The Talk of the Town (1942)

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The Lawgh

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

As a political junkie its fun to watch films like The Talk of the Town and dissect their deeper political and philosophical meaning which in this case is intertwined within a screwball farce that effortlessly transitions between wacky comedy and serious drama. The movie centres on a fantastic triangle of characters played by Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman with the real meat of the film being the relationship between Leopold Dilg (Grant) and Professor Michael Lightcap (Coleman) while Miss Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) tries to keep this unlikely family of three in one piece.

Leopold Dilg is one of the more interesting characters Cary Grant ever played, a radical activist and one role in which we see him dressed just like a commoner. However he is one handsome activist at that rather than some hair dyed SJW (that man can make any clothes look dapper). If it weren’t for the production code then the character of Dilg would certainly be labelled as a communist. The movie is full of clues pointing to this (educated young working class intellectual, opposes capitalist corruption, belief that violence is sometimes necessary, his father’s resentment for work, even his fondness for borscht). The production code would not have allowed a possible communist to be sympathetic character or a hero thus the word “communist” or related term is never mentioned. On the other hand Dilg is shown to have much respect for the Supreme Court so is he really a communist of just a leftie? With Dilg we even get an insight into why one might be an activist; as he puts it, activism is a form of self expression – “Some people write books, some music. I make speeches on street corners.” Dilg would have felt right at home in the age of the internet (“When I hear a man talk nonsense I always get an impulse”).

Ronald Coleman, one of Hollywood’s most charming English gents is Professor Lightcap. Dilg and Lightcap are two intellectuals but from different worlds in this clash of the classes yet they find common ground in their interest in the political and philosophical; their conversations and so much fun to listen and make the film worth watching again as they’re alot to take in. Dilg views Lightcap as “an intelligent man, but cold” with “no blood in his thinking” and thus doesn’t desire to see him take a seat in the Supreme Court with his current mentality. By the end of the film both Dilg and Lightcap change their philosophies on law. Dilg comes around the see the need for law and order while Lightcap begins to see that the law is not sterile. During the film’s final monologue Lightcap speaks to an anger mob at a courthouse on the importance of law:

“This is your law and your finest possession. It makes you free. Why have you come to destroy it? Think of a world crying for this law. Then they’ll understand why they ought to guard it and why the law should be the concern of every citizen, to uphold it for your neighbour as well as yourself. Violence against it is one mistake; another mistake is to look upon the law as just asset of principles. Just so much language printed on heavy paper. Something he recites and then takes it for granted that justice is being done. Both kinds of men are equally wrong. The law must be practiced every minute, to the letter and the spirit. It can’t exist unless we fight a battle every day to preserve it.”

I’m not sure what message to take from The Talk of the Town. On the one hand it showcases the importance of upholding a lawful and just society (which would have resonated with the war against fascism in Europe) and the dangers of mob mentality. On the other hand earlier in the film Lightcap spoke of how “If feelings had any influence on the law, half the country would be in jail” and “you conduct your law on random sentimentality and you will have violence and disorder” only to later soften these views as evident by his final monologue. These statements sound just like a description of the PC politics of the 21st century; facts don’t care about your feelings. Just how far will the professor go with this change of heart? Still at the end of the day it is thought provoking stuff.

The character of Tilney (Rex Ingram) is one of the better, more dignified portrayals of an African American as Professor Lightcap’s servant of whom he considers Tilney’s judgement to be superior to his own. In one of the more unusual but emotionally powerful scenes in the movie, Tilney sheds a tear in an extreme and long close up at the sight of his master shaving his beard; a black actor having a long close up with real emotion behind it. The scene plays the emotions up to 11 as Tilney realises his friend and employer is undergoing a profound change as he shaves his beard as a metaphor for casting off old ways.

The beginning of The Talk of the Town is incredibly different from the rest of the film, setting it up as a horror/thriller with its moody, melodramatic music and making Dilg out to be a sinister, threatening character. If you went into the film completely blind you would be shocked as it gradually morphs into a comedy as the lighting and shadows becomes less dim, the music becomes more cheery and starts to take on a pleasant New England, small town feel. Likewise listen out for a piece of music heard throughout the film including at the end which sounds just like Yoda’s them from The Empire Strikes Back.

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2 thoughts on “The Talk of the Town (1942)”

  1. Again thanks for writing! I think this film is under rated~ its a bit mixed in terms of genre- BUT I ADORE THE ENDING! Its so.. Wait I wont spoil it-but I’ll say I wish I were Miss Arthur!! Cary and Jean man I wish they made a third film- they were so good together! Maybe if Jean stayed in the business longer- they would have- but Im so thankful we have two films to love them in together!

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  2. I’ve seen this movie twice and I think the reason I have trouble loving it is the mixed genre, though I have seen other mixed genre films that I love. Also, I’m not a political junkie like you 😉

    The chemistry between the three leads is very interesting however and I always love Cary Grant. I agree with The Flapper Dame that we really need a third film with this duo!

    Thanks for participating in the blogathon!

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