“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.” –Cary Grant as Leopold Dilg in The Talk of the Town (1942)
The concept of the love triangle is not foreign to classic films. There are a wide range of films in which a character experiences conflicts regarding which relationship to he or she wishes to pursue, as each possibility comes with its pros and cons. Which one is logical? Which one is best? Which one will last? While triangular plot lines are fairly common, the love triangle in The Talk of the Town (1942) is intriguing in a number of ways. It is worthy of recognition because of its inclusion of a criminal as a potential male suitor to a female teacher, pitting him against someone quite the opposite–a male law professor. Furthermore, the ending has sparked much discussion and several rumors, as both romantic possibilities could have plausibly worked out for the heroine.
George Stevens’s The Talk of the Town stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Ronald Colman, supported by Edgar Buchanan and Glenda Farrell. Released by Columbia Pictures, this was the second film to pair Grant with Arthur after Only Angels Have Wings (1939).
The film begins with mill worker and political activist Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) being accused of burning down a mill and being blamed for causing a foreman’s death. While the foreman’s body is not recovered, he is assumed dead, with Dilg as a culprit. Dilg escapes from jail in the midst of his trial and seeks shelter in a home owned by one of his past classmates, Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur). Shelley is now a teacher and Dilg’s interest in her has only grown over the years. At the same time, Shelley has rented the home for the summer to notable law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), who intends to write a book. The two foils arrive at Shelley’s home within minutes of each other, prompting Shelley to act quickly and ensure that the two do not cross paths in a way that reveals Dilg’s true identity.
As a result Shelley introduced Dilg to Lightcap as her gardener and the two begin to have lively discussions about the law. While Lightcap speaks from an academic perspective, Dilg speaks from a practical standpoint and from his unique situation that points out flaws in the law. While their friendship blossoms as their discussions continue, the two suddenly find themselves vying for the attention and affection of Shelley.
Over time, Lightcap become suspicious about the Dilg case, only to discover an abundance of secrets surrounding the murder, in addition to the true identity of Shelley’s gardener. Moreover, Shelley also learns more about herself, her potential suitors, and must choose which romantic relationship to pursue further.
While Dilg is assumed to be an outlaw by the townspeople, he is innocent and victimized by the law. His philosophy on the law sparks much conversation with Lightcap, whose philosophy is quite different. Despite their varying viewpoints, the two enjoy intelligent discussion and debate, leading them to grow and reimagine their philosophies in a way that allows for a more holistic understanding of law.
While the film is typically referred to as a comedy, it is more so a social drama that happens to include some humorous scenes. Incidentally, it is one of the earliest examples of this type of film, as the majority of comedies at the time of the film’s release did not ordinarily have such serious plots.
The full cast of this film is as follows:
- Cary Grant as Leopold Dilg/Joseph
- Jean Arthur as Miss Nora Shelley
- Ronald Colman as Professor Michael Lightcap
- Edgar Buchanan as Sam Yates
- Glenda Farrell as Regina Bush
- Charles Dingle as Andrew Holmes
- Emma Dunn as Mrs. Shelley
- Rex Ingram as Tilney
- Leonid Kinskey as Jan Pulaski
- Tom Tyler as Clyde Bracken
- Don Beddoe as Police Chief
Thought Claire Trevor was supposed to play a second female lead in the film and is listed in production charts, she did not appear in the completed film.
Initially, The Talk of the Town began production as Mr. Twilight, though Grant requested that it be changed. He felt that the title suggested an emphasis on a single male character and thought that Colman would steal the show. The studio entertained other titles, such as Three’s A Crowd, The Gentlemen Misbehave, Justice Winks an Eye, In Love With You, You’re Wonderful, A Local Affair, The Woman’s Touch, Morning for Angels, Scandal in Lochester, and Nothing Ever Happens. At the time, The Talk of the Town was a film title registered to Universal Studios. As part of a trade, Columbia Pictures gave them the rights to use the title Sin Town in exchange for the film’s current title.
While the film did not have a single male lead, it brought on the challenges of highlighting two leading men instead. Both Grant and Colman had played leading roles in the past but never had to share a lead. This obstacle is mirrored in the plot, as audiences are continually kept guessing as to which character Shelley would choose to marry.
While some news sources claim that Stevens filmed two versions of the ending, leaving it to test screening audiences to determine the ending, the George Stevens papers housed in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library all have the same couple ending up together. This suggests that only one pairing was filmed. Interestingly, several drafts of the script do include an additional scene at the end. In this particular scene, Dilg finds that the park benches in the town square have been removed, leading him to become upset and rally a crowd into action. By the time the revised final script was completed on January 27, 1942, eight days after filming began, the scene was dropped.
For Colman, this would be the first time since the silent era that he would be billed below another male lead. Interestingly, though Colman was known for his facial hair and wanted to keep his trademark mustache for most of his films, he was forced to shave his facial hair for many of his most famous roles. In the film, his character begrudgingly shaves his facial hair, as well.
Additionally, the role of Colman’s valet, Tilney, played by Rex Ingram is worthy of mention. His character is a rare example of a non-stereotypical role for an African-American actor.
The production of the film did experience delays along the way. Principal photography was delayed when the news of Carole Lombard‘s death in a plane crash became known. Stevens, who had directed Lombard in Vigil in the Night, paused work on the set and sent the cast and crew home.
In terms of sound effects, sound chief John P. Livadary was not pleased with the sound recorded for the rain scene. In the end, he substituted it with the track he used in the rain scene for Only Angels Have Wings from two years prior.
Upon its release, the film was praised by the likes of Variety and several other outlets. It was also nominated for multiple awards, including:
- Outstanding Motion Picture: Columbia
- Best Writing (Original Motion Picture Story): Sidney Harmon
- Best Writing (Screenplay): Irwin Shaw, Sidney Buchman
- Best Art Direction (Black-and-White):
- Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Rudolph Sternad;
- Interior Decoration: Fay Babcock
- Best Cinematography (Black-and-White): Ted Tetzlaff
- Best Film Editing: Otto Meyer
- Best Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture): Frederick Hollander, Morris Stoloff
The film also enjoyed a Lux Radio Theatre presentation in 1943, with Grant, Colman, and Arthur reprising their roles from the film in an hour-long adaptation. In 1946, The Screen Guild Theater ran broadcast a 30-minute radio adaptation of the film with Colman reprising his role.
Overall, The Talk of the Town is a well-written film that will indeed keep audiences guessing until the last moment. Its characters are charming and each leading role shines in the ever-twisting plot. Moreover, the film portrays an intriguing discussion about philosophies on law and outlaws in its carefully balanced depiction of seriousness and humor, offering a thoroughly enjoyable experience for its viewers.