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Tuesday 15 December 2009

The Talk of the Town (1942)

Director: George Stevens
Stars: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman
Holmes Woolen Mill in Lochester is burned to the ground and Clyde Bracken, the foreman, is lost to the flames. Leopold Dilg is the suspected arsonist and the prosecutor calls for the death penalty, but Dilg escapes, one rainy night, and finds his way to the house of Miss Nora Shelley who he knew at school. She wants to brain him with a baseball bat and kick him out of her place but of course she can't because he's played by Cary Grant and anyone who kicks Cary Grant out on a rainy night automatically loses their woman card. Given that she takes the form of the delightful Jean Arthur that just isn't worth thinking about and given that he hurt his leg in the jailbreak, hobbling on out into the manhunt would be tantamount to giving himself up, so he moves into the attic.

This opening is textbook film noir, dark and moody and almost entirely told without dialogue until Dilg bursts in on Miss Shelley and tumbles down her stairs. Then it takes a light turn as the third star of the show arrives a day early and spoils everyone's plans, turning this into a comedy of errors. He's Ronald Colman, playing Michael Lightcap, an elegantly sarcastic law professor who's about to rent the place from her so he can spend a quiet summer writing a book. Of course the last thing he's going to find is a quiet summer in this film, given that it ends up as something of a slower paced screwball comedy, with what seems like half the town traipsing in and out on his first day there.

First it's Nora's mother, wondering where she was last night. She spent it in Lightcap's pyjamas but only because she knows who was in the attic and it's all done in the utterly platonic way you might expect for 1942 with locked doors and the works. Mrs Shelley is quickly followed by the lightest hearted character I've ever seen Lloyd Bridges play, a Lochester Sentinel journalist with his photographer Henry. He's certainly a long shot from the last time I saw him, as the grim and arrogant Herr Hein in The White Tower, but he was busy making tiny appearances in what seemed like every film at the time, no less than 24 in 1942 alone. The furniture movers are in and out, of course, setting the place up for what should have been the professor's arrival at noon.

There's Sam Yates, that rarest of entities, an honest lawyer, who the state appointed to Dilg's defense but who Dilg believes, as an innocent man, he shouldn't need. Yates firmly believes in him though. 'He's the only honest man in town I've come across in twenty years,' he tells Lightcap, following up with, 'Of course they want to hang him.' Soon the cops arrive, searching every house for Dilg, who eventually comes down himself after they've gone in order to raid the fridge. He ends up flaunting his presence pretending to be Joseph the gardener, debating with Lightcap and playing him at chess, not only on the board either. Finally no less than a US Senator shows up to let Lightcap know that the President has asked him to serve on the Supreme Court. His only warning is to keep out of the papers. Fat chance of that, of course.

This is a fun movie, though it's never sure how fast and loose it wants to run, mostly because it has a serious side too, as both a romance and a drama. At heart it's a battle between two approaches to the principles of law, hardly your usual basis for a comedy, but that balance is well struck, the story never getting as dry as some of the things that are discussed. Dilg has been something of a wild hare all his life, a perennial square peg in a round hole and rather happy about it. He's as organic as Lightcap is literal, relying on common sense to guide him through everything. Lightcap is a theorist, relying on inviolate principles and the letter of the law and he refuses to get involved in what he calls 'local affairs'. This rigidity is what brings Dilg out, so full of himself that instead of becoming one with the attic furniture he takes it upon himself to thaw out the heart and soul of the cold and dull professor, given that he's going to serve on the Supreme Court. And so unfolds our film.
The casting is spot on, pairing the respectable and always trustworthy Leslie Colman with the pixie that is Cary Grant, though it's rather bizarre to see an affirmation of the importance of American law brought to the screen by two Englishmen. They both have fun with the story, their twinkle eyed approach being contagious, and they played very well off each other, so much so that it's surprising that they never appeared on screen together again. Jean Arthur is a worthy foil for both of them, embuing her character with depth instead of letting it become throwaway, as it so easily could have become in the hands of a lesser actor. We're also left on tenterhooks all the way to the finish to discover which one of these two men she's going to end up with. In fact some reports have it that director George Stevens shot two endings for each outcome and went with the one that played best to test audiences.

This was late in the career of Ronald Colman, who was over fifty at the time though he looked younger, and this was the first time since his early silent days that he'd been credited below another actor. His first film was as far back as 1917 and he quickly established himself as a solid leading man, successfully making the transition to sound and getting more successful as time went by. His first Oscar nominations were in 1930 but he'd follow this film up with another for Random Harvest in 1943 and then finally a win in 1948 for A Double Life, with only three credits left to come. He was a versatile actor but I'll always remember him best as a free soul, playing go getters of various descriptions, always title characters, from Bulldog Drummond to Raffles, from Clive of India to The Prisoner of Zenda. He gets some astounding scenes here including the final one in the Lochester courtroom which is a gem.

It was late for Jean Arthur too. While she lived until 1991 she only made five more films after this, retiring after 1948's A Foreign Affair and returning to the screen only once after that, for Shane in 1953. She'd played opposite Cary Grant once before, three years earlier in the wonderful Howard Hawks film Only Angels Have Wings, one of the underrated gems of Hollywood's greatest year, and that's even better than this one. Cary Grant, of course, had many films left in him. This one came over halfway through his credits but only a third of the way into his career and so here he's still the young Grant, often a harder Grant to find but every bit a match for the older Grant, the sophisticated one that everyone wanted to be. He was a huge star in 1942, with such films as His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story recently behind him, and his previous picture was his first of four for Alfred Hitchcock: Suspicion.

There are problems here, many problems, if you sit down and analyse what's actually going on, and I'm not talking about Cary Grant's outrageous snoring. We're not told what passage of time the story unfolds over but it can't be long, yet apparently it's long enough for these three characters to become fast friends, enough so that they put their own lives, careers and dreams in jeopardy for each other. The cops are a few notches down the IQ scale from where they should be, even in such a corrupt or easily led town, so are the crooks who fall for some pretty obvious manouevres and the townsfolk aren't far behind either. Prof Lightcap may have a rare beard for that part of the world but it's not exactly prominent and yet nobody recognises him without it.

Usually such things are annoyances that hinder our efforts to immerse ourselves in the story but the cast are so engaging here that we just can't help getting caught up with them. Then again there are names like Edgar Buchanan and Glenda Farrell to back up the leads, which could never be a bad thing, and the leads are on solid form. The story is a wild ride and in lesser hands wouldn't have played anywhere near as well, but with these names making it unfold you simply can't go wrong. It's a delight to return to.

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