Doctor Noah Pretorius (Cary Grant) is greatly respected both as a physician and a lecturer at the medical college, where he teaches it is important to treat a sick person’s ailing spirit as much as their illness. However, an embittered colleague, Professor Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn) greatly resents the good doctor and is eager to dig up some dirt from his past to discredit him. His suspicions fall on Mr. Shunderson (Finlay Currie), an enigmatic, elderly man who, nicknamed “The Bat”, shadows Noah like a manservant. When beautiful Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain) faints during Noah’s lecture on anatomy, he discerns she is pregnant and unmarried. Later, he saves Deborah’s life after she attempts suicide. Noah visits her home on a farm and discovers Deborah and her forlorn father Arthur Higgins (Sidney Blackmer) are near-penniless, financially dependent upon his bullying brother John. Having fallen in love, Noah deliberately lies, telling Deborah she is not pregnant, so she won’t question his motives for proposing marriage, but Prof. Elwell is poised to make his move.
A decidedly offbeat, yet beguiling comedy-drama, People Will Talk has the mannered, yet certainly well-written, dialogue and theatrical staging that betray its origins as a stage-play. Written by German playwright Curt Goetz, “Doctor Praetorius” (not to be confused with the decidedly less-than-benevolent character Ernest Thesiger immortalised in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)!) first reached the screen in its native Germany back in the Thirties, but as reworked by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz has been interpreted by some as a comment on the then-recent Communist witch-hunts orchestrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Certainly there is an element of McCarthy about the belligerent, joyless Prof. Elwell, wittily surmised by Shunderson as a little man who grows that much smaller by the story’s end. Mankiewicz also tips his hand by casting Margaret Hamilton, formerly the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (1939), as the spiteful housekeeper who sells Noah out for the promise of a new job.
Typically for a Mankiewicz production, this has its share of acerbic dialogue with waspish characters who snipe from the sidelines, but is largely a hymn to human decency and heroes that rise above the mire. Noah Pretorius is a wholly admirable figure, critical of the heartlessness of much modern life, yet caring and most importantly, strong enough to face down self-righteous ogres like John Higgins and Rodney Elwell. Such a character could easily lapse into mawkish sentimentality, but with Mankiewicz at the helm, the saccharine is kept at bay thanks to eccentric supporting characters (e.g. Professor Barker, with Walter Slezak in a rare and welcome, avuncular good guy role; Finlay Currie is quietly moving as the mysterious Shunderson, and delivers his near-ridiculous back-story with such stoicism, Cary Grant visibly strains to keep a straight face) and delightfully surreal comedy: e.g. Shunderson staring angry dog into submission, or Noah turning his living room into a giant train set.
It is also a love story and both Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain imbue their roles with great warmth and subtlety. Their courtship scene, set in the milking room on John Higgins’ farm, is especially well written and performed, as first he pursues her, then she pursues him. Deborah’s strained politeness when she faces down Prof. Elwell is another great to and fro between actors, showcasing not just their skill but that of Mankiewicz. A little known gem, worth seeking out by Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain fans.