Friday, February 20, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: PEOPLE WILL TALK (1951)

Cary Grant is best remembered today for a long list of great films, including comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Hitchcock thrillers like Notorious (1946) and North By Northwest (1959). Although not as well-known as those undisputed hits, People Will Talk (1951) is a warm and very funny romantic comedy about the human side of the medical profession. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the movie stars Grant as a sympathetic doctor who insists on the individual humanity of each of his patients, even though his concern for them often goes far beyond the limits of his professional obligation.

Grant plays Noah Praetorius, a successful physician with a habit of collecting people who need him, from the mysterious Mr. Shunderson (Finlay Currie) to the desperate Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain). His popularity and success make him the target of a jealous colleague (Hume Cronyn), who hopes to discredit Praetorius by dredging up the secrets of his previous work, his unconventional methods, and his unusual associates.

The romantic angle depends on Praetorius’ evolving relationship with Deborah, a single young woman who attempts to kill herself when Praetorius tells her that she’s pregnant. The doctor saves her life and lies to her in order to prevent a second attempt, but somewhere along the way he falls in love with her, too. Grant balances the serious and comic aspects of this situation perfectly, and Jeanne Crain gives the troubled heroine a powerful appeal. The idea of a romance building around an unmarried woman’s pregnancy seems surprising, even shocking, for the time, but the movie handles it with delicate sympathy, with the details about Deborah’s dead lover calculated to make a contemporary audience forgive her transgression and deem her worthy of the hero’s unconditional acceptance.

Several especially engaging character actors provide ample support for the romantic leads and help to steer the movie back into comedic territory. Finlay Currie proves a real scene-stealer as the simple-minded Shunderson, whose history turns out to be both pitiful and bizarre. Hume Cronyn is delightfully petty and vindictive as Grant’s chief antagonist, Professor Elwell, and Margaret Hamilton has a great uncredited appearance at the start of the film as a former housekeeper who knows something about the good doctor’s past. Walter Slezak and Sidney Blackmer round out the cast as some of the doctor’s loyal friends, and there’s a wonderful scene in which the three men act like children in their enthusiasm over a toy train set.

Try Holiday (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) for more Cary Grant comedies. You’ll find Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), and Pinky (1949). A four-time Oscar winner, Joseph L. Mankiewicz also directed memorable women’s pictures like Dragonwyck (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and All About Eve (1950). Look for the wonderful Scottish actor Finlay Currie in I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959). Finally, catch Hume Cronyn in Lifeboat (1944), The Seventh Cross (1944), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

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