The Talk of the Town (1942)

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The Lawgh

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

As a political junkie its fun to watch films like The Talk of the Town and dissect their deeper political and philosophical meaning which in this case is intertwined within a screwball farce that effortlessly transitions between wacky comedy and serious drama. The movie centres on a fantastic triangle of characters played by Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman with the real meat of the film being the relationship between Leopold Dilg (Grant) and Professor Michael Lightcap (Coleman) while Miss Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) tries to keep this unlikely family of three in one piece.

Leopold Dilg is one of the more interesting characters Cary Grant ever played, a radical activist and one role in which we see him dressed just like a commoner. However, he is one handsome activist at that rather than some hair dyed SJW (that man can make any clothes look dapper). If it weren’t for the production code then the character of Dilg would certainly be labeled as a communist. The movie is full of clues pointing to this (educated young working-class intellectual, opposes capitalist corruption, belief that violence is sometimes necessary, his father’s resentment for work, even his fondness for borscht). The production code would not have allowed a possible communist to be a sympathetic character or a hero thus the word “communist” or related term is never mentioned. On the other hand, Dilg is shown to have much respect for the Supreme Court so is he really a communist or just a leftie? With Dilg we even get an insight into why one might be an activist; as he puts it, activism is a form of self-expression – “Some people write books, some music. I make speeches on street corners.” Dilg would have felt right at home in the age of the internet (“When I hear a man talk nonsense I always get an impulse”).

Ronald Coleman, one of Hollywood’s most charming English gents is Professor Lightcap. Dilg and Lightcap are two intellectuals but from different worlds in this clash of the classes yet they find common ground in their interest in the political and philosophical; their conversations and so much fun to listen and make the film worth watching again as they’re a lot to take in. Dilg views Lightcap as “an intelligent man, but cold” with “no blood in his thinking” and thus doesn’t desire to see him take a seat in the Supreme Court with his current mentality. By the end of the film, both Dilg and Lightcap change their philosophies on law. Dilg comes around the see the need for law and order while Lightcap begins to see that the law is not sterile. During the film’s final monologue Lightcap speaks to an angry mob at a courthouse on the importance of law:

“This is your law and your finest possession. It makes you free. Why have you come to destroy it? Think of a world crying for this law. Then they’ll understand why they ought to guard it and why the law should be the concern of every citizen, to uphold it for your neighbour as well as yourself. Violence against it is one mistake; another mistake is to look upon the law as just asset of principles. Just so much language printed on heavy paper. Something he recites and then takes it for granted that justice is being done. Both kinds of men are equally wrong. The law must be practiced every minute, to the letter and the spirit. It can’t exist unless we fight a battle every day to preserve it.”

I’m not sure what message to take from The Talk of the Town. On the one hand, it showcases the importance of upholding a lawful and just society (which would have resonated with the war against fascism in Europe) and the dangers of mob mentality. On the other hand earlier in the film Lightcap spoke of how “If feelings had any influence on the law, half the country would be in jail” and “you conduct your law on random sentimentality and you will have violence and disorder” only to later soften these views as evident by his final monologue. These statements sound just like a description of the PC politics of the 21st century; facts don’t care about your feelings. Just how far will the professor go with this change of heart? Still, at the end of the day, it is thought-provoking stuff.

The character of Tilney (Rex Ingram) is one of the better, more dignified portrayals of an African American as Professor Lightcap’s servant of whom he considers Tilney’s judgment to be superior to his own. In one of the more unusual but emotionally powerful scenes in the movie, Tilney sheds a tear in an extreme and long close up at the sight of his master shaving his beard; a black actor having a long close up with real emotion behind it. The scene plays the emotions up to 11 as Tilney realises his friend and employer is undergoing a profound change as he shaves his beard as a metaphor for casting off old ways.

The beginning of The Talk of the Town is incredibly different from the rest of the film, setting it up as a horror/thriller with its moody, melodramatic music and making Dilg out to be a sinister, threatening character. If you went into the film completely blind you would be shocked as it gradually morphs into a comedy as the lighting and shadows become less dim, the music becomes more cheery and starts to take on a pleasant New England, small-town feel. Likewise, listen out for a piece of music heard throughout the film including at the end which sounds just like Yoda’s theme from The Empire Strikes Back.

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The More The Merrier (1943)

Three’s a Crowd

The More The Merrier represents the screwball genre adapting for the war years however this was at the end of the genre’s original run. I wonder why there were not more screwball comedies made during the war period? Did people become more cynical with the war or perhaps the genre was simply made for the depression era. Instead of taking on the establishment like the genre screwball did during the depression, The More The Merrier is supporting it. It is refreshing to see a propaganda film from the war years which is less gloomy and shows how common folk got on with their daily lives during the war.

My main flaw with The More The Merrier is Joel McCrea. He’s fine but that’s the problem, he’s only just fine; a serviceable actor who doesn’t leave a great impression. He’s the weak spot of a trio of characters who could have been much stronger with a more charismatic actor. Granted this was during the war and most of Hollywood’s big male leads were off in Europe kicking Hitler’s ass. Could Cary Grant have played the role instead, but perhaps a big star like that couldn’t play a role in he doesn’t show up until half an hour in. The trio of characters still manages to be fun with Jean Arthur playing the straight man and Charles Coburn as an immature and conniving old man who still seems like a kid at heart; while the romance between Arthur and MrCrea is still believable and handled very well as they spend the final third of the film quietly denying their feelings for each other.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are one of the more unconventional screen pairings in Hollywood starring in three films together, just look at the morning schedule scene; comic choreographed brilliance and by far my favourite part of the film. When McCrea enters the picture though I feel it is never as strong. Also after you watch this movie you may find yourself saying “dam the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”, a lot.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Old School

Sex! Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s fascinating to see just how many references to the birds and the bees permeate the seemingly innocent veneer of Vivacious Lady. James Stewart and Ginger Rodgers where dating during the filming and it’s certainly apparent on screen with the levels of sexual tension between the two with these stars never appearing more youthful than they do here. There are many code breaking moments in Vivacious Lady from the opening scene with the exotic dancers in the nightclub and their tail feathers being pushed in Stewart’s face to Stewart breaking into a women’s only apartment block after visiting hours.

It’s clear that the University in the fictional town of Old Sharon is full of students eager to get it on from every other male student wolf whistling Ginger to the large number of couples occupying the boathouse at night. I mean the President of University and Stewart’s father played by Charles Coburn even comes right out and says it, “We are having the usual spring difficulties between our male and female students a little early this season. Too much fraternising in the lockers”.  – The Hays Code? What code?

However on closer examination of Vivacious Lady something dawned on me – there’s a very unusual incest thing going on between the main characters. Francey (Ginger Rogers) was going out with Peter’s (James Stewart) brother Keith (James Ellison) before they met, however, Francey marries Peter shortly after they meet for the first time even though she was still going out with Keith at the time. Even when Keith finds out he is perfectly ok with this arrangement and himself and Francey continue to act in an overly intimate manner throughout the film for people who are cousins. Likewise just get look at this dialogue exchange:

“I remember I married you”

“Oh no, she married me”

“So were cousins”

“You and your cousins can use that drawing room now.”

Incest aside, unlike other screwball comedies Vivacious Lady is actually more grounded in reality with its use of more deadpan humour. There are no over the top misunderstandings or histrionics (not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of thing) but rather the characters react in a manner in which people would in real life. Just look at the reaction of Peter’s father whenever he tells him he got married, it’s lifelike but manages to be no less funny. This was one of the four films in which Beulah Bondi played Jimmy Stewart’s mother; I can’t imagine a more convincing choice to be the mother of the on-screen, boy next door Jimmy Stewart persona. Likewise, is there a better choice to play an overly conservative father than Charles Coburn? I can speak for a friend of mine who couldn’t believe just how much he related to Jimmy Stewart and the manner he acts towards Ginger Rogers such as Stewart’s attempts to make advances but keeps backing away under nerves. The two of them really do feel like a bunch of young love-struck kids.