Having written most of the classic Frank Capra pics of the ‘30s, Robert Riskin turned his own MR. DEEDS template on its head for his sole film as producer/writer. Instead of tossing a small town hick into the Big City, he spots James Stewart’s city slicker in Norman Rockwell-ville, lightly tweaking familiar relationships & life-lessons in a story arc of splashy entry, fast fall and last-minute revival. It doesn’t come off, especially with William Wellman fumbling the ball as director.* But it does hold a certain Bizarro World fascination until it collapses in a Capra-corn mash-up finale. (Riskin even lifts the kiddie army out of Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON/’39, written not by him, but by Sidney Buchman.) The plot gimmick finds Stewart (along with character pals Donald Meek & Ned Sparks in swansong appearances) discovering a statistically perfect homespun American town and planning to milk it by selling incredibly accurate opinion polls to political & commercial firms without having to canvas thousands of folks all across the country. But the plan can only succeed if the town stays just as it is and if the residents never figure out how they’re being used. Naturally, love, hubris & corruption (civil & commercial) poison the well, while the film withers from a lack of chemistry between a starchy Jane Wyman and Stewart soft-soaping the necessary tough exterior. Actually, the most interesting character in the pic is Kent Smith’s High School teacher, an old army pal of Stewart. But his potential as possible romantic rival & townie manipulator is underdeveloped, along with too much else in here.
DOUBLE-BILL: Riskin licked his wounds by writing MISTER 880/’50, a tiny charmer about detective Burt Lancaster tracking down the world’s worst (yet most elusive) counterfeiter (Edmund Gwenn).
READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Here’s Wellman: ‘I wish I never started it. It stunk! It’s not my kind of film . . . and if you think MAGIC TOWN has anything good about it at all. There’s something wrong with you.’ Check out Joe McBride’s FRANK CAPRA: THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS (pg 506-507) for the sad little story. And the whole book for a sad big story.