An intriguing premise and sparkling chemistry between James Stewart and Jane Wyman elevate Magic Town (1947) to the level of a Movie Worth Rediscovering. This is Americana in the Capra mold, written and produced by longtime Capra associate Robert Riskin, but actually helmed by William A. Wellman.
Public opinion expert Stewart has a theory that there must be one town in America that accurately reflects the demographics of the entire country — and he finds it! With the help of Ned Sparks and Donald Meek, Stewart sets out to make a mint by discreetly polling this town’s populace, thereby undermining the big Madison Avenue firms which use old-fashioned methods. But newspaper editor Jane Wyman has her own ideas about the town’s future, which are put to the test when she falls for Stewart.
Although Riskin’s satire skewers easy targets and doesn’t always hit the mark when it comes to the bigger picture, the film makes cogent points regarding the fickle nature of public fancy and how difficult it is to observe a phenomenon without directly affecting it. Its view of small town serenity gone belly-up is also dead on target.
And while it turns largely dramatic in the second half, the film’s real charm lies in its comic moments. Stewart and Wyman’s relationship is delightful, particularly in the odd yet beguiling scene in the schoolroom, where each of them recites their favorite childhood dramatic poems — at the same time! Stewart’s antics with basketballs are also amusing, whether he is teaching the high schoolers the “back pass dilemma” or demonstrating the move to Wyman after school hours.
Riskin’s dialogue is crisp and crackling, which helps cover the film’s deficiencies (the town is simply too perfect; there are no minorities or criminals present; why don’t the boys have a basketball coach?). Certain elements also remind us of other, better Stewart / Capra projects such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet taking the film at its face value, it has genuine merit and is quite entertaining. My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆. (9:2).