Monday, August 20, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #46 – People Will Talk (1951, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

Cary Grant was the coolest, most suave dude to ever walk across the silver screen. It’s like he wasn’t even human, he was so perfect in posture, manner and good looks and good taste. Watching him act is like watching Michael Jordan on a basketball court or Jimi Hendrix with an electric guitar; he was one of those one-in-a-billion-billion people who was such a genius at what he did that he transcended even our notions of what is best, seemingly without effort. You really can’t go wrong with a Carey Grant film, and quite a few of them are essential viewing for any self-respecting cinephile – North By Northwest, An Affair to Remember, The Philadelphia Story, to name a few. I’m not sure if I’d add the 1951 comedy People Will Talk to this short list, because it’s not important in the way that those films are. But I’d still recommend highly, especially for people who like old movies for the way they offer a glimpse into the values and beliefs of bygone times, and for those who appreciate plotlines that are unwittingly, but undeniably, weird.
            Grant plays a young doctor named Noah Praetorius whose methods of medicine and style of teaching are unconventional but highly effective. He’s adored by his students and hailed as a hero in the larger community. But his success has made him the target of a jealous colleague, Dr. Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn), who is everything Dr. Praetorius is not – short, balding, undistinguished. Elwell hires a detective to dig up dirt on Praetorius in hopes of ruining him. Meantime, a student named Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain) faints in Dr. Praetorius’s class, and he examines her and determines that she’s pregnant. She’s not married, though, and the father of the child has died. This was, of course, a huge problem in 1951, and sparks a delightful chain of events between doctor and patient, professor and student, toward the inevitable romantic conclusion. The two stories converge in what is one of the most peculiar climaxes I’ve ever seen in a movie, a story within a story that’s so odd it makes the film worth more than the cost of admission for its oddness alone.
            As time capsules go, People Will Talk is better than most because it shows a period of transition. The tension that drives the romance plotline is borne of the social mores and taboos of the time: the shame of a pregnancy out of wedlock. Yet Higgins and Dr. Praetorius are clearly the protagonists, despite Higgins’s supposed sin and the good Doctor’s aiding and abetting. So you can only conclude that the audience at the time – society as a whole – possessed a degree of acceptance for the whole situation. Otherwise the film’s producers wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, especially not in a romantic comedy, a genre that has natural limits on how far it can push viewers out of the confines of societal norms. So it’s weird because it’s OK that Higgins had sex and got pregnant, but, at the same time, it’s not OK, and the plot rides on the pressing need to suppress the facts at hand. Watching it in the 21st Century, when the choices for women are, thankfully, far greater in number, you find yourself perplexed to the point of fascination as to why it’s an issue at all. But that makes the whole time-travel all the more interesting.
            As for the story within the story, I’ll say no more. I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned it at all, because part of the thrill is the way it comes so unexpectedly and feels so outrageously out of place. But here, too, we get a snapshot of a period of time. People Will Talk is based on a play by German playwright named Curt Goetz, who was a relative of George Bernard Shaw, with whom he was often compared. Both were stalwarts of modern theater, and one of the hallmarks of modernism in drama and literature was the move away from strict chronological flow in story telling. So this film is a stark example of this, made all the more stark by virtue of its being a movie, which we tend to expect to unfold sequentially. So it gives you a satisfying aesthetic jolt that you ordinarily get from the escapist delights of a funny Hollywood romance, and this lifts the movie higher up the list of Cary Grant’s must-sees.
            - Joe Miller

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