The romantic comedy is a staple of the Hollywood film. In this type of film a woman usually chooses between two men, and she virtually always chooses the more romantic and unconventional of the two after getting to know him through some unusual circumstance. This is the basic outline for many films which are merely mindless fluff, but it is also the outline for such fine films as It Happened One Night (1934) and Holiday (1938) (though the latter finds a man choosing between two women). An outstanding example of what can be done in this genre is The Talk of the Town. Not only does it have a schoolteacher having to choose between a law school dean and an escapee from jail but also all three are fully developed, interesting characters and a serious theme is explored—the value of the intellectual life as opposed to the practical. The Talk of the Town is both thought-provoking and highly entertaining.
The film is built around an ideological opposition which also becomes a romantic triangle: Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) represents the unintellectual, even antiintellectual, position; Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman) the purely intellectual one; and Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) a middle ground between them. The three come together one night in the house owned by Nora which she is preparing for Lightcap, a law school dean who is renting the house for the summer and is scheduled to move in the next day. First Dilg, a local political activist who has escaped jail just before his trial for murder, comes to the house to hide. Though she knows him somewhat and does not seem to think he is dangerous, Nora does not welcome him, but she does consent to his staying the night in the attic. Minutes later, Lightcap arrives one day early. The next day when Dilg's lawyer, Sam Yates (Edgar Buchanan), tells Nora to keep Dilg there and take care of him, Nora, to make the best of the situation, gets the job of cook and secretary to Lightcap, and Dilg comes out of hiding to pretend to be the gardener. Three quite different people are now forced to spend quite a great deal of time together. Romance develops, but more important is the effect they have on one another's ideas.
At the beginning Lightcap thinks that law is a theoretical matter and that he cannot concern himself with individual cases. Dilg, being an individual case himself, takes the opposite position that the law has no soul, that it needs human qualities.
Dilg is accused of starting a fire in which a man was killed. He knows he is innocent, but he is unwilling to risk standing trial because a very powerful man in the town, Andrew Holmes, does not like him or his ideas and has enough influence to ensure that the trial will go the way he wants. Yates, Nora, and Dilg begin a campaign to convince Lightcap of Dilg's innocence and the impossibility of his getting a fair trial. Lightcap, who has taken the house for the summer so he can write a book, at first resents this intrusion of the real world on the time he was planning to spend on scholarship, but he is gradually convinced as Nora uses such tactics as taking him to a baseball game where they "happen" to sit near the judge who would try the case and Lightcap hears how biased the man is.
Events begin moving quickly as Lightcap discovers that the gardener is actually Dilg, and Nora and Lightcap discover that no one was killed in the fire—the supposedly dead man, Clyde Bracken, is merely hiding out. Light-cap gets so involved in the intrigues that when he finds out that Bracken has a girl friend in town, he takes her dancing merely to get information from her. He finds that Bracken is in Boston getting his mail at the general delivery window and takes Nora and Dilg to Boston to capture him though he has to lie to the police to get them to release Nora and also has to knock out Dilg in order to get him to come along on the trip. Thus Lightcap, having begun the film as the standard ivory-tower intellectual, is so changed by his experiences that by the end he has lied to the police, refused to turn in a wanted person, and used force to achieve his goals—all things he would not have countenanced before, but all things done in the interest of true justice.
Even though Lightcap is told the first day he is in town that he is to be appointed to the Supreme Court and should keep his name out of the newspapers, once he gets involved in the case he insists on seeing it through. The culmination of the change in his thinking comes when he uses a gun to capture Bracken and take him to the courtroom, which is being stormed by an angry mob threatening to lynch Dilg. He gives an impassioned speech in which he says that the law must be "engraved in our hearts," and that both those who want to ignore the law completely and those who think of it as a set of abstract principles are wrong. Even though this speech might sound platitudinous in another context, the fact that it comes out of Lightcap's experience makes it effective and moving. As Dilg says after Lightcap is appointed to the Supreme Court, he is a better Justice for his experience.
These changes in Lightcap's ideas are not the only changes that occur. A suggestion of a romance begins to develop between Nora and each of the men. Neither openly admits his own feelings, but instead each talks to Nora about the other man. Dilg, for example, tells Nora that Lightcap is in love with her and adds, "I know just how he feels." Each man seems inhibited by his respect for the other as well as his uncertainty about the choice she will make.
In romantic comedies a woman usually has to choose between two men or a man between two women, and the choice is nearly always quite predictable. For example, though the film It Happened One Night is quite good, there is little doubt that in the end Claudette Colbert will prefer Clark Gable over Jameson Thomas. In The Talk of the Town, however, both men are played by actors who were frequently romantic leading men. When Nora has to choose between the two, it is a difficult choice that cannot be so easily predicted, especially since Lightcap has changed so much during the film. In fact, the choice between the two men is so close that the filmmakers shot two endings and made the choice themselves only after previewing the film.
The decisive moment comes on the day Lightcap takes his place on the bench of the Supreme Court. Nora goes to see him in his chambers where he suggests that she choose her "reckless friend." A few minutes later she sees Dilg, who recommends Lightcap because of his "position, dignity, and place in life" and tries to walk away, but Nora, saying she is tired of people trying to make up her mind, kisses him. He then leaves but immediately comes back to take her with him as the film ends.
Although The Talk of the Town is a film which deals with ideas, its characters are not always engaged in heavily philosophical discussions. The film's humor runs from the near-slapstick as Nora attempts to keep Lightcap from seeing Dilg at the beginning to such little touches as Dilg seeing his picture on a wanted poster and remarking, "No one would recognize me from that—doesn't catch the spirit." Indeed, it is a comic scene in which the discussions between Dilg and Lightcap begin. The morning after Lightcap's arrival he is dictating to Nora, but she has trouble concentrating on the work because she can see Dilg sneaking into the kitchen to get something to eat. As Dilg is getting food out of the refrigerator, he hears Lightcap describe law as "an instrument of pure logic" and casually walks out to argue with him, much to the consternation of Nora. She quickly explains, however, that Dilg is the gardener and they are able to keep his true identity secret for a little longer.
The screenplay by Irwin Shaw and Sidney Buchman is excellent, but the actors deserve a good portion of the credit for creating such interesting characters. Michael Lightcap seems at first to be merely an intelligent but emotionless man who thinks of everything outside of his work as merely a distraction, but as the film progresses, we learn more about his background, and-we see him discover more about himself and about the rest of the world.
He tells Nora that he first grew his beard because he was one of the youngest ever to graduate from Harvard Law School and wanted to look older and more professional. He admits, however, that he began to hide behind that reserved appearance; it became his fortress. The beard, therefore, is emblematic of his detached outlook both for him and for others; it is more significant than it might seem when he shaves it off. Colman, with his usual cultured voice and demeanor as well as his considerable acting ability, perfectly brings to life this complex character. Leopold Dilg and Nora Shelley may be somewhat less complex than Lightcap but are no less interesting, and certainly the performances of Grant and Arthur are equal to Colman's; they are amusing without letting the comedy overshadow the serious side of their characters. Edgar Buchanan also does a fine job in the important supporting role of Sam Yates, Dilg's lawyer who sometimes comments on the action and sometimes keeps it going.
George Stevens ably directs with a lighter touch and quicker pace than in some of his other films, and the efforts of all involved were rewarded. The Talk of the Town was a critical and commercial success.