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By 1951, after toiling more than 20 years in Hollywood, Joseph L. Mankiewicz was at the top of his creative powers. He had earned back-to-back double Oscars® for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950), a feat still unmatched to this day. Both films had in common witty, sophisticated screenplays and a complex flashback structure. But Mankiewicz was no one-trick pony. In between those hits, he had also made the film noir House of Strangers (1949), and No Way Out (1950), a taut drama about racism that marked the film debut of Sidney Poitier. Mankiewicz's next film, People Will Talk (1951), was also unique, a drama of ideas, leavened with his trademark wit.
Based on a 1934 play by German writer-director Curt Goetz, People Will Talk stars Cary Grant as an eminent physician at a university medical school, Noah Praetorius, whose holistic medical philosophy is to treat the whole patient, mind as well as body. Mankiewicz, who had studied pre-med at Columbia University, had wanted to be a psychiatrist, and remained interested in medicine all his life. He decided to adapt the Goetz play after he had a negative experience in a hospital emergency room, and reshaped the screenplay to include his own ideas about medicine. In People Will Talk, Praetorius's belief in the mind-body connection of healing discomfits some of his more conventional colleagues, including Elwell, played by Hume Cronyn, who is actively looking for ways to discredit the popular Praetorius. One of Praetorius's patients is Deborah (Jeanne Crain), a young woman who tries to commit suicide when she finds out she is pregnant out of wedlock. The two fall in love, but the doctor must defend himself against charges of illicit practice of medicine before the university's board. A plot summary doesn't begin to describe the quirky charm, startlingly modern take on medical practices, and intellectual substance of People Will Talk, which Richard Brody described in a 2010 New Yorker blog as "a romance filled with comedy that ranges from the blithe to the angrily satirical -- yet it's one of the most aesthetically sophisticated movies ever to emerge from the high-studio era."
It's tempting to see People Will Talk, made during the McCarthy era when there was pressure on Hollywood to conform to "American values," as a commentary on the real-life House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. And indeed, some film historians have made that assumption. But the hearing at the climax of the film was in the original play, and Mankiewicz dismissed such a connection, and claimed he was apolitical. Yet while he was writing the screenplay for People Will Talk, Mankiewicz himself became a target of the anti-Communist hysteria in Hollywood. Serving as president of the Screen Directors Guild, he opposed forcing Guild members to sign a loyalty oath as a condition of membership and called for a membership meeting to discuss it. Rabid anti-Communist and Guild board member Cecil B. DeMille tried to gather support to oust Mankiewicz, but board members backed Mankiewicz's stand, and it was DeMille who was forced to resign.
Still, making People Will Talk was not without problems. Given subject matters such as unwed motherhood and suicide, the film inevitably faced censorship issues. Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration said the story was unacceptable because of the light treatment of "illegitimacy and illicit sex," and that the ending seemed "to indicate a definitely immoral act." After a revision, Breen asked for "a further strengthening of the voice for morality." The script was eventually approved, and although Breen had insisted that no reference be made to abortion in the finished film, Praetorius and Deborah discuss it frankly without ever using the "a" word.
Part of the reason Mankiewicz could get away with bending the rules was that "He had a highly developed skill for working within the confines of the studio system, and that included the Breen Office," according to Cheryl Bray Lower in the book Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Critical Essays (2001). "He learned early in his career not to belabor trivialities with Code administrators unless he was confident that he would win his point." The director was also negotiating from a position of strength: he had not only made two of the most popular and honored films of the past two years, he also had chosen one of the most popular and likeable stars in Hollywood to play the unconventional doctor. "Grant's onscreen persona was so positive that [producer Darryl F.] Zanuck and Mankiewicz believed he would lend an air of moral uprightness to a screenplay that, at its outset, violated the Code in a number of ways."
In spite of having been nominated for an Oscar® for Pinky (1949), and co-starring in A Letter to Three Wives, Jeanne Crain had to campaign for the role of Deborah. In fact, Zanuck and Mankiewicz originally rejected her and chose Anne Baxter for the part. But Baxter had to bow out because of pregnancy, and Crain was cast.
The marketing for People Will Talk downplayed the film's controversial nature by selling it as a faintly suggestive Cary Grant romantic comedy. The poster for the film showed the stars reclining cozily on a bed, and the tagline read, "The Picture That Takes a New Look at Life!" But the critics made it clear that there was nothing conventional about People Will Talk. Both stars, as well as the rest of the cast and the writer-director, received excellent reviews. "Grant...turns in one of the most intelligent performances of his nineteen-year Hollywood career," according to Newsweek. "And Miss Crain proves, as she did in Pinky, that she is ready to graduate from her usual pigtail roles. Much of the credit for an impressive film goes to the very adult and literate writing of Mankiewicz." Anne Helming of the Hollywood Citizen-News agreed: "Cary Grant is excellent as Praetorius, making his strange, noble, unpompous individual a warm, believable human being. Jeanne Crain is more skillful than usual as the girl, and supporting actors Hume Cronyn, Sidney Blackmer, and Finlay Currie, are uncommonly good, proving not only that they are capable actors, but that Mankiewicz the director is as outstanding as Mankiewicz the writer."
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the play Doctor Med. Hiob Prtorius, Facharzt fr Chirugie und Frauenleiden by Curt Goetz
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Editor: Barbara McLean
Costume Design: Charles Le Maire
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, George W. Davis
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Cary Grant (Dr. Noah Praetorius), Jeanne Crain (Deborah Higgins), Finlay Currie (Shunderson), Hume Cronyn (Professor Rodney Elwell), Walter Slezak ((Professor Lionel Barker), Sidney Blackmer (Arthur Higgins), Basil Ruysdael (Dean Lyman Brockwell), Katherine Locke (Miss James), Will Wright (John Higgins), Margaret Hamilton (Sarah Pickett).
by Margarita Landazuri