Second looks: Jeanne Crain in ‘People Will Talk’

A note from Lindsey: I promise you I’ve had this post drafted/this “Second Looks” series planned since long before TCM’s series of the same name started up. I’ve been thinking of doing this since creating the “re-watch reviews” category that I mainly use for “Favorite Things About…” posts. These posts will be reevaluations of old favorites as well as films I didn’t particularly enjoy the first time around and will sometimes focus on a specific performance, as today’s post does. Thesaurus gave me no help in trying to rename the series, so I’m sticking with “Second Looks.”

(Image: filmaffinity)
(Image: filmaffinity)

This post contains spoilers for People Will Talk.

Jeanne Elizabeth Crain was born on May 25, 1925 in Barstow, California. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was just a kid, and she started off a career as an ice skater before finding success on the big screen. Spanning from her bit part in her very first film, The Gang’s All Here, at the age of 18 to her final role in 1972’s Skyjacked, Crain’s career included a number of remarkable roles, including one that earned her an Oscar nomination (Pinky).

Today, in honor of Jeanne’s birthday, I’d like to take a second look at one of her most well-known performances among classic fans: as Deborah in People Will Talk, released in 1951 and co-starring Cary Grant.

Written for the screen and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a play by Curt Goetz, the film follows Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant), a prominent and well-liked doctor. Noah practices medicine and teaches at the local medical college.

Dr. Praetorius is antagonized by a colleague, Professor Elwell (Hume Cronyn), who disagrees with his views on medicine.

Noah befriends a young, unwed mother named Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain), whose boyfriend was killed in action during the Korean War. The two first meet in Dr. Praetorius’ anatomy class, where Deborah faints after seeing a corpse. Their relationship only adds further fuel to Professor Elwell’s hateful fire.

There are many criticisms that have been thrown at People Will Talk: it’s too contrived, too wordy, not funny enough, poorly written, poorly acted. Just about any insult that you can think of to use in describing a movie has been used here. On the other hand, there are many people who adore the film. It holds a 7.3 rating on IMDb, a 75% audience approval rating on rottentomatoes.com with four “fresh” critic reviews (zero rotten) and enthusiastic reviewers have described it as “under-appreciated,” “beautiful,” “a gem.” Very few opinions seem to fall in between — it’s a film that people either love or hate.

(Image: Doctor Macro)
(Image: Doctor Macro)

I happen to fall on the brighter side of the argument, though this is not my favorite Cary Grant or Jeanne Crain film. People Will Talk has some issues, but it’s a film that I’ve liked enough to re-watch a couple of times. But rather than discuss the merits of the film as a whole, I’d like to focus specifically on Jeanne’s performance.

When we first meet her, Deborah doesn’t seem like a particularly significant character. Though viewers recognize her as a highly-billed star of the film and in that way she does stand out amongst her on-screen classmates, Crain blends quite seamlessly into the group. She’s just an average student to the audience… until she faints, catching the attention of both the audience and Dr. Praetorius.

After the fainting incident in the classroom, Crain’s next major scene is her appointment with Dr. Praetorius in which he reveals that she’s pregnant. This is an incredibly wordy scene which allows us to learn the background of Deborah’s loss of her boyfriend, but it also includes one of Crain’s best dialogue-free moments in the film. As Deborah slowly lowers herself into a chair and absorbs the shocking news she’s just received, the confusion on Crain’s face is so clear. She already had an idea that she might be pregnant before meeting with Dr. Praetorius, but the reality of it hits her in that moment. We see that sudden flood of emotion in Crain, and it’s one of her strongest emotive moments throughout the entire film.

Upon leaving Dr. Praetorius’ office, Deborah attempts to commit suicide but suffers only a flesh wound. She disappears for a while at this point, as she recovers and we get to know Dr. Praetorius better. When we meet her again, Dr. Praetorius lies to her and tells her that her results were confused with another test and that she’s not pregnant. Crain once again perfectly portrays her character’s emotions, here. Even without the pregnancy to worry about, she’s still unhappy, and Crain gives Deborah a very despondent attitude at this point.

We later learn that she escaped from the hospital after Dr. Praetorius visited her. Noah makes a visit to Deborah’s house in hopes that she’ll have gone there. On Dr. Praetorius’ arrival, Crain gives her character an air of annoyance that bolsters the film’s tension and create an interesting dynamic between the two characters.

The mood of the film soon takes a shift as Deborah and Noah’s relationship takes on a lighter, more romantic angle. Here Jeanne takes on the role of romantic lead, much sweeter and charismatic than before.

(Image: A Movie Scrapbook)
(Image: A Movie Scrapbook)

But soon enough the film shifts once again, taking on more of a focus on Dr. Praetorius’ rivalry with Professor Elwell. The tension of the film as a whole is bolstered once again, but with Deborah’s relationship with Noah taking a back seat to his career drama, Crain’s performance becomes very even. She remains solidly in character but no longer stands out, as her dilemma has been solved and her role has been minimalized in favor of the trials of her husband.

Crain still gets a few shining moments in the remaining half hour of the film. The moment that she realizes that Dr. Praetorius lied to her about the pregnancy is one such moment. Crain’s eyes widen, and she becomes very cold and closed-off toward Noah… at least temporarily. It is a perfect shift by Crain back into the persona that Deborah had at the beginning of the film. Gone is the calm, collected, sophisticated Mrs. Praetorius that we saw only a few moments ago, and returned is the conflicted Miss Higgins, who has brought the story’s focus back to herself.

People Will Talk is a flawed but engrossing film, in which Jeanne Crain gives a performance that is at times quite understated and at other times very powerful. Happy birthday to the wonderful actress!

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