The Whole Town's Talking (1935): Dir. John Ford
For anyone unfamiliar with screen legend Edward G.
Robinson, John Ford’s 1935 comedy The
Whole Town’s Talking is a good place to start getting familiar. While hardly a definitive Ford picture—it
actually more closely resembles the work of Hawks or Lubitsch—this gangland
comedy-of-errors highlights its star’s unparalleled talent. Robinson plays Arthur Ferguson Jones, a
humble, soft-spoken office clerk (with an exemplary attendance record) who
unfortunately provides a doppelganger for public enemy Killer Mannion. In both roles, Robinson shines, playing the former as a
hapless gentleman and the latter as a clone of Little Caesar, complete with
grimace and “Listen here, see” cadence.
When the cops arrest the wrong man, Jones must first prove his
innocence, and then later, wiggle out from under the gun-smoked thumb of the
actual hood, who begins using their interchangeable mugs to commit undetected
nocturnal transgressions. A
Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity, mixed with the didacticism of social
problem pictures, and tossed in a batter of Hawksian sexual politics (the
whip-smart Jean Arthur plays Jones’ motor-mouthed girl-Friday), The Whole Town’s Talking features
Hollywood’s sharpest genre artisans at their most witty and intricate. But more than anything, it’s a pedestal
for Robinson to showcase his range as a performer. Other than perhaps his contemporary James Cagney, no actor
living or dead could recreate the fine-tooth duality of Robinson’s
performance. He’s playing two
characters, sure, but he’s also playing two sides of the human psyche—Jekyll and
Hyde reinvented for the age of bookkeepers and bootleggers.