Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
He's the only honest man I've come across in this town in 20 years. Naturally, they want to hang him.
-Edgar Buchanan as Sam Yates
The Talk of the Town is a film from director George Stevens that plays out very similar in structure to Stanley Kramer's 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Though not about interracial marriage, The Talk of the Town is also a film that blends comedy and drama in a way that only classic Hollywood could with sharp wit, a smart script, and something to say. Never preaching or beating you over the head with its anti-corruption and pro-thought messages, The Talk of the Town is one of those films that instead lays out exactly why one should come to its side instead of laying out exactly why the other side is wrong. In saying that, however, it is entirely fathomable to love The Talk of the Town without worrying about its messaging due to its strong comedic writing, acting, and the great case at the center of it all.
With the factory of corrupt businessman Andrew Holmes (Charles Dingle) burned down and the body of the foreman found in the ruins, it is time for this small New England town to find a martyr. Exercising full control over government and with judges that do his bidding, Holmes is able to push through whatever he wants. With mill worker and political activist Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) being an obvious thorn in his side who happens to be disliked by the whole town, the choice is easy: frame Dilg for the alleged arson and murder. Escaping police custody and running to Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) for shelter, Dilg eventually begins to woo Professor and Supreme Court nominee Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman) to take up his cause, but must do so without letting him know that he is Dilg. Assisted by Nora and his lawyer Sam Yates (Edgar Buchanan), The Talk of the Town is one of those films that make you laugh, keeps you hooked with its story, and makes you think. In athletic terms, the film is a real triple threat, capable of checking every necessary box to riveting, joyful, and lasting cinema.
While operating alongside Cary Grant and Ronald Colman is a tall task for anybody, Jean Arthur takes on this challenge in stride. In many ways, she is what makes this film soar so definitively. Grant is his typical charismatic self and his debates with the equally astute Colman about the essence of the law in America and how it should interpreted or applied and his banter with Arthur both demonstrate this. Colman is very much his equal here as well, turning in a strong performance as the uppity Professor who slowly loosens up over the course of the film to become a wiser and smarter judge of the law. Yet, it is Arthur that makes this a great work. Full of life, energy, and passion, Arthur's fantastic delivery provides this film with a spark every time she opens her mouth. If she is on the screen, the scene is guaranteed to be a winner with Arthur turning in what could very well be one of her very best performances. Playing off of both Grant and Colman perfectly, Arthur delivers her lines with great confidence and timing. Nailing dramatic and comedic moments with equal proficiency, she is what makes this film so enjoyable to watch unfold.
Perhaps what makes The Talk of the Town's writing so smart is how it approaches its central themes of justice and thought. With a man who preaches thinking above all else being accused of a heinous crime by a town that would prefer to keep its head in the sand due to their relative comfort in life, The Talk of the Town sets up the perfect parallel to society. In our world, it is a crime to just think differently from those or to question the status quo of a society that believes itself to be happy. While there may be injustice in this world, if it does not bother the masses, there is no perceived wrong. It is only when confronted with undeniable physical fact that injustice is taking place that people will finally admit that they are wrong. The law is no match for our reactionary, uninterested world and to pretend that justice will work itself out in the end is equally as naive as pretending injustice is impossible. Summing this up in his closing monologue, Colman's speech is impassioned and brilliantly written. It is what makes this film such a timeless watch and a riveting tale of injustice caused by the divide between "we must be tough on crime" and "the law is there to protect us" lines of thinking.
Creating parallels between this case in the film with Leopoldo being accused, assumed guilty despite no evidence, a crooked judge writing his opinion during the case, and being threatened by an angry mob. Yet, Lightcap is unwilling to do anything because "it will sort itself out in the end." By covering both ends of the spectrum and showing how this creates false assumptions and inaction that only leads to injustice, Stevens turns The Talk of the Town into a truly powerful work. He makes it clear through the film's precise narrative and dialogue that doing nothing is perhaps the biggest sin one can commit when injustice is afoot. While the law is there to protect you in theory, it is only there to protect you if you invoke it correctly. Studying the law, understanding it, and using it to protect others (even if they say or do things you do not approve of) is what provides the backbone for our society and what makes America a unique enterprise. In theory, under the law, everybody is equal. However, to truly achieve this, we must claw, scrape, and fight our way there. It is only equal because the people demand it is equal, no matter how despicable a crime or person we find the defendant to be. Should we let our guard down and let one of our fellow citizens to be put away through injustice, then it leaves nobody left to fight for us when injustice comes knocking on our front door.
In equal measure, the film shows the power that corruption and influence can have. By possessing wealth, you are given influence. The fact that one is wealthy makes them an authority figure of sorts and the populace believes them to be qualified to be an expert on whatever topic is at hand. Thus, when Andrew Holmes claims that Leopoldo burned down the mill, it is easy to believe a man. I mean, he is rich after all and it was his mill. How could he be wrong about this issue? There is a level of trust and assurance felt in this scenario that causes disinterest from the public that waters the seeds of injustice exactly in the way intended by those who are corrupt. By achieving success, speaking their mind, and preying on people's inherent trust of those in power or who are perceived to achieved more than most, those who are corrupt are able to exert their incredible influence to benefit their own bottom line. Through its depiction of this corruption, framing, influence, and how the seeds of injustice and paranoia are planted, The Talk of the Town pleads with audience members to question everything. Just because somebody in a perceived position of power believes something to be true, it is not un-American to question them openly. In fact, it is un-American to just accept everything at face value. This country was founded on people who questioned everything, refused to accept that things had to be the way they were, and took action to fix the perceived wrongs in their society. To just sit back out of comfort and disinterest, allowing those in power to tell you what to think and do (no matter your or their political affiliation) is dangerous and is what is leading this country straight into the gutter. In 1942, The Talk of the Town saw this in the world and its creators would likely be dismayed to see it continue to be prevalent in society today.
Smartly written with a tremendous pro-thought message, The Talk of the Town is a social issue drama that checks all of the right boxes. It makes you think, is interesting as a dramatic work, and it makes you laugh. With a brilliant turn from Jean Arthur taking center stage - even if she is largely just on the peripheral of the plot - The Talk of the Town is a charming, smart, and impeccably funny film. Playing up the best elements of screwball comedies with smart banter and wit throughout, director George Stevens is able to blend it with an effort to raise awareness to the critical need for Americans to use their own mind in politics and in life. The end result is a film that works on every front with impeccably effective, precise, and powerful, delivery of its themes.