Change comes slowly to a small New Hampshire town in the early 20th century. People grow up, get married, live, and die. Milk and the newspaper get delivered every morning, and nobody locks their front doors.
The film uses a prologue, credited as Stage Manager, unusual for a movie. The Stage Manager (Frank Craven) walks in and out of scenes, narrating background and context, announcing flashbacks in time, or telling characters to start talking and be quiet. At one point, he solicits questions from the audience. The narrator first shows what the town of Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, looks like in 1940, then shows what it was like in 1901. He points out the various Protestant churches, the location of the railroad tracks, and mentions that the new Polish immigrants who work in the mill live on the other side of the railroad tracks, separate from the Anglo pioneer stock who constitute the establishment. He narrates facts and statistics, such as that the population is 2642, not counting about 500 Polish immigrants, and that 85 per cent of the voters vote Republican.The narrator shows us, in the graveyard, that the tombstone names are the same from generation to generation since about 1680. Just like the names, nothing much changes in this town, any change comes very very slowly.In the rest of the film, there is no conflict to be resolved, as the characters are not real people but nostalgic archetypes whose purpose is to represent everyone in a typical life and to make philosophical points that are enunciated at the end. The town is a nostalgic archetype also, a mythical place where people are born, grow up, work, fall in love, get married, and die.The external world, symbolized once in a while by the whistle of the train, intrudes on the myth only sporadically and mildly.Act 1 presents an ordinary day in 1901.Dr. Gibbs (Thomas Mitchell) is the town doctor, who lives with his wife (Fay Bainter) and their son George (William Holden), a high school student. Next door live the newspaper owner Mr. Webb with his wife (Beulah Bondi) and their daughter Emily (Martha Scott), also a high school student.Everybody knows everybody else, they all interact comfortably with each other, nobody locks their doors at night. White picket fences border the nicer homes.A young newspaper boy delivers the daily newspaper every morning. A milkman delivers milk to the families daily, entering into the kitchens directly and chatting with the housewives. The milkman uses a quaint tool to measure out the milk, a kind of tubular shovel that allows him to pour the measured milk into the customers own containers.The mother of Mrs. Gibbs has died, leaving her a small legacy. She discusses what to do with the money with her neighbor, telling her she has two goals, one, to finally have a relaxing vacation with her overworked husband, and two, and she wants to experience something of life outside of Grovers Corners, going to see Paris, France, saying It seems to me, once in your life, before you die, you ought to see a country where they don't speak any English and they don't even want to.The mothers morning routines in feeding their children warm breakfasts and sending them off to school even on cold winter days are quaintly over-typical, including the worries about wearing warm clothes so as not to catch colds. Archetypal also are the minor sibling rivalries within the families.The two neighbor ladies gossip about how the choirmaster at their church drinks too much.There are also over-typical conversations of the parents with their teenagers. At the Gibbs household, the father has to have a serious talk with George because he neglects to be helpful to his mother at home, as in chopping the wood for cooking. The way George responds is unreal, as he is an archetypal good boy: with just two sentences from his father he immediately reforms.Later on we see a church choir practice. It's axiomatic that in just about any church, the music director, organist or choirmaster is a gay man. Mr. Stinson (Philip Wood) is gay, no question about it. As the stage manager says, some are not cut out for small town life. That's why he drinks. There aren't any kindred spirits for him in tiny Grover's Corners, New Hampshire.Along the way we learn that George has a childless uncle who runs a nearby farm and wants George to help him and eventually take over the business, and that George likes farm work.In the last sequences of Act I the inevitable romance between the nice boy and the nice girl next door is foreshadowed. He needs hints on doing his math homework, and she is happy to give him hints but not to let him just copy. They set up a communication system from one upstairs bedroom window to another.Right after Emily and George have one of their awkward conversations on the sidewalk, The mother, is watching them through a window and there's a tiny moment where we can see on her face that she clearly approves of the match. When Emily comes in with questions about whether she's beautiful, her mother gets quickly flustered and throws up her hands. "You're pretty enough for all normal purposes," the mother huffs, and that's that.Act 2 starts three years later, after George and Emily have fallen in love and intend to marry, and there are preparations for their wedding.Things have changed a bit. There are cars on the road, and fewer horses. Townspeople complain about noise and traffic. The milkman still delivers milk, but in Act 2 he is using bottles instead of delivering and measuring bulk milk with his quaint measuring contraption. Mrs. Gibbs never made it to Paris.We learn also that George has been an outstanding baseball player for the town team, and that his marriage will interrupt that.The narrator announces that before we see the wedding, well have a flashback to the day when George and Emily decide they were meant for each other.The conversation is initiated by George on the way home from school, as he offers to carry Emilys books. She complains that he has changed, neglecting her in favor of a consuming interest in baseball, yet she has been watching him all year long, from a distance. He accepts the criticism, and assures her by saying that he, too, has watched her from a distance the whole year long. They are both sweet and innocent and halting and tentative, and struggle with their nerves.He invites her to go into the drugstore for an ice cream soda, she accepts, and there he discusses what he will do after graduation. He will take over his uncles farm, doesnt want to go to Agricultural school, as he prefers to start his work life right away and not spend years away from Emily. Finally, he hems and haws and never quite comes out with saying he loves Emily, until she gets so frustrated she blurts out that she knows he loves her, and she loves him back.Flash forward to the archetypal wedding day. George wants to see Emily but others insist that the groom must not see the bride on the wedding day until the ceremony. There are concerns about the wedding dress. Emily is scared about the finality of the decision. The parents reminisce about their own wedding days. Dr. Gibbs tells anecdotes about his fears and cold feet.There is a comical conversation between George and Mr. Webb about advice he had received from his own father in law about how the man should go about taking the upper hand in the matrimonial relationship.Like a proverbial mother in law, Mrs. Gibbs voices her concerns that Emily is too young to understand how she needs to take care of George, and just about predicts he will be dead of pneumonia by the end of the winter.At the church, the other townspeople comment on how nice the wedding is, how beautiful the bride looks, how weddings are so important, and how they always cry at weddings. And the wedding proceeds without a hitch.Act 3, taking place supposedly in 1913, is retrospective and philosophical. Birth, life and death flow on in Grovers Corners, like water on a river, always moving but the river stays the same or changes ever so slowly.We are shown images that tell us Emily has died after giving birth to her second child, and of her funeral. During and after her funeral, her ghost converses with other ghosts of dead persons in the Grovers Corners cemetery.Emily is the newcomer. The others ghosts mostly just sit there and watch and occasionally talk to each other. Her questions are answered ambiguously. The ghosts are unemotional observers, commenting on how old so and so looks now. Among the dead are Mr. Stimson the church organist, who committed suicide by hanging himself, and whose suicide was covered up. Also among the dead are cheery neighbors who attended Emilys wedding, and Mrs. Gibbs.A frequent phrase the ghosts say about the living is, They just don't understand, do they, the poor dears. The message they want understood by the living is that life, and every last minute, every precious breath is not to be wasted and squandered, regardless of how ordinary and unimportant it may seem. They have vague regrets about their relationships with others while they were alive, but arent that interested any more.Emily gets special permission to go back and re-live just one day of her life. She decides, after getting advice from the other dead folk, to re-live one quite ordinary day, and she re-lives her sixteenth birthday, She is very excited at experiencing that one day, but finds in the end it's not what she thought it would be. It goes too fast, and people don't have time to look at one another, they are impatient with one another."This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying." The nostalgic, problem-free life of WASP America between the Spanish American War and the First World War was a flawed paradise.EPILOGUE: Emily wakes up from the temporary coma resulting from the birthing of her second child. She is not dead. Act 3 was all a dream.