Talk of the Town [1942]

The screwball comedy was the definitive genre of the Depression, but as America edged toward war in the early '40s, it suffered some strange and wonderful mutations--none stranger than The Talk of the Town, directed by George Stevens from a script by novelist Irwin Shaw and frequent Capra collaborator (and future blacklist victim) Sidney Buchman. Cary Grant, awkwardly cast, is a small-town political agitator who is framed for the burning of a local factory; he takes refuge in the attic of a country cottage that landlady Jean Arthur is preparing to rent out to a celebrated law professor (silver-tongued Ronald Colman, perhaps the only actor in Hollywood who could make Grant look like a proletarian). Stevens, suspended between his light '30s style (Swing Time) and his heavy postwar manner (A Place in the Sun), struggles to balance a charming, surprisingly suspenseful romantic triangle with the heavy, debating-society tone of the screenplay, which pits Grant, the representative of a compassionate, emotional sense of justice, against the cool, abstract application of the law advocated by Colman. Caught between these two highly verbal characters, Jean Arthur doesn't have much to do but be adorable and provide the occasional quizzical reaction shot--two things she does with exquisite skill. Stevens and Arthur teamed up again one year later for another strange-bedfellows farce, the marvelous The More the Merrier; in 1953 Arthur made her final film appearance in Stevens's Shane. --Dave Kehr

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