Our review of The Cary Grant Box Set, published February 13th, 2006, is also available.
What is the law? It's a gun pointed at somebody's head. All depends upon which end of the gun you stand, whether the law is just or not.—Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant)
Director George Stevens brings together a stellar cast and a sharply written script in this deftly executed screwball comedy.
Facts of the Case
Cary Grant (North By Northwest, The Philadelphia Story) is on the run, an innocent man accused of arson and murder. He is a semi-radicalized factory worker, saddled with the unfortunate and unlikely name of Leopold Dilg. He escapes from jail after being arrested for burning down the local woolen mill and inadvertently killing the foreman. He runs to a house outside town, where schoolteacher Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is putting the finishing touches for the summer renter she expects to arrive the next day.
The renter is Professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman, Random Harvest, A Double Life), dean of a prestigious law school and candidate for a seat on the Supreme Court. Lightcap is staying in the country for the summer to dictate a new book on his legal theories. He shows up early, just as Nora is trying to conceal or dispose of Leopold.
Soon the three (with Leopold posing as "Joseph," the gardener) are teamed up as unlikely housemates. Lightcap, unaware of Leopold's true identity, resists efforts by the locals to involve him in the case; he can't afford to jeopardize his Supreme Court appointment by meddling in a local high-profile criminal case. However, he eventually learns that Joseph, the man he has come to know and respect, is actually Leopold Dilg.
Sharp one-liners and great comedic situations ensue. Will Lightcap bring his considerable legal talent to bear on behalf of Dilg? Will Dilg be acquitted or hanged? Will Lightcap get his Supreme Court appointment, or will he be scandalized by the whole mess? Will Nora fall for the dashing rogue Dilg or the handsome, staid Lightcap? Whatever happens, it is sure to be The Talk of the Town.
The Talk of the Town is in many ways a typical Cary Grant vehicle. Grant built a career on his trademark shallow yet sophisticated persona, trading on his amazing good looks and impeccable comedic timing and wit. In this movie he is his usual debonair self, handling his outlandish situation with style while only getting the slightest bit miffed at his fate.
Of course, the other two sides of the romantic triangle are no slouches, either. Jean Arthur will always be best remembered as Jimmy Stewart's sidekick, lifeline, and love interest in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In this picture she serves some of the same functions—the resourceful woman who helps steer the somewhat hapless male characters, keeps them out of trouble, and sets the entire plot of the film in motion.
Ronald Colman, as the distinguished, slightly stuffy professor, is a perfect sparring partner for Grant's wit. Colman has a sophistication and an intellectual quality that captures the character perfectly, and provides a delightful contrast to Grant's glibness. Their two characters joust on a number of levels, whether over the merits of borsht, their opposing views on the nature of law, and subliminally over their growing affections for Arthur's character.
The three of them come together in what is definitely a screwball romantic comedy, but one that takes the audience by surprise. The opening scenes of Dilg arrested, imprisoned, and escaping are highly dramatic; one expects to see in short order a proto-Tommy Lee Jones instructing his men to inspect every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse within a given radius. This opening seems not to fit at all with the rest of the film, but the transition from jailbreak adventure to thoughtful comedy is handled with amazing finesse, in just one example of the great direction and editing to be found in this movie.
The Talk of the Town was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1943: Best Picture, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Writing (Original Story), Best Editing, Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Score, and Best Art Direction/Set Design (Black and White). It ultimately did not win any of these, losing to Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver in several categories. Still, the number and breadth of the nominations are a tribute to a very well-crafted and highly enjoyable film.
One of the categories in which The Talk of the Town was nominated and lost to Mrs. Miniver was Best Cinematography (Black and White). The crispness of the blacks, the excellent contrasts and subtle shadow details, and the skillful deep focus photography all come through nicely in this DVD transfer. Picture quality is good for the most part, with only a few notable disappointments. There is ample edge enhancement to be spotted at various points in the movie, and heavy aliasing abounds. There are also some jarringly artifacted scenes, notably at the factory ruins in Chapter 14. In fairness, these are few and far between, but they should not be there at all. The picture also suffers from some defects that it inherits from the source print; the picture is quite grainy at times, and shows a few nicks and blips here and there. Fine details and textures are disappointingly soft.
Audio is presented in the original mono format. It is nothing special, and Columbia seems not to have put any more extra work in here than they did with the visual transfer. There is fairly noticeable soundtrack hiss running under the audio at all times. The sound overall can get a bit boxy sounding at times. Dialogue comes through clearly and is easily understood, and the Oscar-nominated musical score comes through acceptably well.
The audiovisual presentation overall is just a bit disappointing given the stature of this film, but it is in line with the treatment that most movies of this era get, no matter what studio is producing the disc. Still, most ordinary movie fans (i.e., ones who don't look for flaws as part of their job) will probably find this DVD completely acceptable for their enjoyment.
For such a well-loved, highly regarded film, Columbia's neglect of any extra content is somewhat surprising. One extra tidbit that would have been marvelous would have been the alternate ending to the movie. The studio originally shot two different endings—one where Cary Grant gets the girl, and one where Ronald Colman wins Jean Arthur's affections. After test screening both endings, it was clear that audiences preferred one of the two, and that is how the film ends to this day. The rejected ending is precisely the sort of thing that belongs on a DVD, and Columbia should have gone to the trouble to dig it out and put it on the disc. As it is, we are left with just a collection of three theatrical trailers, none of which is for The Talk of the Town.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a deeper side to The Talk of the Town, but it can be too easily overemphasized. There are some quite weighty debates between Grant and Colman about the nature of law and fairness in society. Colman's professor argues in favor of a purely logical, just-the-facts-ma'am approach, while Grant as Dilg argues for a more subjective, feeling, perhaps more merciful approach. These discussions add texture and depth to both characters, but it is best not to exaggerate the amount of depth they add to the movie. This is at its heart a slick, skillful romantic comedy, with just a touch of philosophy to add a hint of sophisticated flavor.
The Talk of the Town is a wonderfully crafted movie, a great showcase for the talents of its stars, and just all around good fun. It's got just a bit more texture and depth than most screwball romantic comedies, and remains thoroughly enjoyable.
The film and its stars are free to go. Columbia/Tri-Star gets by with a hung jury; they should question their treatment of this film carefully, however. Just because everyone else is doing comparably indifferent work with their older films doesn't make it right.
We stand adjourned.
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