Saturday, August 29, 2015

Stubs - The Whole Town's Talking (1935)

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur, Arthur Hohl, James Donlan Directed by John Ford. Produced by Lester Cowan. Screenplay by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin. Based on the story "Jail Breaker" by W. R. Burnett in Collier's (Jul--Aug 1932). Run Time: 93 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Comedy, Gangster

Two people that you don’t really think would have worked together in Hollywood are John Ford and Edward G. Robinson. Ford is forever connected to the Western genre of films and Robinson is typecast as a gangster and a contract player at Warner Bros. So when I learned the two worked together on a comedy and at Columbia Pictures, a certain amount of interest was raised.

Ford may be best known for his many Westerns, including such classics as Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but he also directed The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941).

Robinson would make more comedies, most notably A Slight Case of Murder (1938), which is one of the reasons this film caught my attention in the first place. Robinson, despite being type-cast as a gangster, was a very versatile actor.

Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson) is late for work for the first time in eight years. He’d bought a new alarm clock, but when it says its 7:30, it’s really past 9. While Jones is late for work we learn that he has ambitions to be a writer and has a bird and a cat for pets. Jones’ day job is working as a clerk (I’ve read several synopsis that say he works at as an advertising clerk, but what he actually does isn’t made very clear.) The owner of the company, J.G. Carpenter (Paul Harvey), wants floor manager Seaver (Etienne Girardot) to make an example of the first person who is late for work, not imagining it would be Jones, whom he also instructed Seaver to give a raise.

Seaver is put in an odd situation, but is rescued when someone comes in even later. Wilhemina "Bill" Clark (Jean Arthur) doesn’t get to work until 9:30. Clark is the object of Jones's unspoken love; he has a photograph of hers, which we learn he stole, up in his apartment as inspiration for his writings. Clark puts her feet up and reads the paper and recognizes the resemblance between a picture of escaped convict "Killer" Manion and Jones, which she points out to a co-worker and soon it is all over the floor.

Wilhemina "Bill" Clark (Jean Arthur) is the object of  Arthur
Ferguson Jones' (Edward G. Robinson) affections.

While Jones lunches at a restaurant, the obsequious Hoyt (Donald Meeks) also notices the similarity and calls the police, hoping to collect the $25,000 reward for his capture. Jones and Clark are taken into custody. Everyone at the police headquarters is convinced they’ve captured Manion. Even Carpenter, who is called down to identify Jones, is convinced he’s Manion. It takes Seaver, who works directly with Jones to establish his identity. Forensics also discovers that his fingerprints are not the same as Manion's. To protect him from another mistaken arrest, District Attorney Spencer (Arthur Byron) gives Jones a special passport to show wary policemen he is not who they think he looks like.

Hoyt (Donald Meeks) thinks he recognizes Manion and calls the police.

Back at the office, "J.G." encourages Jones, an aspiring writer, to sign a deal with newspaperman Healy (Wallace Ford) to author a special serial on his own appraisal of Manion, based on him looking like the gangster. The three men get drunk together, and when Jones returns to the office he kisses the thrilled Clark and tells Seaver Carpenter has authorized putting her back on the payroll.

Jones gets drunk with his boss, J.G. Carpenter (Paul Harvey), and a newspaperman named Healy (Wallace Ford).

But Jones’ buzz gets killed when he gets back to his apartment and finds Manion waiting for him. Manion demands the use of the passport at night to protect him during his criminal activities. Although for the first time in Jones' life everyone is deferential toward him, and Clark affectionately asserts control over his career, Jones lives in perpetual fear of Manion, who has moved in with him.

When Jones finds Manion (Edward G. Robinson) waiting for him in his apartment.

The publicity-seeking criminal demands that Jones's newspaper series be turned into his reminiscences, which raises the suspicion of authorities when Jones writes details about Manion’s escape that were not public knowledge.

When Healy brings Jones’ first paycheck to the office, Jones is not there, but Clark offers to take it to him. But she doesn’t recognize Manion and kisses him. When she sees his gun in its holster she beats a hasty retreat, but Manion has a couple of his boys follow her. When she hurries to the nearest pay phone to call the authorities, they intercept her and take her hostage.

Trying to protect Jones, the district attorney orders him placed under protective custody in prison. Accompanied by a couple of hapless police officers, Detective Sergeant Boyle (Arthur Hohl) and Detective Sergeant Howe (James Donlan), Jones goes back to his apartment, but Manion is still there and takes Jones's place and the two police don’t realize it. Manion goes to the prison to kill fellow gangster, "Slugs" Martin (Ed Brophy), who had turned stool pigeon on him to authorities.

Jones is recalled to the city, but not before Manion has a chance to kill Martin. Seaver, who had come to visit who he thought was Jones and bring him work to complete, catches a ride with Manion back to the train station, but Manion takes control of the car and kidnaps Seaver. The disappearances of Seaver and Clark tip off authorities to the true state of affairs.

Manion decides to take advantage of his mild-mannered doppelgänger and, ultimately, leave Jones "holding the bag" for Manion's crimes. He kidnaps Wilhelmina, Jones' visiting aunt, and a few others, and takes them back to his hideout. He instructs Jones to make a large deposit for Manion's mother's benefit at the First National Bank and then tips the police that Manion will attempt to rob the bank, so police are waiting for him. Jones forgets to bring the check and unwittingly leads the police back to Manion's hideout.

Upon his arrival, Jones is mistaken for Manion by the waiting henchmen and quickly figures out he’s meant to be the fall guy. Manion returns unexpectedly and Jones orders the men to shoot him. The police arrive in time to capture the rest of the gang when they try to make a run for it. Even though Hoyt arrives on scene to inquire about the reward, Jones is given the credit and the money. With his pets and, more importantly, with Wilhelmina, Jones takes off for his long-desired cruise to Shanghai.

At the end, Jones and Wilhelmina take off for this long-desired cruise to Shanghai.

While the film has a happy ending, I’m not really sure I would consider it a comedy. There are too many murders and not enough laughs to qualify for me. Much of the humor is supposed to come from the mistaken identity of mild-mannered Jones for cutthroat criminal Manion. Robinson is more than capable of playing both, but the humor wears thin. Jokes get set up, like Jones leaving his bathtub overflowing when he rushes off to work on his only day late, but there are no consequences. When he returns home, there are no ill effects.

The film, however, was apparently so popular at the time of its release that it made Jean Arthur a star at the age of 35. Her Clark is a fast-talking street-wise girl with a heart of gold, a character type she would be called upon to play for the rest of her career.

The Whole Town's Talking made Jean Arthur a star in Hollywood.

The film brought Arthur to the attention of Frank Capra, one of Columbia’s better directors. He would work with Arthur in such films as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); You Can’t Take It With You (1938); and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In these films, she played roles very similar in type to Clark.

The spirit of Capra is all around The Whole Town’s Talking, in addition to Arthur, the script was co-written by Robert Riskin, who penned American Madness (1932); It Happened One Night (1934); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); Lost Horizon (1937); You Can’t Take It With You; Meet John Doe (1941); and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) all films directed by Capra. The Whole Town’s Talking, though, lacks Capra’s humorous and poignant touches.

I’m not sure what exactly went wrong, but The Whole Town’s Talking didn’t click with me. I’m pretty much a fan of everyone involved in the production from director, John Ford, to the stars Robinson and Arthur, to the screenwriter, Riskin, to even the supporting cast members like Donald Meeks. But somehow the parts don’t add up to a greater whole.

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