Directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz; produced by Darryl F Zanuck
Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant) is an unconventional doctor associated with a large and prestigious university. He also runs a clinic based on his principle of not just curing people, but of ‘making sick people well’. To that end, he sometimes operates, sometimes prescribes medicine, sometimes just talks; patients eat and bathe when they want, not according to a rigid schedule. His methods achieve positive results but their unorthodoxy - and his popularity - cause envy; this, his mysterious past, and his enigmatic companion, Mr Shunderson (Finlay Currie), may lead to trouble for the caring doctor.
A most unusual film, and one difficult to classify, People Will Talk is probably best defined as a comedy/drama, with romance and social commentary. All aspects of the movie stand out, but in particular the acting and the writing.
The latter comes from a play by Curt Goetz, and was adapted for the screen by the director. The script is filled with good lines, whether spoken alone or in dialogue. Some of the writing is clever, even witty, some is insightful, some is prescient: there is a scene in which Grant’s character is describing medicine without humanity and declares that if things keep on as they are, there will be electronic doctors. What would he have made of help-lines and ‘menu options’?
The story may appear rambling as it deals with Praetorius’s serio-comic romance with a one-time patient, Deborah (Jeanne Crain), but in the background is the darker aspect of a would-be inquisition begun by a colleague (Hume Cronyn). And, in fact, the romance is unconventional in that it involves an unwed mother-to-be; this must have been daring at the time, but serves to illustrate Praetorius’s compassion.
Also featured are elements looking at human failure, greed, rumour-mongering, capital punishment and suicide, none of which are particularly comical subjects. Yet People Will Talk incorporates them almost seamlessly into the plot and handles them with sympathy and understanding. Indeed, Praetorius may have been conceived as a means of talking about such issues in a humane manner.
None of these aspects of the movie should persuade a viewer that the film is bleak or filled with black-humour; none of the humour is black, though it veers near to it during Shunderson’s monologue at the end. It is such a strange story in itself, however, and so engagingly told, that the result will be smiles, rather than frowns.
Some of the script may be seen as a bit artificial, the sort that comes from a playwright’s pen, rather than a playwright’s characters. But when heard spoken by the actors, it becomes more natural, especially in the case of Praetorius. Much of what he says in the context of medicine seems rehearsed, as though he has had to explain himself to too many people in the past, and the descriptions have become routine. This may in fact have been the case. This is where the acting comes in.
Grant demonstrated throughout his career that a person can have pretty much the same sort of delivery, even the same manner of speech, yet, with talent, create quite distinct characters. Praetorius elucidates his beliefs as if from a manifesto, and Grant makes it all sound credible. He gives Praetorius an aura of confidence – coming possibly from his wealth, possibly from his success. But this is due to the interpretation of the actor. The only incongruity comes during a scene in a dairy when Praetorius becomes a bit of a bumbler. But the scenes when he plays with toy trains and conducts an orchestra are not out of place.
The other actors are all very good. Mankiewicz reputedly thought little of Crain’s performance. She in fact comes across very well. Deborah is given scope to mature through the few weeks over which the story takes place, and Crain makes her a fitting partner for Praetorius on most levels, from besotted patient to strong wife.
Able support is given by Walter Slezak as a professor friend of Praetorius’s. He is amusing in himself, as well as a foil for the main character, while Sidney Blackmer is sad but content as Deborah’s father. The most interesting secondary character, though, must be Currie’s Shunderson, who accompanies Praetorius everywhere. The reason for their association may not be unique in movies but it is certainly interesting.
People Will Talk is an involving, humorous, thoughtful movie about any number of subjects. It may touch only superficially on most of them, but what it says about them is intelligently - and very entertainingly – presented.