I’ve said it before — Cary Grant is special.
It doesn’t matter whether he’s playing a thief, a bureaucrat, or a doctor. He’s still special, one of the few actors of the past century who truly had that indefinable je ne sais quoi people will talk about as charisma. People Will Talk is an ostensible romance, a tale of noble empathy and societal cruelty. It is also a very thinly veiled metaphor of the inquisitorial mentality of McCarthyism and the scoundrels who, like the great populist himself and those who later paraded in exquisite liberal clothing, saw communists everywhere in the government and had the specialized skills needed to ferret them out. By a supreme irony these American fascists did, on my view, more during the early fifties in an indirect way to promote the survival of communism for another forty years than Stalin and Mao and all their minions put together.
In the film two attitudes about practicing medicine are at war: curing ailments or making sick people well. Dr. Praetorius makes much of the need to look at the whole person rather than merely thinking in terms of diseased organs, a view that clashes with the ideas of Professor Elwell, a tightly wound little martinet who is out to get Praetorius through reliance on rumors and informants.
The scene at the end of the film in which the faculty committee goes on a witch hunt for Dr. Praetorius is a wondrous anticipation of the Army-McCarthy hearings held in early 1954, in which, finally, the whole ugly house of cards came crashing down around a ludicrous and, ultimately, tedious little man from Wisconsin who had terrorized the country, just as it did around that oily piece of nastiness in the film, Professor Elwell. At times, while watching this movie, I was drawn inevitably to think of the somber pages of Book 4 of Tacitus’ Annales, in which he lays out the hideous institutionalization of the imperial system of delatores (‘informers’) and the personal tragedies their accusations caused to be played out. People Will Talk has the saving grace of being, finally, a comedic version of the darker vision we find skulking through the pages of Tacitus. Its weapon is mockery.
When Professor Elwell comes to give Dr. Praetorius his docket of ‘charges’, the doctor cannot be disturbed. It turns out that he is playing with an elaborate layout of Lionel trains on the upper floor. It’s an ingenious scene. We see the trains whipping around sharp curves, passing each other, paralleling each other, using the same cross ties … and at last all three of them crashing off the tracks. It’s a visual spoof of the elaborate networks of lies and accusations that the McCarthyites and Elwells of the world try to control until it all crashes and burns. I can’t help reading the trains scene also as a comment on the perversely ludic dimensions of these periodic eruptions — in Tiberian Rome, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the McCarthy hearings, the … well, do I have to connect the post 9/11 dots for you?
It intrigues me that Mankiewicz thought (I assume) he could ‘insulate’ and isolate his political metaphor by locating it in a university. Gee, if he’d only known how vatic his choice of setting would prove to be! Of course, those professors (and I had some) who were forced to sign loyalty oaths (or fired for not doing so) in the early fifties probably would not share my retrospective bemusement.
At a more mythic level, People Will Talk is a story about death and rebirth, literally and figuratively. I think here in particular of Dr. Praetorius himself, whose reputation is at severe risk but rescues itself; of the marriage between him and Deborah; of his friend, Shunderson; and, finally, in the last scene, of the new life kicking in Deborah’s womb as Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” is, appropriately and joyously, performed while the camera ‘looks down’ on Professor Elwell, a hater of laughter and music, walking off alone down a darkened campus colonnade – emblematically removed from the society of good people just like the worst villain marching off stage in a Shakespeare comedy.
I’ll have to say that I found the plot a bit contrived, and the sudden marriage of Deborah and Noah somewhat improbable. But, OK, I won’t quibble. Cary Grant was kind of improbable in some of Hitchcock’s films, too, but that in no way detracted from my enjoyment watching him at work. What I liked about People Will Talk (an obvious double entendre) was its seamless blending of trenchant political commentary with comedic sensibility — not, really, Aristophanic, but kind of a ‘cleaner’ version in that direction.
This 1951 film has a strikingly contemporary resonance. That alone makes it worth seeing … all that and Cary Grant, too?