Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cary Grant, subversive

Maybe he should have given the milk to Katharine Hepburn in 'Bringing Up Baby'For those who think Cary Grant was just a light actor who did elegant comedies. Before he got stereotyped that way, he had some very good performances in more serious roles. One of those is in The Talk of the Town, which is airing tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM ET on TCM.

Grant plays Leopold Dilg, a political radical in a small New England town who is the natural person to accuse when the town's mill gets burned to the ground: it's those pesky speeches he's been making about the workers' rights and the meanness of the bosses. He gets arrested and sent to jail, but having been wrongly accused, he escapes and makes his way to the isolated summer cottage of local teacher Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), as she is one of his oldest friends. The only problem is, there's no way he can stay there even if he weren't a fugitive on the run: she's rented out the place to law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman). He wants the place to work on his latest book on constitutional law, while he waits for an expected nomination to the Supreme Court.

At this point, you can begin to predict some of the plot. Shelley and Dilg have to keep his identity a secret from Lightcap, which they do by having play the caretaker/servant. They're also going to have to engage in an ever bigger series of deceptions to keep Dilg's presence a secret from the rest of the town; Lightcap is unknowingly going to give away Dilg's identity and location and then, when he learns Dilg's identity, he's going to keep that newfound knowledge a secret from Shelley and Dilg. And, along the way, there's a romantic triangle between the three leads to heighten the tension and provide a bit of levity at the same time.

The Talk of the Town is one of those movies that is a bit surprisingly underrated nowadays. It's fairly clearly making social commentary about the law and the possibility for the politically unpopular to get justice, one which is always timely. (Consider the recent moral panic over Four Loko, a caffeine/alcohol mix drunk by the "wrong people", versus how nobody minds a "right people's" caffeine/alcohol drink like Irish coffee.) And yet, the movie does makes its points in a way that isn't overbearing or propagandistic the way that a lot of "message" entertainment today seems to be. All three leads put in good performances, although in Arthur's case you can't help but think she's playing a character similar to the one she had already played in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Devil and Miss Jones.

The Talk of the Town has gotten a DVD release, and is well worth watching.

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