At first, People Will Talk may be perceived as a simple (though very well written) touching comedy. But a second look lets you see a complex story, which explores questions of independence, jealousy, honesty and, surprisingly, medicine.
Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant) is every one’s dream doctor, friend or lover. A considerate doctor, a talented director of the university orchestra, a faithful friend, and an open-minded human being, he is appreciated both by his patients and colleagues, whether at the university (where his classes are packed with eager students who want to listen to anything he might have to say), or at his clinic where most of his patients are women, who usually are in love with him. But Noah Praetorius is an unusual doctor: though he believes in medicine, he explains that he is willing to use any method to “make sick people well”, be it through the use of a pill, a pomade or a simple talk… Anything is good as long as it makes the patient feel better.
But because he is a secretive character, always followed by a silent man whom nobody knows anything about, and because of his success, he attracts both admiration and jealousy. Especially from Professor Elwell (Hume Cronyn), one of his colleagues who doesn’t seem to enjoy much in life. He starts to rummage in Praetorius’s past, just as Noah starts to fall for one of his patients: a young woman with an unexpected pregnancy from a man she is not married to. People Will Talk, as its title indicates, tackles this very important issue: what will others say about you? Noah doesn’t care much, but because others do, he finally has to defend himself.
Though nowadays the movie can be seen as a joyous and optimistic story about an unusual doctor, it is, more than anything, a story that relates to this black period that was the Red Scare in Hollywood (and really, everywhere in the United States). Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who at the time was the head of the Screen Directors Guild (SDG), led the fight against those who, steered by Cecil B. DeMille, wanted to impose a “non-communist loyalty oath”. This fight culminated during a meeting of the Guild held on October 22, 1950, during which Mankiewicz, and some directors who agreed with him, fought against DeMille and eventually won. In People Will Talk, the most heated sequence is certainly the one at the end when (spoiler alert) after much manipulating and a lot of smearing, Elwell manages to call a meeting of the board of the university to assess Praetorius’s professionalism. The parallel with the House Un-American Activities Committee is cunning, and when you know about Mankiewicz’s story, there can’t be any doubt about the message he wants to convey.
On top of this humanist message, People Will Talk happens to be a beautifully directed movie. Cary Grant has never seemed happier than here, playing with a train-set or directing the university orchestra and his obvious pleasure in playing this part is contagious. He is well assisted by Walter Slezak in the role of his ironic best friend: an atomic physicist who plays the double bass. Even though the subject he tackles is quite dark and actually destroyed many lives in this period, Mankiewicz keeps his movie hopeful, both with his dialogues (as witty as you can hope for), and by his directing.
People Will Talk is modern in every sense of the word: its story and values remain just as topical as ever.
Writer and Director:
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Darryl F. Zannuck
August 29, 1951