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The Talk of the Town

Try as he might, Cary Grant could not avoid typecasting. The Bristol-born Englishman arrived in New York City in 1920 as part of a British comedy troupe, and a few years later he embarked on a film career in California — which at first led to modest roles in Paramount features. However, as legend has it, the handsome Grant was "discovered" by Mae West, who saw him on a movie set one day and told her director "If he can talk, hire him." Grant was immediately cast opposite West in 1933's She Done Him Wrong, and it was to him that she uttered the immortal movie line "Why dontcha come up sometime and see me." Born Archibald Leach, the actor Cary Grant spent a lifetime pondering the distance he felt from his own screen persona — and in particular the many roles that cast him as the attractive leading man. Without question, he was a talented dramatic actor who also had a gift for light comedy, but one only has to look at the resume to understand Cary Grant the Hollywood commodity: In films such as His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Arsenic and Old Lace, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, North By Northwest, and Charade, Grant is the smoldering single man, somewhat elusive to women, and usually a bit of a scoundrel. But Grant occasionally looked for films that would cast him against type, such as None But the Lonely Heart and Father Goose. He always had a special affection for these projects, and his finest bit of improbable casting came in George Stevens' 1942 The Talk of the Town, one of the great romantic comedies of the golden era.

Grant stars as Leopold Dilg, a mill laborer in a small New England town who discovers one day that he's a hunted man. A notorious rabble-rouser, Dilg had been protesting working conditions at the local woolen mill for years. But after it's destroyed by an arsonist and a man dies in the fire, the innocent Dilg is fingered by the authorities as the prime suspect. With an injured leg that won't let him flee very far, Dilg takes refuge in a rustic rental house owned by old friend Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur). However, the day Dilg arrives is also the day Nora is expecting Prof. Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), an esteemed law professor who is looking for a quiet respite to finish writing a book. Dilg attempts to hide out in the attic, but soon after he's introduced to Lightcap as "Joseph" the gardener, and before long the two men form a friendship around a series of theoretical debates concerning the nature of law — Lightcap believes that the legal system only has use when it's applied in a cold, dispassionate matter, while Dilg insists that the law exists only to support the powerful, and that there are times when it's appropriate to take matters into one's own hands. It's after Dilg is exposed and finds himself once again on the run that both men are forced to examine the validity of their ideals.

*          *          *

A cinematic admixture of genres, The Talk of the Town could be faulted for trying to be too many things at once — a whodunit, a comedy of mistaken identity, a romantic tale with a love triangle, and a social commentary on the relationship between laws and justice, the story utilizes a handful of separate plotlines and several tone-shifts. But somehow it does work, and wonderfully. Certainly, Frank Capra's films from this era were also skillful blends of comedy and drama, and one could say that The Talk of the Town is the best Capra film the director never made (particularly with its three leads, who all appeared in Capra pictures over the years). But the man at the helm was George Stevens, one of the most renowned perfectionists of the studio era, a cinematographer who eventually became his own producer and refused to make movies on a hurried schedule. Here, he directs with quiet expertise, capturing a complex story about three people that primarily takes place in one house and an exterior garden. Despite the confined setting, Stevens' camera remains fluid and always arrives at dynamic compositions. Along with the script, the casting is another fundamental reason for the film's success (despite the fact that the two lead actors who debate the merits of American law have unmistakable British accents). Ronald Colman started out in silent films, but his mellifluous voice made him a major star after the arrival of sound, and his refined charm helps us accept the idea that Cary Grant is a common laborer. Grant apparently enjoyed playing the upstart opposite a polished gentleman (as evidenced in The Bishop's Wife, when he chose to trade roles with David Niven), and one soon gets the feeling that "Archibald Leach" should actually appear on the title-card. Between the two is Jean Arthur, who enlivened so many Capra movies (particularly opposite Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper), and her ongoing frustration with her two houseguests gives the film its levity. Thankfully, The Talk of the Town does not shy away from the social climate of its day — it was released in 1942, but it's clearly a product of Depression-era filmmaking and its concern for class distinctions. With Grant as the fervent liberal with his heart on his sleeve, and Colman as the solemn conservative who has lost touch with his youth, it's a story that has just as much relevance to some of today's political debates — especially when both men discover that neither position is entirely defensible.

Columbia TriStar's DVD release of The Talk of the Town features a clean transfer in the original full-frame ratio (1.33:1) with monaural audio in Dolby Digital 2.0. Extras? Not on this one, unfortunately. But it's more than capable of standing on its own merits and is well worth a place in any film buff's personal collection. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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