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Sunday, 25 February 2007

The Whole Town's Talking (1935)

While there are certainly exceptions, I'm actually finding myself more partial to the non-westerns that John Ford made throughout the thirties than the westerns he's famed for. Here he gets a head start by having no less a star than Edward G Robinson in not one but two lead roles. He's Arthur Ferguson Jones, a mild mannered clerk at the J G Carpenter Corporation, highly cultured and the one and only employee who's never been late. Of course the one day the boss leaves orders to raise Jones's salary and fire the next person to be late he's the next person. He's also 'Killer' Mannion, a dangerous gangster who has just escaped from prison and is now public enemy number one. It's a true joy to watch mild mannered Eddie G try to imitate the famous snarl of gangster Eddie G, especially with Donald Meek looking on.

Meek sees Mannion's picture in the paper and so calls the cops on Jones, and it takes plenty of work to make them believe that he's not the gangster. However once the real Mannion robs a bank and identifies himself in the process, it becomes obvious that Jones is really Jones. He has a terrible time being harrassed by the police, while Miss Clark, a co-worker who was having lunch with him, has the time of her life. She's the object of his passions, up till now restricted to anonymous poems, but it's this mix-up that really makes her notice his existence. She's also Jean Arthur, making a serious name for herself and she's great fun to watch.

John Ford has fun with this one, as displayed in certain powerful scenes like the early one where Jones gets flustered by photographers' lights, which is delightfully claustrophobic. However it's Robinson who has the most fun. Jones starts out merely annoying, a complete wuss but then he has to be because Eddie G proved from his very first screen appearance that all he had to do to dominate a scene was to walk in front of the camera. He had to seriously work at making Jones invisible and how well he manages it is made obvious when Jones faces Mannion in a scene together. In fact he doesn't just play Jones and Mannion, he plays Jones playing Mannion and he plays Mannion playing Jones.

Robinson is superb and he gets a serious proportion of the screen time. He's the lead throughout and is rarely off the screen, but he's also the co-lead and there are a lot of scenes where he's both characters. Jean Arthur is superb too but she gets far too little time to strut her stuff. She's the sassy newspaper girl type who became a stereotype through the screwball era, with regular examples from people like Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn. I don't believe this is the first such appearance but it's definitely early and done very well indeed. Other regular supporting actors like Donald Meek, Edward Brophy and Etienne Girardot are fine but they get almost nothing to do and there's very little here that doesn't belong to Robinson.

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