Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain in People Will Talk (1951)


(director/writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; screenwriter: from the play Dr. Praetorius by Curt Goetz; cinematographer: Milton Krasner; editor: Barbara McLean; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Cary Grant (Dr. Noah Praetorius), Jeanne Crain (Debbie Higgins), Walter Slezak (Prof. Barker), Hume Cronyn (Prof. Elwell), Sidney Blackmer (Arthur Higgins), Finlay Currie (Shunderson), Basil Ruysdael (Dean Lyman Brockwell); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; 20th Century Fox; 1951)
“Mankiewicz’s chatty and dyspeptic liberal response to Senator McCarthy’s witch hunting days.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

People Will Talk is director and writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s chatty and dyspeptic liberal response to Senator McCarthy’s witch hunting days. It turns Cary Grant loose as the director’s spokesman, as he plays Dr. Praetorius an unorthodox gynecologist and medical professor at a sleepy small Midwestern college who is more concerned with matters of the human soul than the human body. He controversially believes in mind control over heavy doses of medicine as a cure. The film is adapted from Curt Goetz’s German play, “Dr. Praetorius.”

Though respected by his patients and students, he is sneered at by his close-minded and jealous colleagues. One of these colleagues is the oily anti-human anatomy professor, Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn), who represents the dogmatically limited attitude of Senator McCarthy. Elwell initiates a vicious smear campaign against Praetorius, attempting to discredit him due to his unswerving friendship with his mysterious loyal servant Shunderson (Finlay Currie)–who was twice imprisoned.

While Praetorius is teaching his medical class of future doctors a student, Debbie Higgins (Crain), faints during the lecture. An examination reveals she’s in the early stages of pregnancy. Mankiewicz’s treatment of the single mom is mainly symbolic to make a point that her so-called moral crime pales besides the hypocrisies of modern American society. When she tries to kill herself, he reacts by marrying her and saying his diagnosis was incorrect.

Elwell continues his hate-mongering campaign against his enemy professor, by getting the dean (Ruysdael) to check into his medical background. Praetorius has to stand trial, so to speak, as he defends himself to the school’s board of directors with the dean presiding as the judge. Cheerfully explaining his medical beliefs, he convinces them of his innocence. He also must convince Debbie that he married for love and not out of pity.

What is most amazing is that Mankiewicz got in all his political digs on the reactionary McCarthyism movement sweeping the country, while keeping the film deftly handled as a sophisticated urbane romantic comedy. This overlooked film about the triumph of the human spirit has one of Cary’s better performances, though the film suffers somewhat from a jumbled and unbelievable plotline.