Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town can rightly be considered a timeless American classic. An examination of life through the life of a small town and of a small town girl, the role of Emily Webb proved a career beakthrough for actresses beloved by fans of classic films.
Martha Scott was so successful as Emily on Broadway that she was tapped to play the role in the film adaptation in 1940 when none of the Hollywood auditionees passed muster. She was Oscar-nominated for that first movie performance. Popular roles would follow in such movies as Cheers for Miss Bishop, One Foot in Heaven, The Desperate Hours and Ben Hur. Broadway and television roles would command her time from the 60s onward. She was particularly delightful as Bob Newhart's mother in The Bob Newhart Show. Her role in 1949's Strange Bargain would be reprised in an episode of Murder, She Wrote entitled The Days Dwindle Down featuring co-stars Jeffery Lynn and Harry Morgan.
Lovely Dorothy McGuire was an understudy to Martha Scott and would play the role of Emily in New York during Our Town's initial run. In 1941 she would star in the play Claudia catching the eye of Hollywood and traveling west west to star in that film adaptation. Many classic roles would follow such as The Spiral Staircase, The Enchanged Cottage, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman's Agreement, Old Yeller, A Summer Place, Friendly Persuasion and Swiss Family Robinson. On television she was the perfect Marmee in a mini-series based on Little Women and most beautifully cast as the lost love of of Michael Landon's angel Jonathan on Highway to Heaven, a casting choice that seems a perfect tribute to Ms. McGuire's special qualities as an actress.
1918 - 2005
Teresa was also an Emily understudy although she never got the chance to play the role in New York. In 1939 she was cast in the outstanding success Life With Father and Hollywood came a-calling. Her first film was Wyler's outstanding filming of The Little Foxes and she worked with that great director again in Mrs. Miniver, The Miniver Story and The Best Years of Our Lives. Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt still thrills audiences. Unforgettable in Pursued, The Pride of the Yankees and Enchantment. Broadway and golden age of television also benefited from her presence through the years. One of her last appearances was in the 1990 made-for-tv movie Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Decision. What a treat to enjoy her talents again.
The next time you are enjoying a play, check the program for the names of the understudies. Who knows what future stars are lurking backstage?