THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING, a fast-paced, entertaining comedy-drama, directed by John Ford, was a popular item in 1935, a $3,100,000 gross putting it in spot #22 for the year. Reviews were good, and it draws a lot of retrospective praise today, partially because it’s a different sort of film for the director, more in the vein of something Frank Capra might’ve done, and the screenplay was worked up by Capra collaborator Robert Riskin, who along with Jo Swerling, adapted W.R.Burnette’s story “Jail Breaker”. Interestingly, neither of Ford’s major biographers, Joseph McBride and Scott Eyman, give it much play at all, just remarking on it in passing. Though the direction, camera work and editing are all paced to zip, mostly it’s a swell showcase for Edward G.Robinson, whose career had hit a snag, as well as a boost for 34-year-old Jean Arthur, who had toiled for 11 years with parts in 57 features and little to show for it but stamina. *
Personifying ‘milquetoast’, ad agency clerk ‘Arthur Ferguson Jones’ (Robinson,40) is teased for his dorkiness by his fellow employees, including sassy ‘Wilhemina Clark’ (Arthur), who naturally he has a crush on (cue payoff seen coming from the South Pole). His boss doesn’t even recognize him as one of his employees. But fate, fame and more fate arrive when he turns out to be a dead-ringer for notorious public enemy “Killer” Manion’ (Robinson) and gets bum-rush arrested. When the quick-acting, slow-thinking cops and D.A. realize their goof, his boss, smelling publicity, egged on ny a reporter keen for an angle, concocts a scheme whereby Arthur will ghostwrite Mannion’s autobio. Swell, until the unamused thug shows up at Arthur’s apartment, with you-be-me plans of his own.
Presaging the type of half-gag/half-guns thriller familiar to more recent decades (Something Wild for example), the first part of the story is played for laughs, with a lot of hustle-bustle and shouting common to screwball farces, and it’s partly funny, partly tiring. But when the Manion-Robinson shows up, things are played straight, and it’s more effective. Ford’s okay with the comedy, but handles the drama better, aided by the fine cinematography from Joseph H. August (The Informer, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, They Were Expendable) and crisp editing of Viola Lawrence (Only Angels Have Wings, The Lady From Shanghai, In A Lonely Place). Arthur fans will be pleased with her snappy delivery and she looks great. Robinson has a field day between the decent and fearful fall-guy and the heartless, dead-eyed gangster Let’s give a tip of the hat & cane to long-gone character player Etienne Girardot, chewing mouse morsels as Robinson’s fussbudget supervisor.**
93 minutes, with Arthur Hohl, James Donlon, Arthur Byron, Wallace Ford, Donald Meek, Edward Brophy, Joseph Sawyer. See if you spot Lucille Ball, 23, in a little bit as a bank employee, one of 13 parts the determined trouper logged in ’35.
* Nobody writing about this picture brings up the trivia that the movie Robinson made right before this also had him playing dual roles, in The Man With Two Faces. A drama directed by much-lesser light Archie Mayo, it went down the memory hole. The Whole Town’s Talking was remade in 1998, as Duplicate, a Bollywood action-comedy-musical.
** The diminutive Etienne Girardot, son of French painter Ernest Gustave Girardot, was born in 1856 (ha!, on the very day I’m writing this!), and passed away at the age of 83 in 1939. An idea of how his particular characteristics came into play can be found in a sample of the names of people he played in films: ‘Spanfuss’, ‘Pluvius J. Aspinwall’, ‘Kendrick Kinney’,’Prof. Hercules Dove’, ‘Waldo Peebles’, ‘Professor Artemus Glenwater’. Repose en paix, Etienne.