Though often considered a comedy, the film is really a social drama peppered with some humorous and some slapstick scenes. It is certainly one of the earliest examples of this, as most comedies don't have such a strong, serious plot.
Mill worker and political activist Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) is accused of burning down a mill and causing the death of a foreman in the fire. In the middle of his trial, Dilg escapes from jail and seeks shelter in a house owned by former schoolmate Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), now a schoolteacher on whom he has had a crush for years. Shelley has the house rented for the summer to distinguished law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), who plans to write a book. Both Lightcap and Dilg arrive within minutes of each other.
When Dilg is spotted by Lightcap, Shelley passes him off as her gardener. Lightcap and Dilg enjoy having spirited discussions about the law, Lightcap arguing from an academic viewpoint, while Dilg subscribes to a more practical approach. They become good friends as a result, but meanwhile, they become romantic rivals, as Lightcap also falls in love with Nora.
As a result of prodding by Shelley and Dilg's lawyer, Lightcap becomes suspicious and starts, in spite of his initial reluctance, to investigate the case against Dilg further. He romances the girlfriend of the supposed murder victim and discovers that the former foreman is still alive and hiding in Boston. Shelley, Lightcap and Dilg go to Boston and find him, bring him back to Lochester and force him to admit his guilt and that of the mill owner.
While the three argue about whether to call the police, the foreman catches them unawares and escapes. Dilg is held for trial while the town's anger at him is stoked into a riotous mob. Lightcap takes a gun from the cottage and seeks out the foreman, hiding in Bush's closet, forcing him to go to the courthouse just as the mob breaks in to lynch Dilg.
Firing the revolver to draw attention, Lightcap announces that the supposedly dead foreman is now present. He then gives an impassioned speech to the mob about the importance of the law, both in principle and in practice. In due course, the foreman and owner of the mill are convicted and Dilg is set free.
Soon afterward, Lightcap is appointed to the Supreme Court. Shelley visits him in his chambers and he tells her that his dream of 20 years has been realized. With more happiness than a man could want, he says the only thing left is to see his friends likewise happy, and suggests that Shelley should marry Dilg.
While both Dilg and Shelley are attending court at the first seating of Lightcap as an Associate Justice, Dilg interprets an affectionate look shared between Lightcap and Shelley as a sign that she has chosen to marry Lightcap. Dilg leaves the courtroom abruptly. When Shelley follows after Dilg, he brushes her off with increasing frustration. Shelley finally kisses him passionately whereupon, realizing that she has actually chosen him, Dilg takes Shelley by the hand to return to their home town together.
The Talk of the Town began with the working title "Mr. Twilight", but Cary Grant insisted it be changed, suspecting that if the movie appeared to be about a single male character, then Colman, who had the better role, would steal the show. The title The Talk of the Town was registered to Universal Studios, and Columbia had to give them the rights to use Sin Town in return. The film is now considered a classic.
Other titles once mentioned as possible for the film included "Three's a Crowd", "The Gentlemen Misbehave", "Justice Winks an Eye", "In Love with You", "You're Wonderful", "A Local Affair", "The Woman's Touch", "Morning for Angels", "Scandal in Lochester", "The Lochester Affair", and even "Nothing Ever Happens".
Principal photography, originally scheduled to begin January 17, 1942, was delayed when the news of the death of Carole Lombard in a plane crash after she had raised $2 million in war bonds in the Midwest became known. Stevens, who had directed Lombard in the 1940 film, Vigil in the Night, halted work on the set and sent both cast and crew home.
The role of Colman's valet, played by Rex Ingram, was at the time a rare example of a non-stereotypical part for an African-American actor. Also unusual was the presence of two leading men: at this point in their careers both Grant and Colman had been used to having that role all to themselves. The situation is reflected in the plot, since audiences are kept guessing until the end who Arthur's character would choose to marry. Stevens filmed both versions, leaving it to test screenings to determine the ending.
According to Bosley Crowther, "the essential purpose of this tale is to amuse with some devious dilemmas, and that it does right well"; he called the script "smart and lively." According to Variety, the film's "transition from serious or melodramatic to the slap-happy and humorous sometimes is a bit awkward, but in the main it is solid escapist comedy."Nominations
Outstanding Motion Picture: Columbia
Best Writing (Original Motion Picture Story): Sidney Harmon
Best Writing (Screenplay): Irwin Shaw, Sidney Buchman
Best Art Direction (Black-and-White): Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Rudolph Sternad; Interior Decoration: Fay Babcock
Best Cinematography (Black-and-White): Ted Tetzlaff
Best Film Editing: Otto Meyer
Best Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture): Frederick Hollander, Morris Stoloff
Screenwriter Sidney Buchman (who co-wrote the script with Irwin Shaw) was blacklisted in the 1950s. Consequently, Buchman, one of the men who penned Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), left the U.S. and began working in Fox's European division. Buchman would remain in France until his death in 1975.