The Talk of the Town (1942)

Posted on February 10, 2011

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With a trio of fantastic actors: Cary Grant, Ronald Coleman, and Jean Arthur; hilarious writing; and some excellent sight gags, this film is highly enjoyable even if it somewhat marred by an over-drawn third act.

But before I proceed any further, I must confess, to my eternal shame, I had never heard of Jean Arthur before. I watched this film for Cary Grant, who is as wonderful as ever but he is clearly overshadowed by Jean and Coleman. It may have something to do with his sketchy character, but more about that later.

The film begins as a comedy of errors. A mill worker and activist, Leopold Dilg (Grant), who is falsely accused of arson and murder, escapes from jail and stumbles into the house of Norma Shelly (Arthur), a school teacher. Norma is preparing the house for her new tenant, the distinguished Law professor, Michael Lightcap (Coleman). But before Norma can decide what to do with Dilg, Lightcap arrives ahead of schedule forcing Norma to hide Dilg in the attic.

The first half of the film is about Norma’s hilarious attempts to keep Dilg and then later, his identity a secret; the second half of the film is about how Dilg and Norma try to thaw Lightcap so that he helps Dilg with his case; and the third part is about Lightcap’s change of heart and how he helps solve the case.

Lightcap is a no-nonsense intellectual but not without gentleness and quiet humor; he is someone who is interested in Law as theory rather than actual practice. Lightcap intends to spend the summer in this quiet town and work on his book. Naturally, he needs peace and solitude and naturally, he will never get a moment of it. Dilg is the sort of man who cannot keep his thoughts to himself, his chosen form of self-expression is making speeches on street corners. Given his recent experience with the law, he has his own theories about it. It is only a matter of time before Dilg throws caution to the wind and reveals himself to Lightcap. This is a superb comic scene, Lightcap is dictating to Norma while Dilg unsuccessfully tries to get her attention to tell her that he is hungry. Dilg finally decides to come down to the kitchen and find some food himself when he hears Lightcap’s academic statements about the law. Dilg, still chewing his food, interrupts Lightcap and tells him that it’s all bullshit — When I hear a man talk nonsense, I always get an impulse, Dilg tells Norma later. Norma manages to save the situation by telling Lightcap that Dilg is the gardener, Joseph, and asks him about the zinnias, to which Grant replies deadpan, “Dying”.

Interestingly, Dilg and Lightcap form an unlikely friendship despite their radically different views. This friendship later gives way to a genuine love triangle. Both men love and respect each other and Norma too has become very fond of them. It is established early in the film that Dilg hasn’t grown out of his childhood crush on Norma — they went to the same school.

Cary Grant is his usual dashing self. Dilg is the romantic revolutionary type who is given to condemning all institutions and ranting about the lack of human touch in the legal system. However, he has no concrete plan of action for improving the system, which makes it a little hard to take him seriously even though Lightcap is generous enough to call Dilg’s outburst “a different school of thought.” There are times when the screenplay suggests that Dilg’s activism is a direct consequence of his being a holy terror as a kid. Cary wisely plays Dilg as a lovable overgrown schoolboy with a thing for trouble and plays down the activist bit.

Coleman is simply awesome as Lightcap. Lightcap is the only character who is given a well thought-out back story and goes through an emotional arc. He starts out as someone who has completely cut himself off from the practical world and its distractions. He believes that the legal system is perfect and there is no need to interfere. Besides, he also has a good reason for not getting involved in the Dilg case — he is going to be appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court and must, at all cost, keep his name out of the newspaper. But he gradually warms up to Norma and Dilg. In a revealing scene, Lightcap, who is visiting town, remembers that Dilg loves borscht and buys it as a surprise gift. What is really interesting is that Lightcap, contrary to expectations, is hardly class-conscious; he becomes good friends with a man he believes is a gardener. However, it is only when an angry Norma tells him, rather unfairly, that he is an unfeeling old man that he decides to take some drastic action and redeem himself in their eyes.

I have saved the best for the last — Jean Arthur. She is an absolute delight. She is the one who performs most the physical comedy and gets the funniest lines. Jean plays Norma as a self-assured, somewhat bumbling, and totally adorable English schoolteacher. She cooks up the most outrageous lies and situations to keep Dilg hidden; especially, the scene where Lightcap and Dilg are having breakfast and Dilg unknowing offers the newspaper that has him as the front page to Lightcap. Norma comes screaming from the kitchen and tosses the eggs on the newspaper and explains that today is not Lightcap’s egg day!

There is also a hilarious scene of Arthur doing an imitation of Katherine Hepburn and one where she comforts Dilg by repeatedly kissing him on the very same spot where he was hit.

The love triangle works well because Arthur has good chemistry with both Coleman and Grant. Typically with love triangles, we known almost instantly who will get the girl — there is hardly any attempt to make the choice a truly difficult one. Here the love triangle develops gradually and both men are presented as worthy suitors.

As I mentioned earlier, it is the screenplay that lets the actors down. The structure and arrangement of the third-act is really bad and it weighs down the film.

But when a film gives us so much to like, it’s really bad manners to harp on the shortcomings. As for me, I am now going to find all Jean Arthur movies and perform penance.

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Posted in: Reviews