Famed filmmaker/actor, John Cassavetes once said, “Maybe there really wasn't an America. Maybe it was only Frank Capra.” Perhaps, but I think Cassavetes’ quote could - and should - be expanded to encompass a few more pioneers from Hollywood’s golden age; chiefly, director George Stevens. There is little to deny Hollywood’s hand in crafting the collective persona of this great nation; James Stewart and Gregory Peck as its iconic and noble every man in society; Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the part of its he-men; Mary Pickford, America’s sweetheart, June Allyson – its proverbial girl next door, and Esther Williams, its bona fide mermaid. No, Hollywood of yore gave America not only its’ worldwide reputation, but also its own prestige and luster as that untouchable panacea for prosperity, joy, sophistication, chic good taste and supreme beauty. The men behind the camera were no less prolific in disseminating these discriminate tastes and values. Hence, when we think of America – the beautiful – we very often conjure Frank Capra in the same breath. Incongruously, we don’t seem to apply the same scope of admiration to George Stevens; queer, since it was Stevens, perhaps even more than Capra, who had his hand in reevaluating American perceptions about itself – particularly in the 1950’s, maturing our thoughts and ideals beyond the ‘Capra-corn’.
The obscenities Stevens witnessed first-hand while liberating the Nazi concentration camps as part of the American camera corps, left an indelible mark on his point of view. Virtually all of his post-war movies benefited from this culture-shocking epiphany. Arguably, it merely refocused an innate forthrightness and moral code already well ensconced within, given only limited expression in the kinds of movies Stevens had made during the first half of his career. Even so, George Stevens was always very much interested in celebrating the triumph of the human spirit. The case holds particularly true for one of Stevens’ pre-war movies: the cause célèbre, The Talk of The Town (1942), a delicious and seemingly featherweight comedy centered on a trio of attractive misfits; emotionally pixillated schoolmarm, Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), devil-may-care escaped convict, Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) and stuffy academic, Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman). Actually, the comedic machinations unraveling in Irwin Shaw/Sidney Buchman’s screenplay (based on Dale Van Every’s adaptation of Sidney Harmon’s story) are in service to a direly serious critique of American jurisprudence. At once, The Talk of the Town is an unapologetic critique of the spirit of the law as well as its fundamental applications and flaws that can allow for its wrongful manipulation by corrupt external forces.
Our hero, Leopold Dilg, as example, is an old campaigner for the spirit of the law. As he puts it to Nora, “Well, it's a form of self-expression. Some people write books. Some people write music. I make speeches on street corners.” But Dilg harbors an unmitigated scorn for the machinery behind the law, justified, so it seems, in lieu of the battle about to be waged against such intolerance and hypocrisies after Dilg is accused of torching the mills and factories belonging to local fat cat/industrialist, Andrew Holmes (Charles Dingle). The suspected arson is also responsible for the death of one of Holmes’ foremen, Clyde Bracken (Tom Tyler). Dilg is ripe for the accusation. Ah, but is he guilty? The first six minutes immediately following the opening credits are a brisk jaunt in montage through this seemingly idyllic New England community, rocked by scandal and blindly interested in seeing Leopold Dilg hanged for a crime he more than likely did not commit.
George Stevens takes us on a Cook’s tour of this fictional town; Lochester; a stand-in for ‘any-town U.S.A’. Alas, we quickly realize Lochester is not without its secrets and lies; also, duplicities shared between big business and local government, herein represented by a corrupt, judge, Grunstadt (George Watts), who has already decided the case against Dilg without even first considering the evidence, and, the nervously complicit Chief of Police (Don Beddoe), more interested in a speedy resolution that fits in neatly with Grunstadt’s assumptions, than uncovering the cold hard facts for himself.
The incubus for visiting legal mind, Michael Lightcap is that he has come to Lochester for peace and relaxation, but quickly discovers a recuperative vacation – far removed from the stresses of his teaching post at Harvard – is not in the cards. Lightcap’s stay at Sweet Water, the rented cottage belonging to Nora Shelley and her mother (Emma Dunn) is further complicated by Nora’s harboring a fugitive from justice in the attic; none other than Leopold who, wounded in his prison escape and presently on the lam, has assumed the post of Sweet Water’s groundskeeper, to be near Lightcap and ply him with his own interpretations of the law to help ease Lightcap away from his rudimentary and clinical impressions. The law is clear. Alas, the circumstances in Dilg’s case are severely muddled. “I don't approve of…but I like people who think in terms of ideal conditions,” Dilg explains to Lightcap, “They're the dreamers, poets, tragic figures in this world, but interesting.”
The Shaw/Buchman screenplay is intent on illustrating this near tragedy from both sides, enticingly coated in an exemplarily refreshing shell of pure slapstick. Like a great seismic shifting of the earth, director Stevens builds his dramatic tempo from a joyously silly patina of celebrated comedic crescendos, diametrically opposed to the legitimate tensions being created by the otherwise serious subtexts of these tectonic plates; the rupture between them occurring when the townsfolk, stirred into a furor by Grunstadt’s grandstanding and a mountain of negative press calling for Dilg’s execution, storm the county courthouse to exact their brand of vigilante justice.
The supreme eloquence in Ronald Colman’s delivery of the following lines spares us the film’s sanctimonious morality, nonetheless potent and satisfying, as he declares with adamant conviction, “This is your law and your finest possession - it makes you free men in a free country. Why have you come here to destroy it? If you know what's good for you, take those weapons home and burn them! And then think... think of this country and of the law that makes it what it is. Think of a world crying for this very law and maybe you'll understand why you ought to guard it; why the law has to be the personal concern of every citizen…to uphold it for your neighbor as well as yourself. Violence against it is one mistake. Another mistake is for any man to look upon the law as just a set of principles. And just so much language printed on fine, heavy paper. Something he recites and then leans back and takes for granted: that justice is automatically being done. Both kinds of men are equally wrong. The law must be engraved in our hearts and practiced every minute to the letter and spirit. It can't even exist unless we're willing to go down into the dust and blood and fight a battle every day of our lives to preserve it…for our neighbor as well as ourselves!”
Between such substantial recitals we get a more traditional lover’s triangle, expertly framed to buttress the emphasis of the story. Both Dilg and Lightcap are, in fact, quite taken with Nora Shelley, but for decidedly different reasons and very decidedly in their own inimitable way. Fascinatingly, neither seems to be the ideal suitor at the start of our show; Lightcap’s arrival on a windswept and rainy evening, causing him minor distress. He coolly accuses Nora of “monumental inefficiency” for not having the cottage ready and waiting for him (despite the fact he has arrived a whole day ahead of schedule) before phrasing his own general contempt for the fairer sex with some fairly sexist remarks about a woman’s mind becoming “unhinged by the prospects of marriage”. By contrast, there is a sexual earthiness to Dilg’s declaration for Nora’s affections. Almost from the start of their unanticipated reunion Dilg praises Nora’s beauty with hungry eyes. He commits himself to a playful search for the truth. Alas, Dilg can promise Nora nothing, not even his own guaranteed freedom.
After some reluctant and initially awkward screwball moments (Nora hiding Dilg in the attic; smuggling herself back into the cottage after Lightcap has already gone to bed, only to be discovered by Lightcap in her prowling, thus having to lie to him about a supposed disagreement with her mother so she can stay the night; and finally, a joyously obtuse moment in which Lightcap is stirred from his slumber by Dilg’s monumental snoring overhead, assuming it is Nora instead and declaring, “She must have adenoids!” to which Nora later fibs, “You know, they’re as big as your fist!”), The Talk of the Town settles more comfortably into its second act; a quaintly domestic series of events in which Lightcap’s clinical views of the law are repeatedly challenged by Dilg’s more pragmatic ideas. After all, what good is it to have all this theory unless it can be put to use in common practice?
As for the ‘romance between Nora and Michael, Lightcap is far more cerebral in his romantic protestations; a man of absolute restraint where his emotions are concerned, but decidedly growing more devoted to Nora by the hour, enough to realize his turn with her has already passed them by; nobly stepping aside in the eleventh hour, after accepting his rightful appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. He tenderly reminisces to Nora, “Look at me, a dream of twenty years come true. More happiness than any man deserves, that chair. But now there's something Else, Nora: My friends. I want to see them as happy as I am. Nothing less will do. And Leopold, what a fine fellow - and I've been thinking, Nora, that if someone were to take his hand and say "Leopold, my reckless friend, here's love and companionship, forever." Well, some day that man would... You see what I mean, Nora?”
The crux of The Talk of the Town’s comedy is centrally related to its colossal case of mistaken identity. Lightcap thinks Dilg is Joseph, the groundskeeper. Joseph’s keen mind is a source of great amusement for Lightcap. Quickly, however, Dilg brings a more pressing sense and greater moral principle to bear on their discussions. Often he is confrontational, though always knowing exactly when to pull back and reframe the argument so as not to insult Lightcap’s intelligence. Under Dilg’s constant prodding to have Lightcap ‘involve himself’ in putting to practice the spirit of the law he so obviously believes in, also with occasionally coaxing from local attorney, Sam Yates (Edgar Buchanan), who firmly believes in Dilg’s innocence, Lightcap begins to do some pro bono investigating of the facts pertaining to the charges levied against Dilg – a man he, presumably, has never met. At the same time, Lightcap learns he is a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Such an appointment would fulfill his lifelong ambitions. But would it wholly satisfy him in the long run? Momentarily setting aside his own future and, arguably, personal safety, Lightcap makes plans to woo the deceased foreman’s old flame, Regina Bush (Glenda Farrell), who inadvertently gives up the ghost by letting on that Clyde Bracken may not have died in the fire or, in fact, been killed at all. Lightcap is intrigued by this turn of events, regarding himself as a superior sleuth, only to be wounded by discovering the truth about Joseph; that he and Dilg are one in the same.
Disheartened, but more determined than ever to prove Dilg’s innocence, Lightcap convinces Dilg to give himself up to the authorities while he and Nora hightail it to Boston. At the last possible moment, the plan is changed and Dilg accompanies the pair on their search for Bracken. Clyde is found out, still very much alive and ‘persuaded’ by Lightcap to return to Lochester to confess his complicity in the crime, thereby exonerating Dilg of any wrong doing. It was Clyde who set the fire at the mill under Andrew Holmes’ own directive to collect some badly needed insurance money to shore up his debts. Alas, by now the tide of public resentment toward Dilg has reached a fevered pitch. In a scene reminiscent of something out of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1932), the townsfolk, armed with torches, clubs and pitchforks, burst into the courthouse at the darkest hour of Dilg’s trial. Justice, it seems, will be administered at the point of a gun if not under Grunstadt’s corrupt gavel.
Mercifully, Lightcap arrives in the nick of time, exposing the truth and challenging the angry mob to reconsider what it means to excoriate the law for nothing more than immediate – and thoroughly misguided – satisfaction. Dilg is pronounced innocent and the crowds, who only a moment ago might have contributed to his hasty demise, now hoist him on their shoulders as a crusader for their own rights and freedom. Not long thereafter, Nora and Dilg attend Lightcap’s swearing in, Dilg electing to step out and head for home. Nora, however, has politely declined Lightcap’s proposal of marriage; also, his offer to remain as his assistant in Washington. Dilg seems to want no part of Nora, even after she throws herself at his head in the antechamber. But only a moment into this rejection, Dilg thinks better of it, grabbing Nora by the hand and dragging her off in his direction, presumably back to Lochester.
From almost start to finish, The Talk of the Town is an exuberant and charming farce with a hard-candied center. Too little has been written about the liquidity with which director, George Stevens manages to mostly – if not completely – migrate from drama, to comedy, to romance, to screwball, juggling all of these various elements with exceptional ease. For Cary Grant, The Talk of the Town proved a pleasurable reunion. He and Stevens had previously worked together on the boisterous adventure yarn, Gunga Din (1939). And Grant, by his very conflicted nature, is capable of giving us two sides to Leopold Dilg. The opening montage, documenting Dilg’s incarceration for the crime of arson, and, his escape from prison by strangling unconscious an unsuspecting guard, reveal a sinister Cary Grant previously unseen in the movies. Fair enough, Grant gave us a fairly unscrupulous cockney con in 1935’s Sylvia Scarlett and a brutally authoritarian butch boss in 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings. Yet, in hindsight, these were characterizations immune of further scrutiny because of Grant’s public persona. By contrast, Grant’s debut in The Talk of the Town deliberately suggests he is, in fact, the bad guy of the piece; a notion almost immediately dispelled when he succumbs to the pain of a twisted ankle, collapsing in Nora Shelley’s living room.
The conversion Grant’s Leopold Dilg undergoes from this moment forward cannot be overstated; Grant playing the uncompromising fop to Ronald Colman’s stalwart professor. Colman does, in fact, take much longer to sway Lightcap’s personal investment from clinical theorist to pragmatic applier of the principles of law. Some of The Talk of the Town’s most captivating vignettes are dedicated to each man getting to know the other on his own terms; Dilg lending Lightcap an ounce of fortitude to step beyond the safety of those ivy-covered walls and Lightcap reciprocating the gift in kind by opening Dilg’s mind to the concept and understanding that even the most impassioned defense of the law must be filtered through the rubric and high-minded ethics of its legal process. Such dilemmas in debate, undeniably, drew George Stevens to The Talk of the Town and are, in fact, moments that enrich and elevate the purpose of this otherwise seemingly straightforward screwball comedy. In some ways, though particularly in hindsight, The Talk of the Town may be regarded as George Stevens’ first serious work; Stevens no longer content merely to take his cast from points ‘A’ to ‘B’.
In fact, The Talk of the Town is remarkably non-linear in this regard - especially in its second act; our trio of stars settling into a sort of strained domesticity with the constant threat of Leopold’s discovery dangling over their heads, though only Leopold and Nora are aware of their predicament as yet. One recalls with a smile the innocuous recovery of the morning paper from the stoop, its front page splashed with a tabloid headline and Leopold’s mug shot, forcing Nora to cut a swath from kitchen to the dinette and deliberately drop Lightcap’s double-yolk egg breakfast in the very spot where he might otherwise have discovered his gardener’s true identity. Or the instant when Lightcap, as yet unaware of Leopold’s existence at all – even as his alter ego, Joseph – is narrowly missed with a bang on the head from a boot falling out a second story window; Nora pitching the errand footwear back into the room, before pretending to a bewildered Lightcap, with arm still extended, to be suffering from acute tendonitis. These are joyously silly moments, to be sure, attesting to some of the visual gags George Stevens showed a mastery and proclivity for in earlier hits like the Astaire/Rogers musical, Swing Time (1936) and slap-happy screwball darling, Vivacious Lady (1938). Even more remarkably, they seem perfectly at home within The Talk of the Town’s more solidly packed narrative.
While some movies are an obvious credit to the people working behind the camera, as well as those set before it, The Talk of the Town manages to make us forget about the invisible minions toiling in the background. Frederick Hollander’s score is sparse, its main title reused at interpolating tempos also as the love theme. Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography is first rate, yet never manages to draw attention to Lionel Banks’ sets. This is not to suggest either is out of place. On the contrary, each proves the perfect complement to this star-driven morality play. And George Stevens knows he has box office gold with this triage of merry-makers, despite the fact none was Oscar-nominated in a film that otherwise earned Columbia Pictures no less than 7 nominations, though – and, alas – no wins.
Kudos ought to have at least gone to Sidney Buchman and Irwin Shaw for their bristling bombast and expertly placed bon mots. Grant, Arthur, and Colman are three of the most triumphant and expertly skilled talents of their generation and their on-screen chemistry is superior to anything else in the movie, except the script. Interestingly, Colman’s popularity at the box office had dipped at the time The Talk of the Town went before the cameras. This colossal smash put him right back on top. In the final analysis, The Talk of the Town is both magical and memorable. In an era when so many movies cannot even juggle their single premise, much less two or three, this film moves as effortlessly through its myriad of genres and styles, with a chameleon’s penchant to entertain, whatever our tastes. Succinctly done and with great flourish and gusto. Bravo!
We cannot say the same for Sony’s DVD. One sincerely hopes The Talk of the Town is slated on the short list of Columbia Classics soon to find their way to Blu-ray. This DVD, while hardly a travesty, is not altogether successful and, in spots, is abysmally below par for what we’ve come to expect from the studio. When the image snaps together we have some good solid contrast at work, along with a legible smattering of fine detail and some film grain looking moderately good. Alas, there are too many instances where contrast is severely compromised. I suspect, like so many classics from this vintage, improper storage and less than adequate first generation elements are to blame for the inconsistent image quality.
Some scenes have inky black saturation while in others all blacks register tonal murky gray. Yuck! There’s also some light bleeding around the edges and a fleeting hint of sporadic edge-enhancement. Mercifully, age-related artifacts appear at a bare minimum. Obviously, some work has been done to ready this for home video. Again, not a mess, but hardly stellar either. The audio is mono and generally in better shape than the visuals; no pop, crackle or background hiss. We get only one extra: a featurette on Cary Grant and his contributions to the movie. Truncated and little more than a puff piece, it’s forgettable and dull. The Talk of the Town is part of the Cary Grant Box Set from Sony. You can also purchase it as a standalone disc. Bottom line: recommended for content. The transfer definitely needs work.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)