Leopold Dilg and Michael Lightcap: An Impossible Choice

Imagine you're a schoolteacher living in a quiet small town. Life has been pretty boring until a handsome young man that you grew up with comes sneaking into your house one stormy night to evade the police for a crime he didn't commit. Complicating matters is the stodgy law professor who has arrived to rent your place for the summer. Soon enough, you find yourself in the middle of a love triangle with two men who couldn't be more different. What's a girl to do?

This is the premise of George Stevens's The Talk of the Town (1942), a gorgeously crafted film that blends comedy and drama. While the film juggles heady themes like justice and morality, its core is the relationship that ties together Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant), and Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman). When childhood friend Dilg comes crashing back into her life, Nora finds herself helping him hide from the law after he explains how he was framed for the burning of a mill and the resulting death of its foreman.

Injured from his jailbreak, Dilg is forced to stay in the attic of Nora's rental home while it is being used by Prof. Lightcap and pretends to be Joseph, the gardener. Finagling herself a position as Lightcap's secretary, Nora, along with Dilg and his lawyer Sam (Edgar Buchanan), hope to get the professor interested in proving Dilg's innocence by showing him how everything from the judge to the media is being turned against Dilg.

As the days go by, Lightcap becomes appalled at how Dilg's case is being handled while he also grows closer to both Nora and "Joseph." With the police closing in, will Lightcap be able to save Dilg? What will happen to their friendship? And which man could Nora possibly choose?

That last question isn't just difficult for Nora; the audience struggles with the decision, too. On the one hand, we have Dilg, sweet, rebellious Dilg. A champion for the underdog, we discover he was framed because he wanted to help the mill workers rather than see them be mistreated by the corrupt owner. In his discussions with Lightcap, he argues for a "warm human side" to the law, believing that in order for justice to be fair, it has to take into account more than just the cold, hard facts.

Dilg demonstrates his own "warm human side" often, especially when it comes to the woman he calls Ms. Shelley. Whenever they're alone together, he always manages to give her a look or say something lovely that more than hints at how he adores her. Reminiscing about their childhood, he quietly recalls, "You wore pigtails then. I was in love with you." As those words hang in the air, we realize that perhaps Dilg didn't just come to Nora's because it was the closest shelter he could find. Devastatingly handsome, perpetually hungry, slightly mischievous, and deliciously funny, Dilg overwhelms me whenever he is onscreen.

At first, Michael Lightcap would seem to be the opposite of the dashing fugitive. The very picture of the prim and proper professor, Lightcap is rigid and orderly. All he wants for the summer is peace and quiet, which is immediately and consistently out of reach thanks to Nora and Dilg. However, it is Lightcap's character arc that is the substance of the film. As he spends more time with Nora and Dilg, he finds his beliefs being challenged and his warm personality being coaxed out. The three of them develop an unlikely friendship, and yet Nora wonders if there is something more. "That professor, he's got a mind like a steel trap," she tells Sam. "And sometimes he seems like such a little boy that I feel like going over and kissing him." Having overheard her, Dilg chimes in, sincerely saying, "Naturally you feel like kissing him. He's a wonderful man. And the way that he looks at you, too, Ms. Shelley."

After discovering who "Joseph" really is, Lightcap feels he must turn him in to the police, a decision that Dilg understands. He then starts investigating Dilg's case and sees that the key to the whole thing may be Regina (Glenda Farrell), the girlfriend of the supposedly dead foreman. In one of the film's most significant scenes, Lightcap shaves off his hideous beard to seduce Regina, a beard that he confided in Nora he grew as a young professor because he found it made him invisible ("I was busy and had no time for nonsense. The beard was a fortress"). By ridding himself of his beard, he takes another giant step in his transformation, the twinkling in his eyes intensifying. He successfully flirts with Regina and winds up cracking the case wide open.

In a move that directly contrasts an earlier scene, Lightcap prepares to turn Dilg in again, apologizing by telling him, "I've never been fonder of a man in my life." But as the scene goes on, Lightcap recognizes how dangerous it would be to give up Dilg as the public becomes increasingly bloodthirsty. Afraid that Lightcap would be jeopardizing his upcoming appointment to the Supreme Court, Dilg refuses to let his friend help him and decides to turn himself in but isn't given the chance when Lightcap lies to the police and knocks him unconscious. Nora is astonished by the lengths the men go to for each other, marveling to herself, "They're both nuts!" By the end of the film, Lightcap is virtually unrecognizable from the character we first met. He was always a good man, but with the guidance of Nora and Dilg, he has learned how to be open-minded and courageous.

Although they are set up as contrasting figures, Lightcap and Dilg are similar in that they both believe deeply in doing the right thing and they learn to see each other's perspectives. They value their friendship immensely and never resent the other's feelings for Nora, making the decision of who she ends up with even trickier. Each man admires her for who she is: an intelligent, resourceful, kind, funny woman. Lightcap grows to love her quirks while Dilg is reminded of why he fell for her when they were kids.

Ironically enough, the idea of these characters being so different and yet so similar extends to the men who portrayed them. Cary Grant and Ronald Colman had very diverse careers: Grant was mostly given opportunities to excel in comedy and left film at his peak; Colman was more associated with drama and isn't nearly as well-known today as he should be. The actors' styles and personas were distinctive from one another as well, but they were also both debonair British leading men with irresistible voices and it is such a joy to watch them together.

Surprisingly, Grant and Colman weren't crazy about being co-stars as they were used to being the sole leading man. But to me, that's what makes The Talk of the Town so appealing. Because the actors are both giant stars with magnetic personalities, it raises the romantic storyline's stakes and puts you in the position of rooting for Dilg and Lightcap. It's been said that George Stevens filmed two different endings and let preview audiences decide who the fateful couple would be. It appears, though, that this was a rumor since all of the screenplay's drafts indicated that only one ending was ever filmed.

Spoilers below!

After Dilg's name is cleared, the three friends are able to move forward in their lives. In Washington, Nora surprises Lightcap with a visit to his chambers before his first day as a Supreme Court Justice. She is ecstatic for him, but she also seems worried. Lightcap can sense this and tells her that he has ultimately found happiness in his new position, a 20-year-old dream come true. He may love Nora, but he loves his friendship with her and Dilg more and encourages her to be with Dilg. Lightcap gives Nora a kiss and goes into the courtroom.

Dilg soon arrives and sits in the audience a row behind Nora. When he sees Lightcap and Nora exchange happy glances with one another, his face falls and he leaves the room. She follows him out and he congratulates her on choosing a fine man who can give her a stable, dignified life. He then gives her a breathtaking kiss -- literally -- and walks away. Absolutely sure now who she wants, Nora chases after him and stuns him with a wonderful kiss of her own. He continues to walk away... before turning back, taking her hand, and whisking her out of frame.

Always sensible, Nora chooses to ignore her head and goes with her heart. The future may be uncertain, but for the girl who almost got away and the boy who loves egg in his borscht, that future is definitely bright.


This is my contribution to the Reel Infatuation Blogathon, hosted by Font and Frock and Silver Screenings. You can read more love letters to fictional characters here!


  1. Absolutely perfect selection(s) for the blogathon and such a treat to read.

    1. Have you ever seen Ronald Colman where he didn't seem born to play that particular role? I never have.

    2. When I was a teenager I wanted to be Nora Shelley. I wanted her house and I wanted her dilemma.

    3. "Stop saying "Leopold" like that, tenderly. It sounds funny. You can't do it with a name like Leopold."

    4. Glenda Farrell!

    1. Thanks! Ronald Colman was the perfect choice for this role. I can't imagine who would have been better.

      I want to be Nora, too! I get a beautiful cottage, lovely clothes, AND two gorgeous men to choose from? Sold!

      I love that quote. Now I wish I had included it.

      Three cheers for Glenda! I've become such a fan of hers this past year. I actually saw this film long before I really knew her, so I completely forgot she was in it.

  2. This film, to me, is pure movie magic. It has the best possible cast and script and director and sets and...

    And it's SO HARD to decide which man Jean Arthur should choose! Both are attractive and have good qualities, and she's the type of person who could be happy with either. Ultimately, though, I'm happy with the choice she makes in the end. Like you said, the way Cary Grant looks at her would be awfully hard to resist.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon and for reviewing one of my all-time faves.

    1. You're so right. When I first discovered it years ago, I couldn't believe that Arthur, Grant, and Colman actually starred together in something. It still feels like a miracle we've been blessed with.

      I'm happy with her choice, too! I love Lightcap, but Dilg. Oh my goodness, Dilg. It doesn't hurt that he looks like Cary, either. :)

      Thanks for having me! For a moment I thought I was going to have to drop out, but my love for the film won out.

  3. Great review and wonderful photos. Just a delightful film and a terrific trio of stars.

    1. Thank you! My DVD's quality wasn't quite as crisp as I would've liked, but my screenshots turned out better than I thought. And I agree, this film is wonderful from start to finish.

  4. GEORGE STEVENS had earlier directed PENNY SERENADE with CARY GRANT & IRENE DUNNE. Later he would direct the classic western SHANE with ALAN LADD and in her last movie, JEAN ARTHUR.

  5. Ive only seen RONALD COLMAN in one movie, LUCKY PARTNERS(1940) with one of my absolute favorites-GINGER ROGERS. Ginger had really dark hair in this one. (Im the one that wrote about GEORGE STEVENS.) Classic TV Fan

    1. George Stevens and Jean Arthur's collaborations were always great. I haven't seen Penny Serenade yet, but I've heard Cary Grant's performance is stellar.

      I just bought Lucky Partners on DVD, funnily enough. I saw it before some years ago and I remember liking it, but I'm excited to see it again. Ginger is one of my favorites, too.

  6. The star power here is almost overpowering. Ronald is tough competition, but I'm forever on team Cary. Perfect entry in the blogathon - beautifully done.

    1. Aw, thanks! I know what you mean. I adore Colman, but Cary is and always will be my #1 guy.


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