Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
If I had more information about Joseph L. Mankiewicz' intentions for People Will Talk, I might
be able to shed more light on this odd movie, a vehicle for Cary Grant often cited as being about
McCarthy-style blacklists. It really isn't.
The acting is fine, especially Jeanne Crain as Cary's love interest. It's the script's dramatic
approach that goes haywire, with a semi-comedic thrust that initially charms, and then frustrates.
When the show is over we ask, 'What was that really about, anyway?'
Doctor Noah Praetorious (Cary Grant) runs a fancy medical clinic and teaches at a
private college. He fosters a personal interest in his patients, personally motivating them to
aid their healing. Jealous malcontent Professor Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn) resents Praetorious'
popularity and charm and plots to discredit him by spreading lies and innuendo. Elwell forces a
faculty inquest into Noah's shady background. Praetorious takes it
all in stride, completely self-confident at what shapes up to be a witch hunt. His new wife
Deborah (Jeanne Crain) supports him. Their match began rather atypically as well - she was an
unwed mother, and his romantic overtures were part of his 'personal' involvement to distract
her from thoughts of suicide.
People Will Talk begins as a high-powered 'issue' movie that seems to be heading toward a
sweeping social statement, like Fox's previous Gentleman's Agreement and Pinky.
Writer-director Mankiewicz's script is as florid as his
All About Eve, but lacks Eve's
theatrical background to motivate the stylized speeches and dramatic hype. This time around
he tackles a good man's triumph against social injustice, but loses us way before his dramatic
and uplifting finale.
If People Will Talk is supposed to be a daring take on the then-endemic Witch Hunts, it's
a total failure. Grant's nemesis Elwell is a total crank, a feeble gadfly who tries to tar a perfect
man with baseless charges. Nobody really takes the nasty jerk seriously, least of all Grant's Praetorious
character, as impervious a Man for All Seasons less human as some of the roles Sidney Poitier would
play a decade later.
Mankiewicz's script provides several mysteries to fool us into thinking Praetorious has something
to hide, most of them involving his loyal 'associate' Shunderson, played amusingly by Finlay Currie.
Hume Cronyn's broad, pest-like Elwell is something of a McCarthy type in that he expects his peers to
convict Praetorious through innuendo. As Elwell's accusations crumble the moment they are aired, that
never has a chance of happening.
The script is frequently amusing, but ends up a meaningless mystery that solves dramatic problems
with unlikely backstories. (spoiler) Elwell's main piece of ammunition against Praetorious is that
he might be harboring an escaped criminal, Shunderson. An amusing but wild story (remarkably similar
to the backstory of Bela Lugosi's Ygor in
The Son of Frankenstein, by the way) turns
Shunderson from a shady character into mild comic relief.
If Elwell wanted to discredit Praetorious, he should have concentrated on the doctor's weird medical
We meet Praetorious splitting his time between his patients and conducting the college orchestra. He
not only has time to pursue music, but after the first couple of scenes never returns to his clinic,
where the one or two patients we see him visiting must be in constant need of his feel-good-be-happy
bedside manner. His main unorthodox healing technique is to charm his patients with a doctor who looks
like a movie star and makes teasing quips. When Praetorious makes an unscheduled night visit, he finds
the desk clerk asleep and all of the nurses off the ward, making a patient's escape possible. He's
disgusted by the behavior of his staff, but we don't see him doing anything about it.
Praetorious is on hand to deal with the suicidal Deborah Higgins, pregnant and unmarried. When she tries
to kill herself, he lies to her by telling her she's not pregnant. Then, he marries her. (spoiler) Grant
plays Praetorious with such calm and control, we have to assume he's married her as some sort of
bizarre therapy. Only then does he consider telling Miss Higgins the truth - she is pregnant, but he
married her out of love.
The supporting characterizations are just plain weird. Just as the nurses' incompetence allows
Higgins' to escape, she has a strange home life with a failure of a father and an unkind relative
to 'justify' her suicide attempt. Dad trades overwritten observations on life with Praetorious, and
then moves in with the married couple, making a humorous foil for Praetorious' eccentric pal,
Professor Barker (Walter Slezak). While Higgins is busy being pregnant (this is 1951, remember, so
the pregnancy never shows), Praetorious, dad and Slezak act like kids with a wonderfully elaborate
but totally pointless Lionel train layout that covers the entire second story of his house.
Perhaps to make his leads seem more noble, Mankiewicz makes some characters into unredeemable creeps,
like Higgins' uncle (Will Wright), an unforgiving grumpus. One of Praetorious' nurses (Katherine
Locke, so good in the subversive Try and Get Me!) is an intolerant b---- who proclaims that
Deborah deserves to
die for being a fallen woman. Mankiewicz even uses Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton as a nasty old
biddy enlisted by Elwell to help smear our hero.
All of these rigged characters make Praetorious seem less credible, not more. He's Cary Grant and
he might as well walk on water, for all the effect Elwell's scheming has on him. Praetorious has
chummy old Shunderson into disciple service, and Deborah Higgins is transformed from a suicidal
wreck into another pillar of ethics and moral strength. When sniveling Elwell pays a visit to deliver
bad news, Deborah stands up to him as if she were defending her husband before the supreme court. The
dialogue in these scenes is uniformly eloquent, forceful, and completely unbelievable.
In the end, even Grant can't carry the premise. His shining armor of goodness is never dented by
any of the accusations. There's never really a conflict here, because Praetorious never did anything
wrong, and doesn't need defending. His big sin (spoiler) was to practice folk medicine in a small
town 'upstate', pretending not to be a doctor when he actually is. Why? Because people don't
trust doctors and formal medicine 'doesn't have all the answers.' What's implied is that Praetorious
is a superior being, like Gary Cooper's architect in The Fountainhead, and ordinary bozos
like you and me are just taking up space in the world. If Praetorious lies to the yokels about his
real profession, or lies to Higgins about her pregnancy status, he's only doing it because he knows
better about what's good for people. 1
People Will Talk is always associated with the character assassination of the blacklist, but
there's very little linkage. Key blacklistees were victimized because they had unpopular past and
present affiliations that could be exploited by ideological hysteria-mongers. Hundreds, perhaps thousands
more were victimized indirectly, never knowing exactly why or by whose action they lost their
Praetorious hasn't anything in common with either group. His only 'flaw' is a cartoonishly
strange backstory with no political dimension, and nothing more. You'd think his methods would be
investigated by a medical board,
not a stupid clod like Elwell. Furthermore, Praetorius is never fazed by Elwell or his accusations,
and goes through his inquisition in complete bliss and confidence. His only opponent is one fairly
weak individual who fails to turn the law or the college administration or the faculty against him.
Blacklist victims, in contrast, faced the uncomprehending vigilantism of an entire country stirred up
to root out Commie
villains. What is People Will Talk supposed to be about? Is it late advice for how the Hollywood
Ten should have acted before the HUAC? Would charm and a big smile have defeated Joe McCarthy?
Fox's DVD of People Will Talk is a flawless transfer of this entertaining, confusing movie.
The velvety B&W photography looks better than ever before, and the old mono soundtrack is clear and
As part of their January Cary Grant collection, Fox has packaged People Will Talk as a comedy,
even though there's little conventional humor in the film. The cover graphics show the unsmiling stars
with a telephone graphic that would seem to be an attempt to make buyers think it's a romantic
lark like the later Doris Day comedy, Pillow Talk. Ve-wy stwange, wabbit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
People Will Talk rates:
Movie: Good but confusing as heck
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 2, 2004
1. The biggest laugh in this
fractured fairy tale is when Praetorious says that his witch-doctoring in a tiny community 'upstate'
earned him enough money to open his fancy clinic at the college. Huh? I thought country doctors
had to take a lot of their pay in eggs and milk, if they got paid at all!
2. January 6 ... Savant has received 5 emails
asking why I didn't mention Ernst Thesiger's character of Dr. Praetorious in The Bride of
Frankenstein ... If I could think of the slightest connection, I would have!
A Note from Savant correspondent "B" aka 'woggly', 1/8/04: Hi Glenn - This quirky comedy- drama
is my favorite Mankiewicz
picture. Having gotten that out of the way, I am puzzled that you
reviewed the movie primarily in terms of its possible take on political
witch- hunting, something I actually never associate with the film.
Kenneth Geist's fine bio of the writer- director is called "Pictures
Will Talk," and with good reason; JLM wrote some extraordinary dialogue.
Stimulating, trenchant scenes between unusual, well drawn characters,
played by actors who could really deliver those lines. So long as these
are set in some kind of intriguing or beguiling setting -- and JLM is
protected by top artists/ technicians in the protection of an
intelligently run studio structure -- I could savor this stuff for
I think People was something of a lark for Mankiewicz after the grand
slams of Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. Cary Grant being the
unique Cary Grant, JLM decided to cast him as an absolutely superior
being, going further than his heavenly Bishop's Wife role in that
Praetorious is human and a bit insufferable. [But charmingly so.] Having
established his perfection, the primary plot thread -- if you can call
it that -- is the rat- like Elwell's jealousy of that greatness.
[Whether or not this is in the source material, I don't know.] I'm not
sure that Elwell actually tells lies about Praetorious, but he does
spread terrible- sounding details of his past and his relationship with
the mysterious Shunderson. [I keep waiting for the two old ladies from
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to show up.] I guess it all depends how this
picture hits you, as they used to say. I do think that looking for
latent social- comment of the period is a pretty distracting way to way
to approach it.
As I note, this is my favorite JLM film. [It just is; I'm smitten.]
Mankiewicz, of course, would later become the prime example of a
director whose best work was supported by Zanuck and Fox; his subsequent
films, though never less than interesting, were seldom the sum of their
parts. He needed a strong producer -- a real producer, too, one to
actively participate in the editorial development of his scripts. He
also needed some help in basic filmmaking, I think, which the studio
system supplied -- his Fox (and Goldwyn and Metro) pictures have
fluidity, pacing and expressiveness that his later films simply lack. I
just think he had some especially valuable aid with coverage and
assembly in those days; he could have used such guidance later on.
[Because of its many one- of- a- kind circumstances, Cleopatra is mostly
excluded from this conversation, by the way.] Best, Always. -- B.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson