Robert Riskin, it is reasonable to suppose, must be a very brave man. He has allowed his name to appear portentously in all publicity concerning "Magic Town," a deed which serves to point him out publicly as the person chiefly responsible for this poor and clumsy movie. And such an admission requires courageousness beyond the ordinary, as it is no ordinary density that fails to achieve something worthwhile with the services of James Stewart and Jane Wyman.
Riskin's primary mistake, both as the producer of "Magic Town" and as its scenarist, is that he has attempted to invade the very special cinematic territory held securely by Frank Capra. "It's a Wonderful Life," Stewart's last picture, was a Capra production, and its successful mixture of fantasy, allegory, and sentiment was a demonstration of brilliant skill and showmanship. "Magic Town," on the other hand, aims for sentiment and achieves mawkishness; it reaches out for allegory and it grasps chaos and incongruity. And, to round out the comparison, although it appears to have scarcely any intent of being a fantasy, and certainly has none of the elements characteristic of a good fantasy, it seldom seems to be anything else.
More precisely, the story, while not a fantasy, is totally fantastic. Although no guarantee can be made as to the precision of the following brief synopsis, as the events were attached to each other in a highly unmemorable fashion, the story goes something like this: James Stewart, playing the part of a man who takes public opinion polls, is about to go out of business; he discovers the "magic town," a village which has the precise proportion of doctors, lawyers, Republicans, Democrats, loiterers, etc., as does the entire nation; he goes there, on the theory that an analysis of the town's opinion will reveal the exact opinion of the whole country; he goes anonymously, realizing that the town must not become self-conscious about its representative nature; his secret leaks out; the town becomes a tremendous sensation throughout the nation; it has a boom; in the process, it loses its head and its representative quality; this last is discovered; the town has a bust; Stewart pulls out a gimmick providing for a return to normalcy; Stewart marries Jane Wyman, a newspaperwoman who has been involved throughout. A great many other things happen during this march of events, such as a basketball game, a Saturday night dance in a high school gymnasium, and a genteel love scene or two, but none of them detract enough from the main line to provide salvation for the picture as a whole, entertaining as they may be locally.
All of this is particularly unfortunate when considered in the light of the fact Stewart has not made many pictures recently. His remarkable abilities are too rare to be treated carelessly when he does make a picture. They are evident in "Magic Town," but Riskin has made the least of them.