#23 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This might be the earliest example of one actor playing two roles against each other. It’s definitely one of the earliest with Edward G. Robinson playing the dual roles of a mild mannered reporter and a vicious gangster, often in the same room and even the same shot. Long before Robert Zemeckis was using motion control to get Michael J. Fox in the same shot more than once for the Back to the Future sequels, John Ford did it with old fashioned filmmaking techniques like split screens and rear projection. That’s all interesting of course, but is it any good? Well, yes. It’s a light and fun comedy anchored by Robinson with a delightfully flippant performance by Jean Arthur as well.
Robinson’s first role is that of Arthur Ferguson Jones, a reporter with dreams of becoming a real writer. He’s good enough that the owner of the paper demands that the office manager give him a raise in the same conversation that he demands the office manager fire the next person who comes in late. Jones slept in that morning, though, and he’s the next one to come in late, giving the office manager a bit of a pickle to deal with. Fortunately, Wilhelmina Clark (Arthur) waltzes in moments later, gets the boot (though they only fire people at the end of the week, so she needs to stick around for a few more days), and plops down at her desk without a care in the world. It’s obvious that Jones has a crush on her (he steals a picture of her at one point), and when she notes the front page story of the escaped criminal Mannion (also Robinson) and that Jones looks exactly like Mannion’s picture, bringing the whole office to have a bit of fun at Jones’ expense.
When Jones goes to lunch, Wilhelmina finds him and they have a nice moment where Jones is obviously smitten with her while also talking about a dream of running away to Shanghai. However, Wilhelmina isn’t the only one to note Jones’ resemblance to Mannion. A fellow patron in the restaurant Hoyt (Donald Meek) notices the resemblance and calls the police, hoping for the $25,000 reward for Mannion’s capture. The police show up swiftly, take both Jones and Wilhelmina into police headquarters, and grill them both for hours. This is a wonderful contrast as Jones becomes more flustered and manic while Wilhelmina just leans into the idea and admits that she’s Mannion’s coconspirator, offering up evidence that she makes up on the spot. When it’s finally revealed that Jones isn’t Mannion, the district attorney offers Jones a passport proving his identity as not Mannion.
When Jones returns home he finds Mannion himself in his apartment, threatening violence if Jones doesn’t share the passport with him. Mannion will have it at night, and Jones will have it during the day. Firstly, it’s amusing at how Robinson is able to play two completely different characters off of each other at the same time, but the technical polish of these scenes is actually rather surprising. There’s a tightness to the editing that helps sell that both are in the same room, and it’s most convincing when they’re in the same shot, reactions coming rapid fire off of each other. The movie as a whole feels a bit like a Howard Hawks film, embracing the quick dialogue and screwball comedic tropes (especially with how Jean Arthur plays her role), but that it extends to what must have been technically challenging scenes to pull off is rather remarkable.
The rest of the film is Mannion using Jones and his passport to help complete some tasks he needs done in the city before he runs out of town. He has to kill some associates which he does by walking right into the local prison and taking them out himself. He also has the idea to kill Jones, make him out to be Mannion, and get away with the passport and no one looking for anyone who looks like Mannion anymore. The finale of the film could have leaned more into the ridiculous and comedic elements, but it’s effective enough at showing how Jones bumbles his way into turning the tables on Mannion.
There are running gags throughout that provide a lot of the comedy. Wilhelmina’s “confession” was to a particular detective with whom she has repeated run ins where she ribs him. Hoyt keeps popping up all over the place asking for his reward money. Jones becomes the face of a series in the paper determined to out the “true” Mannion that Mannion finds so distasteful that he gives Jones the real inside story on his escape from prison.
All of it is really anchored by Robinson who shows his acting chops in amusing fashion. His take as Jones reminds me of his later performance in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, and his take as Mannion reminds me of his hard edged detective in Orson Welles’ The Stranger as well as his star making turn in Little Caesar. He’s just a really good actor who falls into comedy quite well, a genre he barely acted in.
Fun, technically polished, crisply edited, and confidently directed, The Whole Town’s Talking is another hidden gem from John Ford’s 30s output. An enjoyable comedy with amusing performances, the film is something really worth rediscovering.