People Will Talk (1951)

People Will Talk (1951)

“You’re quite a noble character, aren’t you?”

A well-intentioned doctor (Cary Grant) accompanied by a stoic yet loyal assistant (Finlay Currie) marries a suicidal pregnant woman (Jeanne Crain) out of both concern and love, while being pestered by a jealous colleague (Hume Cronyn) desperate to reveal questionable elements of Grant and Currie’s mysterious pasts.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cary Grant Films
  • Do-Gooders
  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Hume Cronyn Films
  • Jeanne Crain Films
  • Joseph L. Mankiewicz Films
  • Pregnancy
  • Romantic Comedy

This most unusual “romantic comedy” — written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, and based on a play by German playwright Curt Goetz — is usually referred to as a thinly veiled commentary on anti-Communist hysteria and witch hunts in 1950s America. While it doesn’t really succeed as such, it does remain a bold, often cleverly scripted antidote to most of the overly sanitized films being produced in Hollywood at the time. Cary Grant’s Dr. Praetorius represents an idealistic vision of what humanity could be like if only our actions were led by compassion and logic rather than suspicion and priggish morality.

His “rescue” of an unwed, pregnant, suicidal woman is initially posited as a deceptive maneuver to save her life, but we soon realize he’s simply allowing powerful emotions to drive his sense of justice and righteous living (perhaps much like Jesus?). Dr. Praetorius is so superior to slimy leches like jealous Professor Elwell (Cronyn) that it’s clear he’ll win the day; the entire film basically plays out how this triumph occurs.

Unfortunately, Grant wasn’t the best choice for this most unusual of romantic male leads; it’s much easier to imagine a more nuanced actor — like Spencer Tracy — investing the character with inspired depth. Crain is fine as Grant’s loyal wife, but never really transcends what’s required of her in the role. The supporting roles are more successful: Cronyn is spot-on as weaselly Elwell:

… Currie gives a memorable performance as the mysterious lumbering “Shunderson”:

… and Margaret Hamilton is nicely typecast as a suspicious shrew brought in during the first scene to bolster Cronyn’s growing case against Grant and Currie.

Ultimately, this odd title remains a mixed bag: intriguing and different enough to be worth checking out, but not entirely successful.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An often wittily acerbic script
  • Milton Krasner’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look if you’re curious.


One thought on “People Will Talk (1951)

  1. Not must-see, but it certainly has interesting aspects to it, so it’s not like it’s a waste of time – it may just have more limited appeal among film fanatics.

    I think I’ve only seen this film once before – I seem to have a memory of seeing it on television while I was living in Tokyo. But I’ve only revisited it now.

    It’s verrry talky – more talky than of interest dramatically (even if some of the talk is noteworthy). As a progressive narrative, it’s a bit inert. Of course, many films by Mankiewicz are talky; as a person, he had a real affection for the stage – which he had just made us quite aware of, having given us ‘All About Eve’ the year before. But, for example…’AAE’ has a lot more (and certainly more colorful) characters to divide the talk among, and it also has a real dramatic thrust in its intent to get to the root of an ‘evil’ character (Eve). In ‘People Will Talk’, Grant’s character is also said to have a deceptive character. But, early on in the film, it’s quite apparent that his motives are pure…so the hunt for his ‘un-doing’ has little punch. (Grant’s Praetorius – in his humanitarian approach to patients – actually puts me in mind of Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose memoirs I recently read.)

    One particularly shaky sequence comes early on – in which Praetorius reveals his side-love of conducting an orchestra. In this scene, Grant says quite a few things which aren’t all that amusing (though they’re intellectual), yet the musicians in the orchestra re-act to just about everything he says as though he’s the funniest of stand-up comics. The sequence comes across as forced – and not altogether realistic of orchestra members in general.

    Although I disagree that Grant is miscast (I think he does rather well), I’m in agreement that the peripheral characters come off fine in their roles. (Both Hamilton and Sidney Blackmer – as Crain’s father – have such distinct voices that audiences will have difficulty forgetting their similar tones as the Wicked Witch of the West and Roman Castevet in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.) But I can’t say that I’m all that pleased with Crain here. She seems to come off well in her first long scene privately with Grant, but then she seems to be allowed to over-play almost every other scene she’s in (subtlety gets the heave-ho, it seems). [Note: Also, it’s very confusing figuring out whether her character was married or not. At first, she says “There is no father.” and, right after, she admits to being very briefly married to the serviceman who abandoned her. So, her ‘shame’ appears to be that she wasn’t able to keep her husband for very long…and not that she was unwed. I went back a few times in the film to check what was actually the case, because I found the dialogue misleading.]

    Mankiewicz had just come off a real career high with ‘All About Eve’, which had any number of awards showered on it. It’s understandable that actors would have been very interested in working with a writer/director who was riding that kind of fame so recently. But lightning was not going to strike again so soon. ‘PWT’ does remain, as noted, “a mixed bag” and an interesting ‘misfire’.

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