Whenever the name of director John Ford is discussed or even mentioned, it immediately conjures up images in one’s mind of expansive, majestic vistas of Utah’s Monument Valley with legendary actor John “Duke” Wayne striking iconic poses thereon. Ford had a profoundly-attuned – almost nostalgic – view of the American West via both its actual history and rich folklore. After perusing his vast filmography, which includes such ‘sagebrush’ classics as Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and what is arguably his masterpiece, The Searchers (1956), it’s no surprise that, to this day, John Ford’s name remains synonymous with the Western. Even though, in 1935, his name was yet to become inextricably connected to said genre, it was nonetheless rather unexpected of him to helm The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), a delightful, rip-roaring screwball comedy, which proves, unequivocally, what a master filmic craftsman John Ford truly was.
In contrast, actor Edward G. Robinson was, in 1935, irrevocably linked with playing gangsters following his memorable portrayal as “Rico”, a ruthless, power-hungry criminal in Mervyn LeRoy’s seminal gangster film, Little Caesar (1931). According to Julie Kirgo’s detailed liner notes included with Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of the present film, Robinson was desperate to reinvent himself when he (quote) “swiftly grew so sick of this kind of role that he jumped at the chance to satirize it in The Whole Town’s Talking. Smart move: the film, a box office and critical hit, revived his momentarily sagging career.” Thanks to Ford’s committed direction and a sharp, extraordinarily clever and witty script, Robinson’s performance is nothing short of outstanding in his dual performances as Arthur Jones, a meek, unassuming office worker, and as “Killer Mannion”, a naturalistic reprise of Robinson’s vicious Rico character from Little Caesar (the film’s sarcastic title being said character’s unofficial nickname, of course).
Employed by a successful accounting firm, Arthur Jones is the perfect employee—quiet, hard-working, undemanding and one who never complains, but he also longs for something different from the boring banality of his day-to-day life; his only respite being writing anonymous poems to Miss Clark (Jean Arthur), an enthusiastically confident and competent co-worker who is the woman of his dreams. Unfortunately for Arthur, however, he’s also a dead ringer for “Killer Mannion”, a trigger-happy hoodlum who’s just busted-out of prison. When Arthur gets mistaken for Mannion at a local restaurant, he and Miss Clark are taken into custody by a desperate, seemingly disorganized police force, who are just as perplexed by the one-in-a-million coincidence of the milquetoast and the mobster’s uncanny resemblance (“He looks more like Mannion than Mannion does!”). Worried that Arthur might be misidentified yet again, the district attorney (Arthur Byron) issues an official letter, a (quote) “sort of passport” to help distinguish him from the real Mannion. In hopes of increasing its readership, the newspaper begins misusing Arthur’s name in the byline to a series of columns written from the point of view of the man who looks just like Mannion (!), but soon this new-found fame has the real deal making an unannounced visit to Arthur’s apartment, looking for the D.A.’s letter, intending to periodically switch identities with his law-abiding lookalike…
Penned by screenwriting greats Jo Swerling and Robert Risken, two of Frank Capra’s frequent collaborators responsible for such undisputed classics as It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) and what is usually regarded as the definitive screwball comedy, It Happened One Night (1934), respectively, it comes as no surprise that The Whole Town’s Talking is one of Ford’s fastest-paced films, which makes the most out of Arthur’s unenviable predicament with crackling dialogue and perfect comic timing. Nestled in among all the comic antics, however, the film also displays plenty of then-relevant – maybe even more so today! – social commentary about the humdrum monotonous drudgery of daily work-life and the impersonal bureaucratic institutions that peddle this legalized form of wage-‘slavery’; a point which is stressed when the firm’s ‘top brass’ refer to their employees as just another number. In yet another scene – one of the film’s funniest moments! – Arthur gets drunk with his boss Mr. Carpenter (Paul Harvey) and then decides to take the afternoon off. As he leaves the office, feeling ever-more-confident, he waves goodbye to his co-workers and smugly remarks, “So long, slaves!” Endearingly nicknamed “Jonesy” by Miss Clark, she immediately takes notice and excitedly declares, “I always thought that rabbit has something. All he needs is courage!” The next day, she jokingly remarks, “If it takes a few swigs to bring out that personality of yours, I’ll buy you a case of scotch!”
A true revelation, leading lady Jean Arthur dominates each and every scene she appears in as the radiant and quick-witted Miss Clark, whose joie de vivre is both charmingly refreshing and wonderfully blunt. As with Robinson’s Arthur Jones character, she too is tired of the same old day-to-day routines, but unlike her fellow employees, she is unafraid to show it. When she is callously fired for being late by Mr. Seaver (Etienne Girardot), the firm’s rather delightful by-the-book supervisor, she merely shrugs it off, then proceeds to sit at her desk, put her feet up and defiantly finish the day, much to her colleagues’ delight, one of whom even attempts to court her on the spot (prompting her sassy response, “I’m not into anybody, Sam!”). Needless to say, this isn’t the case as she smiles at Arthur, but as she skims through the morning paper, which details Mannion’s escape, she boldly confesses, “Now, that’s my idea of a boyfriend! He-man plus! Now, if I only knew where he was!?” This immediately prompts her to glance over at Arthur once again and recognize his glaring resemblance to “Killer” Mannion. However, shortly thereafter, when Miss Clark unexpectedly visits Arthur’s apartment, she is blissfully unaware that ‘Arthur’ in fact is Mannion, who, quite naturally, takes an instant liking to this charismatic gal. Upon spotting his pistol (or “heater”, as the mobster colourfully refers to it in the street-slang of the era) tucked away in his holster, her excitement quickly turns fearful in spite of her initial whimsical attraction to this ‘he-man’. In a testament to everyone’s unwavering dedication to the material, the film’s mistaken identity scenario successfully—and logically—ventures into darker territory on more than one occasion.
Given the extra demands of Robinson’s dual roles, he tackles them with his usual expertise and energy, infusing both characters with their own unique character traits. This aspect is especially memorable in scenes when he shares the screen with ‘himself’ (i.e., his alter-ego). When Mannion is displeased with Arthur’s latest—wholly artificial—newspaper article wherein he makes him out to be a coward, he forces Arthur to pen an entirely new, far-more-flattering story about his recent jailbreak, all of which is effortlessly played-out in Arthur’s cramped apartment. This newly-published ‘alternate’ story immediately raises the suspicions of the police. “There’s something funny goin’ on here!” exclaims the D.A., who doesn’t believe that Arthur would know all the details about Mannion’s recent prison escape, or the (quote) “juicy underworld lingo”. Put into protective custody, Mannion uses this opportunity to get even with a former associate, and it is here that Robinson’s extraordinary talents really come to the fore, as his twin characters’ döpplegangers have to impersonate each other. Posing as Arthur, Mannion cold-heartedly executes a snitch in a prison yard (memorably and expertly staged off-screen, no less!), and later, in the film’s exhilarating finale, Arthur, pretending to be Mannion, is forced to react in self-defence, and his quick-thinking actions surprises even he himself.
The only film Ford ever made at Columbia Pictures, The Whole Town’s Talking for the most part eschews the unflinching gritty realism of Robinson’s earlier gangster films and Ford’s far bleaker, RKO-produced Academy Award®-winner, The Informer (1935), but this one-off for Columbia nevertheless remains a real triumph both in front of and behind the camera. Especially noteworthy is the camerawork by seasoned DP Joseph August (one of the founding members of the American Society of Cinematographers [ASC], who also shot William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame ), which beautifully showcases the kinetic narrative, as exemplified in the film’s opening tracking-shot, that tries to keep apace with the frenetic hustle-’n’- bustle of the office world. Later, in some of the film’s quieter sections (e.g., Arthur’s late-night meetings with Mannion), the august August provides the necessary shadowy textures. Likewise complimenting the film’s rapid-fire dialogue exchanges is the expert cutting by editor Viola Lawrence, who, by 1935, was another seasoned pro who continued to work steadily with such luminaries as Orson Welles on The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Nicholas Ray on In a Lonely Place (1950). One of the film’s greatest assets, her work here is nothing short of stunning, a fact which is most obvious during the mistaken arrest and subsequent interrogation of Arthur and Miss Clark, for which Ms. Lawrence efficiently cross-cuts between scenes without ever missing a beat. At the same time, though, her organic editing also conveys the sheer confusion, frustration and madness of the entire decidedly unusual situation.
Despite the uniformly stellar performances of both Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur and the impeccable contributions of John Ford, The Whole Town’s Talking still remains a mere blip in all three artists’ respective filmographies. This is a real shame given the timelessly irresistible allure of this slickly-produced film, whose snappily-delivered script is oftentimes as incisive and insightful as it is comical. But now, thanks to Twilight Time’s highly-welcome Blu-ray, it can now be re-evaluated and appreciated more than ever before!