Posted by Susan Doll on December 26, 2016
I once took a couple of noncredit courses on the early films of John Ford. I thought I knew a great deal about Ford, but, as taught by talented filmmaker and learned film scholar Michael G. Smith, the courses proved to be a revelation. I was surprised at some of Ford’s influences (German Expressionism!!!!), and I enjoyed the diversity of genres and stars that made up his pre-Stagecoach output. I was reminded of this experience when I came across “John Ford in the 1930s,” a collection of films currently streaming on FilmStruck.
Included in this collection is The Whole Town’s Talking, a 1935 comedy that doesn’t have much of a reputation among Ford biographers. I admit that the first time I saw it, I didn’t realize that it was the work of Hollywood’s premiere director of westerns. In this little comedy, Edward G. Robinson stars in a dual role as mild-mannered hardware clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones and cold-blooded gangster Killer Mannion, who has just broken out of jail. The police arrest Jones, believing him to be Mannion. After they release him, reporters create front-page headlines out of this unfortunate case of mistaken identity, which draws the attention of the real Mannion. The gangster kidnaps his look-alike to use his identification papers in order to continue his crime spree.
The Whole Town’s Talking is really Robinson’s movie. The dual role allowed him to expand his star image. Robinson became a star when he played the title character in Little Caesar (1930), helping to establish the brutal urban gangster as a fitting archetype for the Depression era. Little Caesar was released during the pre-Code era (1930-1934). After the Production Code was enforced, there were restrictions on the depiction of violent, anti-social characters. The PCA (Production Code Administration) strongly discouraged the use of criminals as protagonists, because the protagonist role tends to elicit sympathy and foster identification among viewers. The Code forbade generating sympathy for crime or for those who commit them. Similarly, the PCA discouraged studios from casting major movie stars as criminals, because they might make crime more appealing to young or impressionable viewers.
Robinson and other stars who gained their fame by playing gangsters needed to expand their star images in order to continue as leading men. Robinson was under contract to Warner Bros., but Jack Warner did not seem to have a plan for his star’s long-term future. Robinson learned through his agent as well as gossip columnist Louella Parsons that Warner had loaned him to Columbia to make The Whole Town’s Talking. Warner had agreed to the loan-out simply for the money. The actor wasn’t pleased about making the film, which was adapted from a novel by William R. Burnett, the author of Little Caesar. He assumed it was yet another gangster role. However, once he read the screenplay by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, he discovered he was playing doppelganger characters and warmed to the project.
The Whole Town’s Talking was a perfect vehicle for Robinson at this early juncture in his career. As Killer Mannion, he played into his star image as a tough-talking gangster who barks out threats in the latest urban slang. Fans would be satisfied to see him in his familiar guise. But, it also showcased him in another genre—comedy—and established an alternate identity for him as a gentle, soft-spoken character. Robinson played into both personas for the rest of his career.
Originally, Al Santell was set to direct the film, but Robinson requested Ford. The film is often ignored or passed over by Ford scholars as a minor effort produced before the classics The Informer (1935) or Stagecoach (1939). But, it deserves more respect not only for Ford’s direction but also for the screenplay by Riskin, who is better known for his work with Frank Capra. In The Whole Town’s Talking, Riskin (and Swerling) deftly balanced the comedy and gangster genres, lampooning the conventions of the latter without destroying them. The rapid-fire, topical dialogue was perfect for Robinson as Mannion and for sassy costar Jean Arthur, who played the hard-boiled working girl—a character type that would come to define her star image. Ford’s contributions included the editing: By cutting into the action, he gave the scenes a briskness that contributed to the pacing. He also reinforced an idea central to the narrative—appearances vs. reality. The idea is supported through mirror shots, newspaper headlines that distort truth, or in the differences between Jonesy’s dreams and his reality. There is also a clever allusion in the form of Jones’s pets—his cat Abelard and his bird Heloise. Apparently, Abelard was a 12-century theologian/philosopher who fell in love with his young pupil Heloise. Their affair created a scandal, and Abelard was eventually condemned as a heretic. In his teachings, he noted how appearances can be deceiving, and how important it was to employ intellect in order to discern the truth.
Though never part of Ford’s stock company, Robinson enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the director. Decades later, Robinson stepped in for Spencer Tracy in Ford’s last western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), playing a small role as real-life Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz. He also appreciated the young Jean Arthur, recalling in his autobiography, All My Yesterdays: She was whimsical without being silly, unique without being nutty, a theatrical personality who was an untheatrical person. She was a delight to work with and to know.”
The Whole Town’s Talking was a popular and financial success, and it pushed Robinson to the top of the lists of box office stars. Everyone was pleased with the results, except Jack Warner who fumed that another studio had made such good use of one of his stars. Apparently, there was talk about an Oscar nomination for Robinson, but the resentful Warner nixed it.
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