Three Reasons: The Whole Town's Talking (1935)

 


The photo above shows Jean Arthur and Edward G. Robinson in a scene from The Whole Town's Talking (1935). This article is part of the 120 "Screwball" Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Click on the highlighted text for more great articles about one of old Hollywood's most beloved stars.

Jean Arthur was wonderful in many old Hollywood comedies, including the energetic gangster spoof The Whole Town's Talking (1935). She brings sass and sex appeal to the role of an advertising firm clerk whose life becomes intertwined with that of a notorious gangster and his milquetoast doppelganger (Edward G. Robinson in a dual role).

The Whole Town's Talking tells the story of Arthur Ferguson Jones, a mild-mannered clerk whose well-ordered existence consists of working long hours at an advertising firm, caring for his pet cat and bird, and secretly composing "moony" poetry to his pretty coworker, Ms. Clark (Arthur). Ironically, Arthur is a dead-ringer for notorious gangster Killer Mannion, which leads police to raid the restaurant where he and Ms. Clark are having lunch and haul them both off to the station for questioning. The cops soon realize their mistake, but word gets back to Mannion who seizes on the opportunity to use the timid Arthur to advance his criminal schemes.


The Whole Town's Talking was based on a short story titled "Jail Breaker" by W.R. Burnett (Burnett also wrote the novel Little Caesar; the 1931 film adaptation made Robinson one of Hollywood's leading gangster stars). Columbia Pictures bought the rights to the story and gave the female lead to Arthur, who was a newly signed contract player at the studio, and borrowed Robinson from Warner Bros. to play the dual role of Arthur and Killer Mannion. John Ford, who was then a rising director at Fox Films, was hired to helm the project. Shooting took place in the autumn of 1934, and according to all the accounts I've read, everyone got along splendidly. In fact, The Whole Town's Talking was a substantial box-office and critical success that came at pivotal point in the careers of Robinson, Arthur, and Ford. 

Viewed today, The Whole Town's Talking is an energetic, well-acted screwball comedy that is directed with verve by Ford. You can catch it on video on demand or find it on DVD/Blu-ray (the discs listed on Amazon are collections with other films). Here's three reasons to watch.

A Double Dose of Eddie G.

Bad Eddie meets Good Eddie in The Whole Town's Talking (1935).

Robinson burst onto the movie scene in the early '30s as one of old Hollywood's leading tough guys, but, by 1935, the craze for gangster movies had faded, and Robinson was in a bit of a career slump.
His masterful dual performance in The Whole Town's Talking revived his career and helped pave the wave for later crime comedies such as A Slight Case of Murder (1938) and Brother Orchid (1940), not to mention his defining supporting role as a dogged insurance investigator in the classic noir Double Indemnity (both Keyes and Arthur are fans of actuarial tables). In fact, Robinson is quite funny as the milquetoast Arthur, especially in one finely wrought drunk scene, and his Killer Mannion is one of the most authentically chilling gangster performances of his career.

A Capra-esque John Ford Film

John Ford, Jean Arthur, and Edward G. Robinson while making The Whole Town's Talking (1935).

There was a staggering amount of top talent involved with The Whole Town's Talking, including screenwriter Robert Riskin, who would go on to work with Columbia's leading director, Frank Capra, several times. In fact, this film is a very Capra-esque John Ford film because of its preoccupation with corrupt reporters, hapless public officials, and the eventual triumph of the ordinary guy against all the powerful forces stacked against him.
 However, the film does have visual flourishes that are quite distinctive to Ford such as tracking shots, boisterous crowd scenes, and one brilliantly edited sequence of the newly famous Arthur being hounded by reporters (IMHO,  Capra was the great director of actors and idea; Ford the visual poet of America's mythic past).

Jean Arthur


Arthur, who was born Oct. 17, 1900, in Plattsburgh, N.Y., had been kicking around Hollywood for several years with mixed success when she earned the plum role of sassy secretary Ms. Clark, which launched her into the top ranks of old Hollywood's comediennes. Arthur has a much less showy role than Robinson, who got to show off his range by playing two vastly different characters, but she is nevertheless wonderful and steals almost every scene she's in. In fact, the funniest scene in the film features Ms. Clark impersonating a tough-talking gangster's moll who confesses to literally every unsolved crime in the police records.

Thanks for reading and thanks to Virginie for hosting this much-needed tribute to one of my favorite old Hollywood stars. I'll leave you with a vintage clip of TCM host Robert Osborne introducing the film and this lovely tribute to Jean written by Robinson: "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."











Comments

  1. I watched this film for the first time not long ago and quite enjoyed it (I lost the focus a bit towards the end tho). Your wrote an excellent review of it, very informative, and in my opinion you manage perfectly to sell this film to those who might not have seen it! I strongly agree with you that Jean steals the scene she's in. Well, she pratically always does. Thank you so much for your participation in my blogathon!

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    1. Thanks for hosting. I hope more people discover Jean's work through the blogathon.

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  2. Manion! When he was younger, my son would rewind the scene with Jean under interrogation and laugh.

    What a lovely tribute to the movie, and to Jean from you and from EGR.

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    1. Your son has good taste. That scene is never not hilarious no matter how many times you've watched it.

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