People Will Talk (1951)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Our Word of the Week is hope, and that’s why we’re revisiting a film we recommended when we were just starting Word & Song. The film — a great favorite at our house — is People Will Talk, directed by the supremely intelligent and sensitive Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Professor Elwell (Hume Cronyn), a little man in more ways than one, is trying to get dirt on his fellow medical professor, the popular Dr. Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant). In his office is a beak-nosed lady (Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West) who seems prime for spite and slander.
“If I come in, does the door get closed?” she asks. “Naturally,” says Professor Elwell. “Then I don’t come in.” “Why not?” “You know why not. You’re grown up.” “My dear Mrs. Pickett,” the professor begins, but she cuts him off. “Miss Pickett, and don’t butter me up!” “I have conducted my affairs behind closed doors for twenty years,” says the professor. “Not with me.” He looks her over with patient disdain. “You overestimate both of us,” he says.
Envy is the motive force behind Professor Elwell — and a pharisaical insistence on a certain kind of staid and cold propriety. He can’t understand a man like Dr. Praetorius, who spent several years in the rural part of the state not as an ordinary butcher pretending to be a healer, but as a healer pretending to be an ordinary butcher. In other words, he worked not only with scientific skill but with the human soul and its capacity for hope against hope. So now he is at the university, and he’s the originator of a new clinic for a more human practice of medicine. He’s also the conductor of the school’s choir and orchestra — this too is not merely a sidelight, but is central to the film’s affirmation of the goodness of life. Of course, anybody as quirky as Dr. Praetorius will raise suspicions, especially as he is followed everywhere by a fearfully large and taciturn old gentleman, Mr. Shunderson (Finlay Currie; see him as Balthasar in Ben-Hur, and as Abel Magwitch in David Lean’s Great Expectations). Shunderson has no job. Dr. Praetorius says only that he’s his friend, and it’s nobody’s business why he stays at his side. Professor Elwell seeks to get at Praetorius through Shunderson.
Meanwhile, a young coed (Jeanne Crain) has fallen in love with Praetorius, but she too has a problem. When she faints in an anatomy class – a cadaver of a young woman lies on the table – she ends up being the doctor’s patient. She learns to her shame that she did not faint because she saw a dead body. She is with child. The father was a man she hardly knew, whom she thought she loved, but who was soon after killed in the Korean War. Her own father (Sidney Blackmer) is gentle, intelligent, morally upright, and proud of her as his only accomplishment in life. He’s failed at everything else, so he and she live as wards on the farm of his unsympathetic brother. Miss Higgins believes it would destroy her father if he should find out about her moral lapse. In despair — and unable to confront what she fears will be her father’s despair, she tries to take her own life.
From what I’ve said, it appears that People Will Talk skates on the edge of darkness. If it does, it executes a perfect figure-8. The film is bright and human, a story of love, gratitude, mercy, compassion, and hope. “I made sick people well!” says Dr. Praetorius to Elwell, when that backroom operator has managed to get his rival called up before a board of the school’s elders. “And as to the willingness of those so-called ignorant and backward people to rely upon the curative powers of faith and possibly miracles too,” he says to Elwell, “I consider faith properly injected into a patient as effective in maintaining life as adrenaline. And the belief in miracles has been the difference between living and dying as often as any surgeon’s scalpel.”
What happens to the girl and her baby? What about her father? We guess that Elwell will fail – but how? Dear reader, you’ll have to watch the film to find out. I will say that if you were given a hundred years, you would never guess Shunderson’s secret. He had no hope — I mean, no earthly expectation that he would ever know any good thing again. But then something happened. Nor will you ever guess the final scene, full of the music of that old college song Gaudeamus Igitur, when a woman makes one motion of her hand – one motion, that means all the world.
I first saw this wonderful film many years ago, and was aware of its great beauty and power halfway through it. Seventy-plus years on, its main themes are at least as germane now as they were then: it rails against a cold and technological approach to medicine, it is unabashedly prolife, and it resists enforced social conformity. Bernard Dick's biography of Mankiewicz suggests that one of the things that drew him to this project was its relevance concerning McCarthyism. I loved this movie so much that I long ago acquired an early copy of Curt Goetz' German play "Dr. med. Hiob Prätorius," originally written in German, and I don't speak a word of German! Shunderson's backstory is, as you have written, captivating. And is there anything more beautiful and full of Christological love than the "calendar" revelation towards the end of the film? Finally, the film's use of "The Academic Festival Overture" has led me to a lifetime love for Brahms. Great essay!
What a good movie. Perfectly cast, too. At first I thought it was a fantasy film—both Praetorius and Shunderson are mysterious and seemed otherworldly to me. One aspect reminded me of an Italian comedy called “Bread and Tulips” about a woman whose accidental arrival in a neighborhood of lonely misfits changes everything for the good. There is nothing special about her—she’s an average, middle-aged housewife who simply misses a bus — but she changes the dynamic, causing connections that bring hope and joy. She was like Praetorius in that way—minus the tan and the physical perfection (sigh).