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15 April 2016

Talk of the Town (1942)

Directed by: George Stevens
Starring: Jean Arthur,Cary Grant, 
Ronald Colman,  Edgar Buchanan, 
Rex Ingram, Glenda Farrell
A beautiful school teacher, an escaped (but charming) arsonist, and a professor of law – what can be more respectable? Only, the arsonist is hiding (in plain sight) in the school teacher’s house, and the lawyer is the new tenant. 

I was going through Netflix’s collection of Cary Grant movies when I came across the name of one film that seemed vaguely familiar. Reading the summary rang no bells at all. Cary Grant is a perennial favourite, however, and I put it on my list and forgot about it. Until last week, when Netflix sent it to me in lieu of the film that was next on the queue. Since I can watch Cary Grant anytime, anywhere, I had no complaints; when I finished watching the movie, I'd laughed so much I didn't have any inclination to complain. (I'm of the firm opinion that, at this point, I could sit through Cary Grant reading a newspaper aloud.)
The film opens with a blaze – the Holmes Woollen Mill is in flames, and the owner, Mr Holmes, has accused his employee Leopald Dilg (Cary Grant) of deliberately setting the fire. The foreman, a Mr Clyde Bracken, the foreman of the mill, has died in the blaze, and now Dilg stands accused of murder as well as arson. All this we know from a collage of newspaper headlines.
The jury finds him guilty and he is sent to jail pending the sentence. However, Dilg, harbouring no illusions and not really enamoured of the hangman’s noose, manages to overpower his guard and escape. Now he’s wounded, very much a wanted man the police have spread their dragnet, and a manhunt is on. Dilg stumbles through the rain until he comes to the local school teacher's house. He first checks her car; unfortunately though it is unlocked, the keys aren't in the ignition. 

Desperate, he decides to take a chance. Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), the school teacher, has seen someone go past her windows, and she's very cautious.
Only, Dilg enters through the patio. All he wants is the keys to her car, but Miss Shelley has other plans. 
Before Dilg can explain however, he faints from the pain and exertion of the evening.  Nora is taken aback; when he comes to, she is furious he's broken out of jail! Dilg, meanwhile has changed his plans. He would like to stay here. Nora is appalled he can't. She’s setting the place to rights so it can be rented out the next day. She doesn't know how far he can get with that leg, but he has. to. leave.

Unfortunately for both of them, her tenant shows up a day early  a Professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman)
He insists on staying there that night, and insults her by commenting on the state of the house. Miss Shelley, already flustered by Dilg’s arrival, is now completely overwhelmed by her overbearing tenant. (She breaks his umbrella by accident- he's had it for 11 years, he comments, and my husband mutters that he can't blame the chap for being in a bad mood.) Rightly angered by his behaviour, she gives him a talking to, right back. 
Professor Lightcap is quick to apologise, but soon, not only demands that she provide him with a bedroom, but also that she leave the house. ('Close the door noiselessly, he tells her, whereupon the young lady slams the door quite viciously.)

She then creeps back into the house, so she can let Dilg out of the house.  Unfortunately for her, Dilg’s ankle is very swollen now, and there’s no way he can walk any further that night.
Frustrated ('Oh, why does everything happen to me?), Nora promises that he can stay that night, but the next morning, she’s going to call his lawyer, Sam Yates, and that’s the end of it. Dilg, who went to school with her, is busy flirting with her. ('You're still the prettiest girl in Lochester! ...I was in love with you.') As she leaves him and goes downstairs, she is caught by her tenant who’s looking for more blankets in the next room.
Nora has to make up a story quickly, so she sacrifices her mother to the cause. (She also borrows Lightcap's pyjamas for the night, much to his exasperation.) 

As nervous as a cat, she manages to make a quick call to Sam Yates, Dilg's lawyer before going up to bed. Neither she nor Lightcap are destined to get much sleep that night. Her anxiety is not to recede very soon either - next morning, instead of staying safely hidden in the attic, Dilg is enjoying his freedom a little too casually. 
Besides, he wants breakfast.  

Exasperated with both her unwanted guest and her summer tenant, Nora tries unsuccessfully to get Yates again, but is interrupted – by her mother, who's aghast that she stayed away the whole night – and in a man's pyjamas!  
By the time Nora is tries to set her mother to rights ('Don't be a silly old woman, and take that look off your face!'), the doorbell rings again. This time, it's the local journalist, Donald Forrester, along with his camera man, wanting to talk to Professor Lightcap. (And wanting a picture of Nora in Lightcap's pyjamas.) Poor Professor Lightcap! He comes down to a scene of total confusion, as the house he rented to 'get away from it all' is suddenly invaded by a what seems to be a whole cohort of people. The tide seems unstoppable – in comes a couple of furniture delivery men, followed by Sam Yates (Edgar Buchanan) wanting to know why Nora had called for him. 
Yates went to school with Lightcap, and is mighty pleased to see him there. He tries very hard to get his eminent classmate to take an interest in Dilg's case, and to head a committee to demand Dilg gets a fair trial, but is disappointed. The professor's business is with the principles of the law. He's more interested in the philosophy behind the deed. 
Despite the professor's rising exasperation, Nora manages to sneak out to tell Yates to get Dilg out of her attic. Unfortunately, Yates seems to think Dilg is safest where he is. So who's going to take care of him? snaps Nora. Well, she, of course.  'He's ordered me out fifty times already,' she tells Yates; she is only managing to stay on in the house because she's in Lightcap's pyjamas. Well, then stay in them, says Yates. Dilg's life won't be worth a dime if Yates turns him in, now. 

Poor Nora is in a quandry. She has to stay there for Dilg's sake; the professor wants her gone, for his. Her persuasive skills beating down his resistance, he reluctantly agrees to her being both cook and secretary – upon certain, very stringent conditions.
While they plunge into work, Dilg is getting hungrier and hungrier by the minute. Finally, unable (and unwilling) to wait until Nora is free, he creeps down the stairs to raid the refrigerator. Much to Nora's consternation. Worse, Dilg, stuffing his face in the kitchen, overhears Lightcap's dictation, and decides to put in his two cents' worth. 'Your point of view about the law is very interesting. It represents the ideal condition. I don't approve of it, but I like people who think in terms of ideal conditions.'
The professor is both irritated and intrigued, Nora is suffering palpitations, and Dilg is as cool as a cucumber. (She introduces him as 'Joseph', her gardener.) 

Soon, Professor Lightcap has a very important visitor – a Senator Boyd. He has very important news to share. The President would like to appoint Professor Lightcap to the bench of the Supreme Court. Senator Boyd has come to share the news, and to warn Lightcap to keep his name out of the papers in any connection in the interim.
This is when Dilg decides that Lightcap must be dragged into his case. In his opinion, Lightcap is a cold man, a theorist. He needs to be thawed out before he can be allowed to sit on the bench of the highest court in the land. Nora is beyond exasperated. How does Dilg propose to thaw Lightcap out? With a blowtorch? Nope. They already have the advantage – the prettiest woman in Lochester. 

In the meantime, Dilg's jailbreak is the subject of newspaper headlines. And they must keep Lightcap from seeing Dilg's photograph. But how?
Professor Lightcap is going to get a crash course in the town's affairs. And whether he knows it or not, he's soon going to get embroiled in this 'local affair'. But not before he has several run-ins with Dilg about the letter and spirit of the law, done several things that he has never done before: Watched a baseball game, walked through the town with Nora, 'thawed' enough to find Nora very, very attractive indeed, received a very practical education in the practice of the law, and discovered that the local police are indeed very corrupt, and very much in the pay of Mr Holmes. As is the town. 

Dilg's plan is working. But what will happen when Professor Lightcap discovers the truth?
He is on the side of the law, after all. Nora? What will happen to her job offer now that the professor knows she lied to him? What about Dilg? Will he allow Lightcap to turn him in?  
Will Dilg escape? Prove his innocence? Will Professor Lightcap forget the principles for ground reality?
Based on a story by Sidney Harmon, and adapted by Dale Van Every, Talk of the Town's screenplay was livened up by Irwin Shaw and Sidney Buchman, and ably directed by George Stevens. A social drama, masquerading as a comedy due to the sparkling repartee and un-self-conscious humour that peppers the script, Talk of the Town had a more serious plot than most comedies of the time. Perhaps that is why it ended up with eight nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Writing and Best Screenplay.  
Leopold Dilg is 'trouble' with a capital T. He always was, according to Nora, and even when he grew up, he was always to be found in the middle of any spat. His leftist leanings have not made him very popular in town. Cary Grant plays him with just the right amount of sincerity, underlined by an impish humour, and a hint of a smile, which keeps him from becoming a pompous know-it-all. (It's hard to resist the charm in those twinkling eyes. Besides, he keeps eating all the time) '
Grant also gives the impression of immense physical energy kept under great restraint – which is amazing, considering that he's mostly static, and can only limp when he does walk. 
Ronald Colman, equally British, played Professor Lightcap with suavity, suiting his upper-class manner to the character of a Harvard law professor, who's more versed in the theory of the law. His initial scenes – where he comes off as a crusty old bachelor, irritated by his secretary's coming nuptials (and the effect of those on his life) are a delight; so also is his slow thawing to become more likeable as the film goes on.

If the film is lifted a couple of notches above the script, it is due to Colman's interactions with Grant and Arthur, his wry humour and fluid expressions (despite the beard) adding pep to his scenes. He is the 'man of thought' while Grant, injured, is the 'man of action'. What works for the film is that that oft-quoted cliché –  'chemistry' – between the two characters who find themselves quite often, both literally and figuratively, on opposite sides of the table.   
As the film progresses, the two men begin to respect each other, even while they argue with each other about the letter and the spirit of the law, insult each other sometimes. ('By the way, with these indoor habits of yours, you have the complexion of a gravel pit.''You know, Joesph, you're no oil painting yourself.' 'No, a mummy would be closer.') Soon, they are on their way to a genuine friendship of equals, besides beginning to understand each other's position a little better. 
Adding her own bit of charm to the mix is Jean Arthur as Nora Shelley. She is articulate, passionate, compassionate, assertive, and is not one to take things lying down – from anyone.
Until the end, when she's not sure she actually loves Dilg, Nora's confusion is tempered by Arthur's humanity. She's delightful in the comic scenes, some of them becoming laugh-out-loud simply because of the expression she brings to her performance, both vocal and physical. Especially good are the scenes where she manipulates the professor into hiring her as cook-cum-secretary. What I liked about the character of Nora Shelley is that while she's growing very fond of both men, and is naturally confused about who is right for her, she didn't seem to just waiting around passively for either man. 
Even if both men seem to agree that the other is a better choice for her. (What I like better is that the men are not being self-sacrificing, and the tiniest tinge of 'nobility' is enough to make Nora fume.) There's more to her than playing romantic interest, and one gets the feeling that Nora is both self-contained and happy, and that she actually lives a full life, with or without either of these gentlemen. Inasmuch as she has agency, Nora is a fully fleshed out character, and therefore, one invests much into her fate.

Rounding up the cast is an ensemble of characters – Edgar Buchanan as the severely put-upon Yates, Glenda Farrell as the merry 'widow', and Rex Ingram, not playing a stereotypical character that African-Americans were pushed into, those days, but a very dignified role as Lightcap's 'man', more his benevolent master's keeper than a servant.    
Talk of the Town depends almost as much on the pertinent (and witty) dialogues between the lead characters, as it does on the physicality they bring to their scenes with each other. One reads as much into their expressions as into their speech. Reaction scenes are iffy most times, but here, the lead characters have almost perfected that split-second timing that turns a good scene into a great one. It is unusual to have a romantic triangle where we sympathise and empathise with all three characters, but this film comes as close to it as possible. They are all genuinely likeable people, intelligent, humorous, well-meaning folk who like each other and look out for the other
What I liked most about this film is that, while it is – on the face of it – a sort of romantic comedy, it underlined several rampant social issues of the time (and unfortunately, of the present). 'He's the only honest man I've come across in this town in twenty years. Naturally they want to hang him,' says Yates to Lightcap. It was a sharp dose of realism masked by the humour with which Dilg faces his future. 'He's an innocent man, he says, and why does an innocent man need a lawyer?' With a plea for social justice, and a sharp dig at those who mistake legal theory for the practice of the law, Dilg becomes the voice of a people doomed to be punished not for what they actually do, but for what they're presumed to have done. In that sense, it is a much more of a people's film than Hollywood makes today. The subtle focus on a big man in a little town, with a corrupt police force in his back pocket, is as relevant today as it was when this film was made more than 70 years ago. 

Talk of the Town may not be as well-known as the other Cary Grant starrers, but it should be. 

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