The Talk of the Town (1942)

Dir. George Stevens. Starring Ronald Colman, Jean Arthur, Cary Grant

For one reason or another, there are only so many movies that one can imagine being remade without serious alterations today: the business angle, the dearth of irony, the surfeit of suggestion. But it’s not hard to imagine The Talk of the Town coming out…well, you know what I mean…with relatively few adjustments. Excepting the subplot about the Supreme Court, which could be easily altered anyway, it’s not hard to imagine this movie in the present day where Alexander Payne directs Michael Shannon, Florence Pugh, and Adam Driver as they hobble around Lochester. I would not even be averse to such a remake, but I don’t think I mean that as a compliment. A movie should not be too easy to pull away from its historical moment, after all. Take a “timeless classic” like The Wizard of Oz and you’ve still got a movie which bears all the marks of having been made in the late ’30s for a late ’30s audience. This one, on the other hand, would not even change dramatically if you added cell phones to it, and that really is a statement of “timelessness” which does not become the picture.

It’s easy to like The Talk of the Town, but hard to be moved by it; it’s easy to laugh with the movie but hard to feel like you’re having a lot of fun. What this movie makes me think of most is Oscarbait, with all the implications therein of a picture which is less than the sum of its parts. At the heart of this movie there’s an unattractive simplicity about compromise that it’s much too easy to imagine people nodding sagely at. It plays around as a comedy at first, drops that charade very speedily, and then trucks ahead as light drama that never demands much of us. Most of all, it’s been focus-grouped. The movie never gives Leopold (Grant) nor Michael (Colman) a winner’s edit as concerns Nora (Arthur), and so the last five minutes, in which Associate Justice Michael Lightcap and Nora share a kiss and a long-distance wink before she ultimately gets dragged off after a couple kisses with Leopold, are as unrewarding as they sound; one is sort of waiting for them to Oliver Wendell bone in his chambers, and that of course never comes to pass. All the same this is a good movie, if not a particularly interesting one, and the parts on their own are certainly worth watching for. Arthur is sentimental and daffy without the chrysalis to break out of first, as she has in The Whole Town’s Talking or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Grant is underused, although his forcefulness in the direction of honesty as opposed to aggravation is not unwelcome; he relies on self-deprecation more heavily in this movie, or at least an understanding that Leopold’s proletarian lefty is no match in class for Michael’s steely, Harvard-crafted remove. As for Stevens, his direction is as spot-on as one would expect from him,

It’s Colman, though, as the cold-blooded law professor who on his fortieth birthday is told to expect a nomination to the Supreme Court, who stands out, and the movie is at its best when it’s forcing him to change. The first change we know he’ll have to make is that he’ll need a new umbrella, as the first thing that Nora does with him is to send that thing inside out. (I had that umbrella for eleven years, Michael says dryly, and darn it, they just don’t make things the way they used to.) No one else changes in this movie besides Michael, who comes to Nora’s rental property with an eye on solitude and total distance from the hoi polloi, and who leaves it believing in a version of the law which demands physical action instead of loftily written opinion. Much is made of Colman’s beard by the other characters. He’s worn it since he was in his early twenties in order to get his students to take him more seriously (a problem that I, seemingly unable to sprout one of those suckers, empathize with totally), but since then it’s become protuberantly symbolic, a marker of his total seriousness. He shaves it eventually, giving way to the Colman mustache we all know so well, but bearded Michael is a stiff. One of the movie’s most effortlessly funny scenes comes at a baseball game that Leopold has convinced Michael he ought to go to. Sitting in a box, holding a program and a bottle of pop with two straws sticking out, wearing a flat cap the size of a pizza pan, he looks like a tremendous doofus. That’s because bearded Michael is a tremendous doofus. Surrounded by normal people doing normal things (watching the game, yelling at the players, yelling at the umpire, yelling at each other, etc.), he’s got a look on his face like he’s witnessing the eldritch rites of a cult. Leopold challenged the ivory tower, and one look at this nerd watching a ball game is all we need to know that Leopold’s accusation was spot-on. Only the appearance of the judge in Leopold’s case, Grunstadt (George Watts), shakes him out of this wide-eyed fear, but even then it’s short-lived, as he’s too upset by how obviously corrupt the judge is that he has to leave. It’s too bad; it’s all too easy to imagine a scene where Jean Arthur tries to teach Ronald Colman the words to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

When the beard comes off, all of a sudden Michael becomes a brilliant detective. He takes out Regina (Glenda Farrell), who owns a salon in town and seems a little too chummy with the owner of the factory Leopold’s been accused of burning down, in order to shake whatever information he can out of her. (This is preceded by a scene in which he asks his longtime valet, Tilney, about just how one goes about shaking a woman down; it draws some smirks from actors and viewers alike.) He cannot dance—the beard freed his face and not his hips, after all—but his lacquered language charms Regina just enough to get her to suggest that the supposedly dead foreman, Clyde (Tom Tyler), is in fact hiding out in Boston. Long story short, he manages to drag Clyde in front of the townspeople of Lochester before he bombs them with a speech about how precious the rule of law is; the reference to people living abroad who wish to have the kind of laws the United States have but are prevented from having them would feel more specific if I hadn’t grown up with George Bush as the president. This is a nice change, and it definitely puts a fire under the story’s butt, but it’s not really what appeals to me about the change in Michael. It’s really more the fact that he changes at all.

The Talk of the Town is about compromise, and seeing both sides of an issue. Leopold, posing with limited success as the gardener, “Joseph,” suggests over breakfast and chess and so on that the law is too inflexible. He is a factory worker, and one on the lam at that; he does not have much formal education to speak of. Michael, a wonk, retorts that part of the beauty of the law is in its rigidity and its form, that at its best it is not corrupted with human emotion or need. Leopold comes around to some of what Michael’s got to say on the subject, but it’s never all that convincing. By the end of the movie, when he’s a free man again with two working ankles and a hankering for Nora that he can finally indulge in, he’s had some moments where he suggests he should turn himself in to the cops and wait for the law to do its bit. Maybe this is on Grant for being unable to sell it, or more likely it’s on the writers for asking us to believe that a guy who escaped from prison should change his mind and turn himself in because of the pretty language about the law that he was arguing against in the first place. It’s Michael who changes more, and has the freedom to act on that change, and in so doing he puts himself at risk. The news about the Supreme Court nomination comes with a warning not to get himself in the headlines or anything (oops), but that’s not the thing that he’s risking when he starts to take the law into his own hands and investigate the burned down factory. With every step mustache Michael takes, he eradicates the solemn triumphs of the man he was for the preceding twenty-five years. The Talk of the Town is a comedy, and it cannot spend much time dithering around in the past wondering about might-have-beens, but the movie is at its most engaging when it hints at such dithering in Michael’s head. Michael is universally respected, polite without being kind, intelligent without being thoughtful. He is forty and a bachelor, which is perfectly fine except for the fact that he discovers that he can still fall in love. In other words, The Talk of the Town might have been more interesting if it were about the regret inherent in Michael’s choices rather than the more cosmetically positive choice to compromise and reevaluate one’s positions: it would have been less funny and good-humored, but it would have lingered longer instead.

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