Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Film classics: The Talk of the Town

For a couple of years in the early 1990s my movie-watching centred on American and British classics from the 1930s and 1940s – I gorged myself on the work of directors such as John Ford, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Carol Reed, William Wyler and Leo McCarey, and actors such as Cary Grant, Charles Laughton, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne and James Cagney, watching up to three or four films from that period each week. Those were memorable days and inevitably when I watch or re-watch those films today it’s with nostalgia – as much for my own adolescence as for Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Recently I watched George Stevens’ 1942 The Talk of the Town, a film I knew a lot about but – to my own astonishment – had never actually seen. It’s a wonderfully skilful comedy, only slightly marred by a verbose, overplayed ending. Three very charismatic actors are in the central roles: Ronald Colman as the stuffy law professor Michael Lightcap, interested more in the theory of law than its practical applications; Cary Grant as political activist and rabble-rouser Leopold Dilg who has been implicated in a case of arson but escapes from jail and hides out in the cottage that the professor is renting for the summer; and Jean Arthur as schoolteacher Nora Shelley, the cottage’s former owner, who finds herself caught between the two men.
The film works best as a witty comedy of errors, especially the first half with Nora trying, unsuccessfully, to keep Leopold hidden in the attic while Lightcap tries, equally unsuccessfully, to work in seclusion. The scene where the two men meet for the first time is a great chuckle-out-loud moment. Lightcap is dictating an article to Nora, whom he’s reluctantly employed as a secretary; his piece is full of heavy-handed pontificating about legal theory and Leopold, who’s been sneaking about in the kitchen, can’t help overhearing. So he steps out, munching an apple, and matter-of-factly informs the learned professor that everything he’s saying is hogwash, that none of it is relevant in any way to the man on the street. “Who is this?” the startled professor asks Nora with as much dignity as he can muster. “The gardener,” she replies, quick as a flash.
Under this new guise, Leopold soon forms an unlikely friendship with the professor, though the former's need to overturn conventional ideas and “correct” people’s perceptions is, of course, the very reason he keeps getting into trouble. “It’s a form of self-expression,” he tells Nora later. “Some people write books, others write music, I make speeches at street corners.”
The Talk of the Town is highlighted by writing that stands up with the best of screwball-comedy (“How do you propose we thaw him, Leopold, with a blow-torch?”) and some fine sight gags (a confused Nora trying to peer into a room using the light of a candle that she herself blew out seconds before; a pack of sniffer dogs, mostly harmless-looking cocker spaniels, creating a ruckus; an eye-popping two-wheel contraption driven by the local postman; Nora dropping a fried egg on a newspaper to cover up a “Wanted” photograph of Leopold before the professor sees it). Then there’s the running joke about Lightfoot’s beard, which becomes a symbol of his inability to loosen up and have some fun. When he finally decides to shave it off, there’s a superb faux-maudlin close-up of his faithful man-servant, deeply distressed by his master’s decision, watching with tears glistening in his eyes - even the soundtrack goes all violin!
I’m a lifetime member of the Cary Grant Adoration Club and also have high regard for Jean Arthur, who was a superb comedienne in films like The More the Merrier – but good as they both are here, they come off second-best to Ronald Colman. Words like “debonair”, “urbane” and “suave” could well have been invented to describe Colman’s screen personality (you’ll find a combination of them in almost any description of his career), but we are reminded here that dry wit and aloof elegance weren’t his trademarks; these qualities, when they showed up in his performances, were balanced by a quiet, genteel kindliness. Watch the scene where he pretends to flirt with a girl who might provide a key to the Dilg case: though you can see flashes of the dashing heartthrob of 1920s films (perhaps an older, warmer version of Clark Gable), you also see a charmingly vulnerable social misfit who’s out of his depth in this situation. (“Your physical coordinations are remarkable,” he tells her after they dance together.) This is an excellent performance in what starts off as a character role but ends up dominating the movie. Though Colman was 51 when The Talk of the Town was made, he also more than holds his own in the love triangle that subtly emerges as the film goes on (and it’s a genuine triangle – at times the bond between the two men seems deeper than either of their relationships with Nora).
The film isn’t as effective when it gets serious about the conflict between the two approaches to law (the academic approach, tied up with rigid rulebooks, and the practical, humane approach involving the effect of the law on the common man) – one problem being that most of the arguments are too context-specific, another that they seem out of place in this genre. But thankfully it never gets too serious, and it’s possible to simply enjoy the banter between Lightfoot and Leopold; to appreciate, in a more general sense, the proletariat-plebeian friction between them and the way each of them grudgingly learns from the other - even if the lesson is simply that borscht "tastes best with an egg in it”.
(The Talk of the Town is available on DVD as part of the Cary Grant Box Set, which also contains the popular classics The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday and Only Angels Have Wings, in addition to the superb, under-watched Grant/Katharine Hepburn-starrer Holiday.)

[Movie stills from this fine site about Ronald Colman]


  1. this is unbelievable! I watched Talk of the Town just before I left for Delhi and I was going to blog about it!

    But you know what, I really liked Cary Grant better in the film...he looks so good, it's easy to forget how well he does comedy. There's this wonderful bit - I forget exactly where - where he turns around and looks at Arthur and raises his eyebrows, and it totally sets you off.

    Another thing I really liked about this film is how it's not coy about a woman just not wanting to choose between two men and being outspoken about telling them not to be noble and make her choices for her.

  2. What an incestuous lot we all are! As if it weren't bad enough that we comment on each other's blogs regularly and that we've established a blogospheric oligopoly, we now connive to watch the same 65-year-old films on the same day, so we can even write about the same things. Shame!

    My liking Colman better here might have had something to do with my huge expectations of Grant - I already know how good he is and expect him to be superb in everything; whereas I hadn't seen a Ronnie Colman movie in at least 14-15 years and had a vague notion that he was just this Über-suave Beau Geste/Bulldog Drummond type and nothing more.

  3. This reminds me of the brief period in high school when I became a huge Clark Gable fan. I didn't shave my upper lip for a few weeks and would randomly mumble in a baritone to any girl in school who would listen : "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!"

  4. I hope they didn't throw cream pies in your face, like the heroines of Chaplin films?

  5. I saw The Talk Of The Town, The Awful Truth and Only Angels Have Wings a week ago, bought them all from Planet M. Liked the first one the best. Colman was great. Perfectly channeling academic attitude. Cary Grant was good but I liked him best in The Philadelphia Story. Btw, if not from Amazon, where do you get more movies from that age?

  6. No, they were too put off by the moustache and ended up binging on the pies themselves for stess relief. These modern women have no sense of style, I tell you!

  7. ArSENik: yes, class died a gruesome death when the 1950s came along. Oh, how I miss the old days *strokes white beard*

    Anon: a few films from that time are available in Planet M's/Music Worlds - not a large choice as of now, but it's growing and hopefully more such box-sets will soon be available. Most of the really old films I have on DVD were purchased during trips to England - the HMV stores in London are a paradise for lovers of Hollywood Gold. Very frustrating too, if you can only buy a few discs.

  8. Sorry, Jai. This comment is totally irrel;evant to the post but couldn't resist sharing a Rediff user comment. I know you worship their English. This is just one of 'em. This is a response to a review of Laaga Chunari by Raja Sen. It received a 1-star rating. The comment follows:

    "I never like raja sen view. When a good picture release that time his view is one star and when a bad picture release that his star is 3. i think he have some problem. Otherwise he never rating one star both the movie release on Friday.

    I don't tell that both movie is very good but the rating must be 2 & half."

    Is my English very bad?

  9. HMV stores in London.....will remember....thanks. I saw most of these movies on TNT, later TCM, later off the air. And Star Movies aired some good stuff in its early days here. I remember seeing 'I Was A Male War Bride' with Cary Grant. Those were the days.

  10. this is an incestuous much so that even completely innocuous comments are deleted by the blogger...i guess if you're not part of the blogger clique, you're not welcome here.

    fingers crossed that this comment isn't deleted.

  11. Anon: which "innocuous" comment, the 4,000-word copy-paste that screwed up my blog template? If deleting that sort of thing makes me part of a "blogger clique", no problem, it's all good.

  12. hurmph..... whatever the reasons may be, im still very hurt. ( long sigh and everything)

  13. I'm one of those "first time readers" who stumbled onto this blog via a convoluted route(the ways of Internet are mysterious)and must say - I am pleased!:-)

    Anyone who loves Cary Grant is "good people" in my books, so I expect to be a repeat reader. I liked CG better than Coleman in "The Talk...", but I like CG better than anyone in all his films, so it's possible that I may not be *entirely* objective.:-)

    PS. Agree with "Holiday" being an underrated gem. Have you written about it as well?

  14. Shalini: welcome! I don't think I've written about Holiday on the blog, but did a short piece about it once for a DVD column.

  15. Oh hooo, this sounds classy and lovable. Will def watch! Thanks for the review (and the promotion of it! :D)