Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Does Jean Love Cary or Ronald?

The members of our group have all seen Talk of the Town (1942) before, but it has been some time since we visited this fantastic movie, and decided it was time to reacquaint ourselves with this splendid cast of characters.  The film opens with the trial of Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant).  Dilg, an ardent activist, is accused of setting file to the Lochester Mills, and in the process, killing the night watchman Clyde Bracken (Tom Tyler).  The town is ripe for a lynching; in desperation, Leopold escapes from his cell, injuring his ankle in the process.  He arrives at the country home of Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), a childhood friend.  Nora is in the midst of cleaning the house, which she is renting for the summer.  Though she is not eager to assist Leopold, his injured ankle and the town's angry attitude convince her to give him shelter, at least until she can contact his lawyer, Sam Yates (Edgar Buchanan).  However, a complication arises - Professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), a noted Harvard jurist, arrives a day early.  Nora has to scramble to not only keep Leopold hidden and but also keep herself in the house, to hide him from the reclusive professor.  And if that isn't a big enough problem, the following day, Professor Lightcap finds out he is being proposed for the Supreme Court, so any kind of scandal will endanger his appointment - and a murderer living in his house is not the kind of publicity he needs.

In his book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris discusses the previews of the film.  It's widely known that Columbia decided to use audience previews to help them decide on the film's ending.  Two conclusions were shot: one with Cary Grant leaving with Jean Arthur; the other with Arthur selecting Ronald Colman.  That the film ends, thanks to audience reviews, with Grant is the result of those polls.  But what isn't as widely known is WHY the audience selected Grant.  According to Harris, the war-time audience (the film was released on August 20, 1942)  felt that Arthur should marry the man of draft age because "later on, the mature men will have [the women] all to themselves." (p. 167)  The idea that Nora would marry Leopold, see him off to war - and death - and ultimately end up with Michael (who is over 40 and therefore ineligible to serve)  is somewhat disturbing.  We wondered, had the survey been done a few years earlier, who would have won?  As much as our group adores Cary Grant, the consensus here was for the more stable, more mature, and more intelligent Michael Lightcap.  Leopold Dilg is just too much of a loose cannon (an unusual role for Mr. Grant) to appeal to our simpler tastes.  This TCM article goes into more detail on the tension between Colman and Grant, neither of whom was used to playing second fiddle to another actor, and on Colman's reluctance to appear in a Columbia film, due to his intense dislike of Harry Cohn (Stevens promised Colman that Cohn would never be on the set - and kept his word).
Director George Stevens was well-respected for romantic comedies, like The More the Merrier (for which he received his first Academy Award nomination as best picture) and Woman of the Year, as well as for dramatic romances like Alice Adams and Penny Serenade.  However, upon his return from World War II, where he was one of the first people into Dachau as the Allied forces entered Germany (his footage was used during the Nuremberg Trials), Stevens remade his career, never venturing into comedy again.  Instead, he chose films that, to his mind would "tell the truth and not pat us on the back" (Harris, p. 418).  The Diary of Anne Frank, Shane, Giant (Oscar-winning Director of 1956, and A Place in the Sun (Oscar-winning Director of 1951) are among his magnificent post-war efforts.   Steven would continue directing until 1970.  He died in 1975, aged 70.
There are some wonderful character actors in the film.  Edgar Buchanan, who had already worked with Grant and Stevens on Penny Serenade, appears as Sam Cade, Dilg's lawyer and an old school chum of Lightcap's. Glenda Farrell has a small part as Regina Bush, the rather crude and gabby girlfriend  of the "deceased" Clyde, and Lloyd Bridges has a brief appearance as Donald Forrester, Lochester's newspaper editor and reporter.  But the performance that stands out (and even rates a mention in this New York Times review) is that of Rex Ingram as Lightcap's valet, Tilney.  Though playing a servant, Tilney is a quiet, distinguished man.  More than just a valet, he serves as Lightcap's confidant and occasional adviser, for Tilney, unlike Lightcap, has seen something at the world.  He has even been married, albeit unsuccessfully.  Ingram had a relatively long career, beginning his film work in 1918's Tarzan of the Apes, and concluding with an appearance on The Bill Cosby Show in 1969.  A graduate of Northwestern University's medical school, he left for Hollywood, then for Broadway, where he appeared in 13 plays from 1934 to 1962.  He died in 1969, aged 73.

All in all, this is a film we highly recommend, and perhaps is close to being an essential.  We'll leave you with this video, to whet your appetite -  the first meeting between Professor Lightcap and Miss Shelley.

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