Tuesday, January 17, 2012

movienotes: people will talk

All the feelings!
One of the perks (shall we say) of being able to afford only Netflix instant streaming is that the most random things pop up as possible viewing options when Hanna and I are looking around for something not-too-serious to watch on a weekend afternoon. Over the winter holiday we watched some doozies, a couple of which I'm going to write about here because, well, I can.

The subject of today's post is People Will Talk (1951), starring Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain. First, a brief synopsis of the plot; then a few observations. Cary Grant plays popular gynecologist Dr. Noah Praetorius who, as the film opens, is in private practice and lecturing at an un-named medical school. He is also under investigation by a colleague, Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn), although it's not clear what for. When a student, Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain), faints in anatomy class, Praetorius advises her to see a physician. She later turns up at his clinic and tests reveal she's six weeks pregnant. Distraught, Deborah reveals her lover was in the military and recently died in combat, leaving her unmarried. Dr. Praetorius encourages her to speak to her father, which she insists is impossible. Upon leaving the doctor's office, she attempts to commit suicide by shooting herself, but fails. Dr. Praetorius keeps her overnight for medical observation. In a late-night conversation he lies to her, telling her there was a mistake and she is not pregnant (seeking to forestall further suicide attempts), and Deborah reveals she has fallen in love with him. After Praetorius leaves, she escapes the clinic and disappears.

Dr. Praetorius and his mysterious sidekick, Shunderson, track Deborah down to the farm where she lives with her father and uncle. It transpires that Higgins, Sr., is a widower in financial ruin who was forced to apply to his brother for support. Mr. Higgins and Deborah live as dependents to Deborah's uncle who is revealed as a religious fundamentalist and penny-pincher whose sole occupation appears to be milking the government for agricultural subsidies under false pretenses. After Praetorius and Deborah inevitably decide to get married, Mr. Higgins, Deborah, and the farm's collie make an escape with Praetorius and Shunderson, leaving the farm behind forever.

Meanwhile, back at the university, Dr. Praetorius's suspicious colleague, Elwell, has hired private detectives to investigate Noah Praetorius's past and particularly his relationship with Shunderson who (we learn through newspaper clippings) was under suspicion for murder back in the 1910s. Two weeks later, we catch up with the Praetorius household as they are preparing to celebrate Noah's 41st birthday. Noah and Deborah are now married and when Elwell shows up on the doorstep to issue Dr. Praetorius a summons to a closed hearing in order to answer the charges against him, Deborah refuses to let Elwell see her husband, staunchly defending him against any past wrongdoing. Later, however, when she takes the sealed envelope to Noah she collapses in tears. She asks Praetorius whether it seems she's been crying more than usual lately, and in the course of the conversation it comes out that Deborah is pregnant and that Praetorius lied about the results of her pregnancy test. The two argue, with Deborah fearful that Noah will not accept the child and uncertain about her own feelings about motherhood. The argument is cut short by Deborah's father, Shunderson, and one of Praetorius's good friends who call them down to the birthday celebrations.

The final act takes place at the university, during the faculty hearing, where it transpires that Dr. Praetorius is being charged with a series of past actions which cast doubts upon his character. First, Elwell accuses him of practicing medicine in a rural village while also working as a butcher. Praetorius replies that he found the villagers were suspicious of his medical degree, and more receptive to his treatments if he positioned himself as a butcher who also happened to have medical knowledge, rather than a doctor with "book learning." After the villagers discover his medical diploma, they run him out of town. Second, Elwell raises the question of Shunderson, who appears to tell his own story. Shunderson tells a convoluted back story about a love triangle that resulted in his being hanged for murder. Praetorius, a medical student at the time, was given Shunderson's body by the hang man to practice dissection -- only to discover that Shunderson was not actually dead. The faculty committee dismiss all charges and Dr. and Mrs. Praetorius ride off into the (metaphorical) sunset with Shunderson at their side.

So, yeah. Obviously there are some issues here for a modern-day audience, beginning with Noah Praetorius's decision to lie to his patient about her pregnancy and then marry her. Even within the film this is recognized, briefly, as an unethical move by both Noah Praetorius's closest friend (also at the medical school) and by Deborah herself. Yet the story ultimately rolls this action into the larger story of Praetorius's benevolence and struggle to help people (in opposition to dehumanizing institutions). Contemporary audiences were obviously expected to sympathize with Praetorius's motives -- his impulse to protect Deborah from further attempts to take her own life -- and to see the end result of husband, wife, and future child as a positive outcome. Even Hanna and I agreed that Noah's insistence that the paternity of the child didn't matter to him, and his utter unconcern that Deborah is not a virgin, are points in his favor. Still, this doesn't mitigate the fact that the doctor/husband in this scenario essentially manipulates his patient/wife into motherhood when she all but asks him for a referral for abortion services. Obviously abortion isn't discussed in the film, but Deborah makes it clear she doesn't want to be/can't be pregnant, and fears speaking about the situation in her family. When Praetorius refuses to help her, she tries to kill herself.

The other thread in the film I found intriguing is the way Praetorius -- as a medical professional -- is positioned as a benevolent rogue whose humanizing approach to medicine is in contrast to the petty competition of the university, the faceless bureaucracy of the hospital, and even the greedy slothfulness of Deborah's uncle who thinks only of his own gain. Praetorius, on the other hand, is depicted as relentlessly thinking about the good (as he sees it) of others -- the suspicious people he treated out of his butcher shop, Deborah and her father, and the slightly brain-damaged Shunderson. The final closed faculty hearing -- with the use of private detection services, and investigation of past associations that have no bearing on Praetorius's medical practice per se -- foreshadows the loyalty hearings and persecution of non-conformity that would color the McCarthy era. While the film clearly condemns the actions of Elwell and those on the committee ready to believe him, it's unclear what motivates Elwell to investigate Praetorius's past, or what -- beyond unsuitable connections -- Praetorius is supposed to have done to jeopardize his standing in the medical community. The spurious charges the committee levels against Dr. Noah Praetorius results in a narrative that absolves the character of wrong-doing, leaving the far more morally questionable aspects of his behavior unaddressed -- the committee hasn't called him in to question his breach of ethics in lying to, or marrying, a patient after all.

Ah, adventures in vintage cinema. At least People Will Talk was less egregious -- and certainly less confused! -- then the musical Calamity Jane (1953) which I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago. Maybe. I think?

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