People Will Talk, 1951, 20th Century Fox. Starring Cary Grant, Jeanne Crain, Hume Cronyn. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. B&W, 110 minutes.
A movie best enjoyed when you understand the politics of the time, People Will Talk is a meandering film with a fine cast. There are multiple story lines competing for attention, all with serious social implications.
Dr. Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant) is a practicing physician who teaches at the local university. Held in high esteem by colleagues and students alike, his sometimes eccentric behavior has caught the attention of small-minded Professor Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn). Determined to strip Dr. Praetorius of his medical license, Elwell begins an investigation. Included on his list of concerns is the doctor’s odd and quiet friend, Mr. Shunderson (Finley Currie).
A visitor, Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain), joins the doctor’s class one day, ostensibly to observe why he’s so popular. Several minutes into his lecture, she faints, and Dr. Praetorius switches from professor to physician. Soon both learn she is pregnant, an unwelcome situation for Deborah. The father, she reveals in confidence, is a man she barely knew, and she certainly wasn’t married to him. In despair, she shoots herself, but suffers few injuries. Shortly thereafter she runs away from the hospital and returns home to her father, Arthur (Sidney Blackmer).
The doctor’s further attempts to help her change the course of their lives, while Professor Elwell continues to seek reason to end the career of his nemesis.
People Will Talk takes on such issues as unwanted pregnancy, injustice in the legal system and most importantly, the McCarthy investigations of alleged communists. While these situations are all handily resolved for the characters in this film, the message is clear: many are judged harshly for their misfortune (not to call a baby a misfortune), and pay severe consequences for society’s narrow thinking.
Whether intended or not (and it appears it was not), today the movie most often provokes discussion of the boundaries between physician and patient. Should the doctor take such a personal concern in the fate of a young woman because he is sympathetic to her situation? Other moral issues arise when it is revealed he previously practiced medicine without letting his patients know he had a medical degree, because they were suspicious of modern medicine.
This was Joseph Mankiewicz’ first film after the enormously successful All About Eve, which came close on the heels of A Letter to Three Wives. Those films were edgier, focusing on the relationships between women, particularly where men are involved. People Will Talk has a different feel to it. It is more somber and complex, requiring deeper insight in understanding the motivation of the characters.
The film received no Academy Award nominations, but it is not the splashy Hollywood production Mankiewicz’ previous films—or at least the two most recent—had been. Nor is it as compelling. Still, it raises important questions.
Grant plays a somewhat different sort of character than what he is best known for, and he does it well. Crain is perfectly cast as the distraught young woman who grows into a change of station in her life. The supporting cast is strong, particularly the performance of Cronyn, who plays a most unlikable character with panache.
If you enjoyed Mankeiwicz’ earlier films and are looking for the same from People Will Talk, you will be disappointed. If you expect a low-key film that shamelessly takes on a plethora of social ills, you’ll find this to be an enjoyable and thoughtful story.