like the town in the film, was a community which seemed to mirror general US public opinion. The study was, of course, anonymous, but after a while residents of the town Muncie began to suspect that the town was in fact theirs. Which is where we hit another fun movie cross-over, because of course Muncie is Tim Robbin’s hometown in the nostalgic 50s-set Coen brothers flick The Hudsucker Proxy (Goooooo Muncie!). Was Muncie chosen as the ideal boy-next-door hometown for HP because of the Middletown study, just as it was chosen to represent heartwarming folk and old-fashioned values in Magic Town?
An article I found in the Journal of Religion & Film says “The community that Norville represents is small town America rather than the big city metropolis [;] The audience is invited to identify with the hero: Muncie, Indiana was chosen in 1925 by sociologists Robert and Helen Lund as the most typical small city in America for their Middletown project. This suggests Norville is an everyman figure with whom we can all identify.” (Roberts, Vaughan S. (2013) “Homeric Heroes in Ethan and Joel Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2007),” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 40)
I guess that is a yes then. Anyway, sidetracking. Enough to say Muncie is Middletown, is Magic Town.
Stylewise, I’m letting heart rule over head here. Because Magic Town isn’t particularly stylish – hey, this is a movie about an average small town, the whole POINT is that is isn’t slick and stylish. In fact the general blandness of the styling is what allows the two main leads to shine and sparkle. Jimmy is his usual dapper self in comfortable tweed and wool suits; Jane Wyman is preppy in sensible skirts and dresses as newspaper reporter Mary.
Magic Town might not be terribly fashionable, and may be too saccharine for some tastes, but it is sweet and funny and emotional and charming and hey, need I say it again? Jimmy Stewart.