The Inessentials: People Will Talk

Few films have such a hold on my affections as this one.  It is a work of supreme humanism, about a doctor whose purpose in life is to ‘make sick people well’.  What’s more, it carries with it overtones about the roles of women, morality, abortion, the death penalty, the communist witch-hunts of the 40s and 50s, and unfettered capitalism, among other things.  The fact that it was made by a major studio in 1951 speaks to the remarkable nature of the film.  So why don’t more people know, and talk, about People Will Talk? 

It is not Cary Grant’s most iconic role, but it very well should be.  Grant plays Noah Praetorius, a doctor who teaches at a university and runs a clinic based on the notion that it is the job of a doctor to cure the sick in whatever way possible, holistically and otherwise.  The first section of the film focuses on Praetorius’s relationship with his friends Shunderson (Finlay Currie, in a role that should have received an Oscar nod) and Professor Barker (Walter Slezak), his rival at the university Professor Elwell (Hume Cronyn, as mean a little wretch as ever committed to film), and his growing relationship with Deborah (Jeanne Crain), a medical student, eventual patient and unwed mother.

The relationship between Praetorius and Deborah occupies most of the first half as the film, as Deborah discovers that she’s pregnant by a former flyboy now dead.  She’s checked into Praetorius’s clinic again after she attempts to kill herself, ashamed and terrified of informing her father, whom she insists it will ‘kill’ to know that his daughter is having a baby out of wedlock.  The film addresses the issue of the pregnancy with beautiful humanity.  There is no moralizing – as far as Praetorius can see there is nothing for Deborah to be ashamed of – and no punishment in store for the young woman.  She is not even really afraid of being rejected by her father; her fears are more founded on his dedication to her and his dependence on her.  Even her suicide attempt is not a serious one.  The pregnancy is treated with an equal amount of frankness and delicacy.  When Praetorius finally proposes marriage, as we knew he would, he does so not because he feels sorry for her or because he wants to “save” her.  He’s fallen in love with her.

Praetorius’s conflict with Professor Elwell takes up the second half of the film.  Elwell has spent much of his early scenes trying to discredit Praetorius as a teacher and a doctor, ultimately lighting on the curious relationship between Praetorius and Shunderson, his friend and helper.  The trial sequence takes place on the night of a concert Praetorius is supposed to be conducting.  As Praetorius deftly turns away each of Elwell’s accusations – that he’s a charlatan, a poor doctor, etc. – he exposes the hypocrisy of the whole process.  Elwell’s accusations are hearsay and implications, all tending to try to discredit Praetorius without necessarily settling on anything that is illegal or actionable.  While I won’t go into details about the final revelations about Shunderson, to whom Praetorius is intensely dedicated throughout the film, the conclusion is lovely and affecting.

People Will Talk raises so many interesting issues with such gentle humanity that it’s difficult to pick on any one element.  The trial sequence at the end is meant to mirror the witch-hunts of the Hollywood blacklist, depending as it does on vague implications but no real crime.  Which brings the whole film back around to its title.  From Deborah’s pregnancy, which is not criminal but somehow morally wrong in the eyes of 1950s society, to Shunderson and Praetorius’s relationship, and finally to Elwell’s insinuations about Praetorius’s capabilities as a doctor, the entire film is structured around what is not spoken, what must be implied in order to condemn a person.  But in each case, it is humanity that triumphs.  Deborah has not committed a crime, she is not punished for it, she’s rather rewarded in the person of a loving husband and devoted father.  Praetorius is an immensely capable doctor, superior to Elwell in his abilities but also in his compassion.  The film celebrates compassion and love over propriety and hypocrisy.  And it does so without ever becoming maudlin or melodramatic.

The cast is uniformly superb.  Grant’s biggest challenge in some ways is to keep Praetorius from looking too much like a saint, but he keeps an unearthly man firmly grounded; he’s a boy that plays with trains as well as a kind and dedicated doctor.  He’s a man capable of passion as well as compassion for his future wife.  Grant’s humor keeps him from floating into the stratosphere; Praetorius never ascends to the height of a saint.  Praetorius does not exist, but he really should.

Jeanne Crain likewise gives an excellent, difficult performance, never slipping into sentimentality.  Deborah’s great dilemma is about her unborn child, her relationship with her father and her eventual love for Praetorius, but she is a full, rounded character.  She gives a human account of her relationship with the child’s father, of her reasons for loving him as well as her reasons for falling in love with Praetorius.  She’s believable as both the frightened young mother in a difficult situation, and as the somewhat strong-willed woman who runs away from a clinic in the middle of the night.

I do however give the edge to Finlay Currie as Shunderson.  He’s a large, lumbering man of exceptional gentility, quietly stealing every scene he’s in.  His final story at the trial, when he reveals how he came to know Praetorius, is at once hilarious and moving.  He’s an unknown factor in the film, a lover of animals whose dedication to his friend is equalled only by his absolute love for him.

Filmmakers would do well to take a cue from People Will Talk.  There are few films capable of such humanism, such gentleness and frankness.  There is no preaching, no moralizing, no retribution and no posturing.  Too often films attempt to get their message across by beating you over the head with it.  This film attempts to get its message across by appealing to basic decency and humanity, by giving the viewer the opportunity to recognize that there are ways to live beyond the narrow strictures of proper society.  The point that it makes is that people will talk no matter what; what we need to learn is how to live our lives independent of what they say.  Kindness, love, humanity; these are the things that really matter.  All the rest is just needless gossip.