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People Will Talk (1951)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“[A] picture that takes a new look at life.”

This film covers a tremendous amount of ground, although perhaps not quite as much as the remark above – taken from the theatrical trailer - implies. German playwright Curt Goetz created the original story, but director Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted Goetz's play for the screen. Like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, later made into a movie, Mankiewicz takes on witch-hunters of the era. However, Mankiewicz also adds establishment medical practice to his set of targets.

After the opening credits, some on screen text gives what may have become an unconventional view of medicine. The story opens on campus, with the strains of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture occupying the soundtrack, not for the last time. Prof. Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn) arrives at his college office after a walk through academic corridors. Seated on a wooden bench waiting in the hall outside that office, Miss Sarah Pickett (Margaret Hamilton) asks “Elwell?” The professor admits his identity and Miss Pickett announces her own with “Pickett” and later her full name. She tells Prof. Elwell “They said for me to come right away.” When Prof. Elwell asks “Who said?” she replies “the agency.” After Miss Pickett insists on an “open door” during their proposed discussion in Prof. Elwell's office, they enter.

Prof. Elwell has engaged a detective agency to investigate a Dr. Noah Praetorius. Fifteen years ago Miss Pickett kept house for “Doc” Praetorius when he “practiced” in Goose Creek, a little village “way downstate” and “way back in the hills” in the unidentified state in which the story takes place. Prof. Elwell asks Miss Pickett what methods “Doc” Praetorius used to treat people in Goose Creek. She replies that he used them all and worked virtual “miracles.” Although Prof. Elwell does seem interested in her testimony about “Doc” Praetorius, he directs Miss Pickett to tell him what she knows about “a man named Shunderson.” With the mention of Shunderson, the formerly loquacious Miss Pickett seems to lose her desire to talk. The office telephone rings. Prof. Elwell answers. On the phone, a teaching assistant reminds Prof. Elwell that his Anatomy class waits for his instruction. Dr. Noah Praetorius also waits there for Prof. Elwell. However, Prof. Elwell returns to Miss Pickett who requests the door now be closed when discussing Shunderson.

The scene shifts to the classroom where Dr. Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant) makes small talk with Shunderson (Finlay Currie) while waiting along with the students for Prof. Elwell. In the amphitheater / classroom, apparently also waiting for Prof. Elwell, a cadaver lies on a gurney covered with a cloth. Dr. Praetorius uncovers the head of the cadaver revealing a young woman's corpse. While Shunderson watches and listens, Dr. Praetorius comments to the class on the difference between the young woman when she was alive and the cadaver there now. Although he doesn't use such terms, Dr. Praetorius seems to disavow reductionism. In his audience of students, Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain) exhibits some distress, then faints. Dr. Praetorius breaks up the crowd of students gathered around Deborah. After she comes around, he advises her to see a doctor.

Later she consults with him at his clinic. They develop a romantic involvement. In a few days Dr. Praetorius also meets Deborah's father, Arthur Higgins (Sidney Blackmer) and his brother John (Will Wright). Together with Dr. Praetorius' physicist friend: Prof. Barker (Walter Slezak) they fill out the movie's character roster. Eventually Prof. Elwell's investigation finds material which he considers to merit an academic standing investigation by the college. In this clash the differences between the open style of Dr. Praetorius and the far less open Prof. Elwell become quite obvious to all.

Cary Grant played many fine roles in his films. The parts varied greatly from such "establishment" figures as Dr. David Huxley in comedies like Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938), to outright anarchists such as Leopold Dilg / Joseph in dramedies like George Stevens' The Talk of the Town (1942). Most often, as in this movie, Cary Grant played romantic leading men. He heads the truly great cast in this excellent film which seems better with every viewing. The writing and direction bring the best from a talented cast. If, like this film, you question the medical establishment, I suspect you will enjoy People Will Talk.

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