Precious Bodily Fluids

The Talk of the Town: Spirited Justice

They're just words

Another deeply enjoyable viewing at the Stanford Theatre during their spring program, George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town. This sort of film has a purity to it, an innocence that makes you want to watch more like it and enter into its world. It’s funny, well-executed, and it wears all its main themes and concerns right on its sleeves. No big plot twists, no camera angles that just make you think, no method acting. There’s something to be said for this. It’s political in the best possible way, showing the transformation of not one but two characters, each of which are entrenched in their own opposing ideals, that dangerous slough from which there is little chance of escape. To quote President Obama’s statement yesterday concerning the threat of rogue nuclear weaponry, “Words have to mean something.” This is in some ways the point of this film: words have no real value until they have street value. The law professor begins the narrative refusing to lower himself from the clouds of judicial philosophy, then ends up interrupting a lynch mob’s invasion of a courtroom to give an impassioned speech on the importance of the human heart and common sense to counterbalance the innumerable volumes of law books that clutter the shelves of attorneys and judges.

Guilty before proven

Aside from the straightforward but impressive ideas contained in the film, the real injustice would be not to mention Jean Arthur. Her goofy, screwball persona is what gives the film its warmth. Without her, Cary Grant would just be competing with Ronald Colman for screen time. The two men work fine together, but the macho bit is rather unbecoming. The film almost seems to exist for Jean, who sacrifices her own sanity for the sake of the men. At the finale, she chastises them for thinking they control her and wields her own choice as to which man she’ll leave with. The tragedy of the ending is the loss of the little family they’d constructed and openly acknowledged. The new court justice does so for the greater good, however. Each character takes turns filling the domestic role in the family home, perhaps with Cary Grant doing so most naturally. (A screenshot of this scene would be nice, but good luck finding anything online.) If this one offers anything slightly hidden, it has to do with the superficiality of the inscription. Words of justice are meaningless without pragmatic interpretation. Even a photo shows nothing, as Grant’s characters says when he encounters his own wanted poster, if it has no spirit. The process of things is mechanized, the recording and prescribing empty without humanity to inform, reconsider, and apply.

I dream of Jean

This entry was published on April 14, 2010 at 10:17 am. It’s filed under 1940s Cinema, American film and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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