Sunday, March 15, 2009

"The Talk of the Town"

While I was living in England, my red ("ginger") beard was a source of predictable amusement to the more puerile inhabitants of the kingdom. Teenagers especially liked to point and laughingly call out "ginger!" Or, sometimes, "ginger pubes!"

I was reminded of this last night as I watched George Stevens' superb 1942 comedy, The Talk of the Town." The film stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Ronald Colman. Grant plays Leopold Dilg, who for years has been speaking out about poor conditions at the local woolen mill. When someone torches the mill, causing the death of the foreman, Dilg is immediately suspected and sent to jail. In the opening minutes of the film, he escapes from jail and hides out in the attic of a cottage owned by local school teacher Nora Shelley (Arthur), which she is preparing for a new tenant, law professor Michael Lightcap (Colman). Romantic screwball comedy ensues, as Nora attempts to keep Dilg hidden, and eventually attempts to enlist Professor Lightcap in clearing his name.

One of the running jokes in the film is Professor Lightcap's beard, which is a rarity in the New England town of Lochester in 1942. Lightcap explains that he grew the beard because, as a fresh-faced young law professor, he needed something to lend him maturity and dignitas. But as Nora and the Professor are strolling through Lochester, the beard provokes amusement. A passing schoolgirl, arm-in-arm with a friend, points at Lightcap and calls out, "Beaver!"

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "beaver" was an early twentieth-century slang term for a bearded man (first attested in the dictionary in 1910). In the 1920s, when beards were briefly fashionable, it became a game to spot bearded men and call out "beaver!" The OED cites this passage in The New Statesman from 1922: "This amazing game of Beaver ... is played ... by two persons, and the points are scored as in tennis. Whichever of the two first cries ‘Beaver!’ as a beard heaves into sight, scores."

A few years later, according to the OED, the term "beaver" was first attested as a slang term for female genitalia. This was in a book titled Immortalia: An Anthology of American Ballads, Sailors' Songs, Cowboy Songs, College Songs, Parodies, Limericks, and Other Humorous Verses and Doggerel, published in 1927. The limerick in question (cited in part by the OED) is as follows:
There was a young lady named Eva
Who filled up the bath to receive her.
She took off her clothes
From her head to her toes,
And a voice at the keyhole yelled, "Beaver!"
By the time Talk of the Town came out in 1942, "beaver" was clearly established as a slang term for female genitalia, and on the wane as a term for a bearded man ("The cry ‘Beaver!’ is a thing of the past," wrote children's folklorists Iona and Peter Opie in 1959).

In the film, Lightcap is portrayed as effete and removed from the hurly-burly of actual experience. In one scene, he's shown having a manicure, and the manicurist tells him he has beautiful hands. Dilg (passing himself off as Joseph, the gardener) spends much of the film trying to get Lightcap to make the connection between his abstract ideas about the law and its real-life application. In the course of this, an interesting romantic triangle develops between Dilg, Lightcap, and Miss Shelley—in which Miss Shelley often seems to be the odd woman out. There's more of a spark between Grant and Colman than there is between either man and Jean Arthur.

In an interesting bit of cross-gender comedy early in the film, Miss Shelley arranges to spend the night at the cottage, ostensibly because she had a fight with her mother, but really to keep an eye on Dilg, who's hiding in the attic. She borrows a pair of silk pajamas from Professor Lightcap, and in her room she preens in front of the mirror, pulling her long hair over her upper lip to simulate facial hair and talking in a plummy voice in imitation of the professor. Miss Shelley becomes a kind of surrogate, a stand-in meant to absorb the attraction between the two men.

Indeed, others have noted the "homosexual subtext" in the film. One could trace, for example, the phallic and homoerotic imagery: Dilg with his overlarge baseball bat early in the film; Dilg unwrapping a stout mason jar of borscht; the affectionate exchanges between the two men each time one of them is about to punch the other in the face. (Eggs—sunny-side up or as a special ingredient in borscht—are also an interesting symbol in the film.) But what interests me is the pivotal scene in which Lightcap shaves off his beard, as his black manservant Tilney stands by and sheds a tear. Shaving is Lightcap's way of announcing his manhood, of stepping out of his feminized sphere of legal abstraction and engaging with the real world.

Freshly-shaven Professor Lightcap goes out on a date with Regina Bush, the lover of Clyde Bracken, the foreman allegedly killed in the mill fire. But the purpose of the "date" is to extract information about the whereabouts of Bracken, whom Lightcap suspects is still alive. Lightcap is using the woman to get to a man: just as Miss Shelley seems to be a kind of go-between for the attraction between Lightcap and Dilg.

Talk of the Town is a great film, beautifully crafted and acted, and endlessly fascinating. I've watched four or five times, and each time I've laughed out loud and noticed something new. It's interesting that, shortly after making this film about confronting the real-world consequences of one's ideals, director George Stevens joined the Army Signal Corps, and on D-Day shot the only color footage of the Normandy invasion.


Bleeet said...

So Lightcap loses his "beaver" in pursuit of a Bush (a "queen" bush, at that) as the key method for finding Bracken (a bushy fern)?

I think the verbal play comes to the fore. Quite clearly.

Mary S. said...

Rob: Thanks for this great review. I saw Talk of the Town a year or so ago and thought it was hilarious but also moving in a lot of ways. (The scene with the valet is really poignant.) I remember being dissatisfied with the romance elements of the plot. Now I know why.

Mary S. said...

Rob: Almost immediately after I sent my last comment, I was plagued by a feeling it might be misinterpreted. I'm wondering if you could edit it by adding the following sentence to the very end...

I was looking at the wrong couple.

Mary S.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .