Saturday, August 17, 2019

People Will Talk (1951): Doctor Praetorius and The Wrong Frog

In the 1950s, a doctor determined if a woman was pregnant by injecting the woman's urine under the skin of an African frog.  If the woman was pregnant, the frog would produce a cluster of eggs within a few hours.  This was called the Hogben test.  People Will Talk (1951) taught me about this test, which plays a pivotal role in the story.  Actually, I may be in error to use the word "pivotal."  Nothing of crucial importance happens in this film.  Dr. Praetorius (Cary Grant) learns from the Hogben test that Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain), a student who fainted in his class, is pregnant.  Deborah is so distressed by the news that she steps outside the doctor's office and shoots herself.  Praetorius is relieved to find that the suicide attempt only caused a flesh wound.  He tells a friend, "It's a good thing most people haven't the foggiest notion where the heart is actually located.  She didn't even come close."  But Praetorius figures he can calm the young lady by telling her that he was wrong about his pregnancy diagnosis.  He tells her:
I have something to tell you.  As a pompous know-it-all, it isn't going to be easy.  But do you remember the remote possibility that I thought could never occur. . . about the frog being wrong?  Well, the frog wasn't wrong, but you got the wrong frog.  It seems the possibility of a laboratory assistant making a mistake is not remote at all.
He marries the woman and doesn't reveal to her for weeks that she really is pregnant.  This may sound odd to you.  It certainly sounded odd to me.  Truth is, the entire film is pretty much like this.


I find it difficult to justify my enjoyment of People Will Talk. The film slaps together plot elements that are odd, odder and oddest.  It gets preachy at times.  It pretends to have a story that really isn't there.  The film's climax centers on a hearing that will decide if Praetorius is guilty of misconduct and can keep his professor job at the college.  But the misconduct charges are so flimsy that the hearing is anti-climactic.  Praetorius has never neglected his duties, he has never violated the school's code of ethics and, most importantly, he has never brought harm to anyone. So, where is the misconduct? The hearing is organized by a jealous colleague, Professor Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn), who simply thinks Praetorius is peculiar. He is, so what? Elwell's suspicions about the doctor are exacerbated by the doctor's reticence to talk about his past.  Regardless of Elwell's feelings, nothing could possibly come from this hearing.

Grant is as charming as he ever has been and he is amusing with his many curious observations, from his thoughts on the superior flavor of sauerkraut prepared in a barrel to his offbeat philosophy of medicine ("One of the few pleasures of being sick is the right to feel good and miserable.  Don't let any doctor tell you differently.").  Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Grant's portrayal of Dr. Praetorius "an effective mixture of medicine and merriment."

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