The Talk of the Town, 1942, Columbia Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, Cary Grant, Ronald Colman. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 117 minutes.
When the local woolen mill burns down, the mill owner blames one of his most troublesome employees, activist Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant). The fire cost the life of the mill foreman as well, and Dilg is charged with both arson and murder. Claiming his innocence and believing he has no chance of being acquitted at trial, he escapes from jail.
Dilg heads for the childhood home of his longtime crush, Nora Shelly (Jean Arthur). Miss Shelly, as Dilg calls her, actually is preparing her home for a new tenant as she and her mother have moved. When Dilg appears, Miss Shelly is shocked and dismayed. She knows from their growing up years that he’s a troublemaker, and his current troubles are nothing to laugh about.
Unfortunately for both of them, Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), Miss Shelly’s tenant, appears a day early and insists on spending the night. Dilg is hiding in the attic and, afraid of what might happen if she leaves, Miss Shelly manages to talk Lightcap into letting her stay until morning.
That’s when Lightcap learns from his Senator friend that he’s a nominee for the United States Supreme Court, and he’s cautioned to keep his name out of the papers until the appointment is finalized. No problem, he laughs, in twenty years there’s been no scandal.
But scandal is waiting upstairs in the attic, and it’s only a matter of time before the trouble begins.
The Talk of the Town was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Outstanding Motion Picture (today known as Best Picture), Best Writing (Original Motion Picture Story), Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Film Editing and Best Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture). It won none. Among the other Outstanding Motion Picture nominees that year was Random Harvest, which also starred Ronald Colman.
The character of Leopold Dilg was a departure and a gamble for Grant, who considered Colman’s role the better man. Dilg was unconventional, nothing like the suave characters for which Grant had become known. It also was a political risk in that the screenwriters were outspoken members of the Communist Party. This came to a head for one of the writers, Sidney Buchman, in the 1950s, when he was blacklisted and forced to move overseas to maintain any sort of career.
As happened with so many pictures, Columbia struggled to find just the right title for this film. Ultimately it put that decision in the hands of test audiences. Unfortunately, “The Talk of the Town” was already registered to Universal Studios, so Columbia traded rights to “Sin Town” to obtain the desired title. While movie titles can’t be copyrighted or trademarked, the MPAA instituted a title registration bureau in 1925. Its members, which includes all of the major motion picture studios, can register movie titles with the registration bureau.
The Talk of the Town is a top-notch comedy-drama, with two of era’s top leading men both vying for the affections of the equally popular Jean Arthur. However, the romance is in the backdrop, with the stronger element being some of the ideals of the law as well as small-town life.