Powerhouse/Indicator’s 4 film box-set of ‘Ford at Columbia’ includes this fascinating and rather good title alongside three more from the 1950s, The Long Gray Line (1955), The Last Hurrah (1956) and Gideon’s Day (1958). This post is based on a viewing of a rented Blu-ray from the box-set. Because I haven’t got the whole box-set I haven’t seen the printed booklets that accompany each film, but the Blu-ray carries several useful extras.
The general consensus is that this film is somehow outside John Ford’s usual territory. Sheldon Hall’s presentation on the film entitled ‘A Trip Outside Ford Country’ is included on the disc. It’s true that if we consider Ford’s peak period to be between 1935 and the early 1960s, then this film is certainly ‘outside’. Most of Ford’s films in this peak period are rural, historical, set in small and often military communities. The most common genre is the Western. The Whole Town’s Talking is, by contrast, urban and contemporary and generically it refers to crime/gangster films and comedy, specifically screwball comedy. There are very few of Ford’s familiar actors or crew from the later period and the two stars are Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur. Edward G. Robinson hadn’t appeared for Ford before and wouldn’t do so again until close to the end of Ford’s career in 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn. However, Jean Arthur had worked with Ford on two films in the early 1920s, Cameo Kirby in 1923 and The Iron Horse in 1924, in minor roles at the start of her career. By 1935 she had finally established herself as a lead at Columbia. Ford was in 1935 coming off a long period of working mainly for just two studios, Universal in the 1910s and early 1920s and Fox in the later 1920s and early 1930s. Although he had already made dozens of films over a period of 20 years, he didn’t yet have the kind of prestige he would later gain (he won his first Oscar for his next picture, The Informer) and so this one-off at Columbia was likely to see him treated as an honoured guest director, but still one who would have to work within the studio’s usual structures. The point about the earlier work is, however, that Ford had made most kinds of films by this stage and there was no reason to suppose he wouldn’t make a good job of this one. Also during the early 1930s, Ford had worked with the cinematographer Joseph August, so he knew one part of the production was locked down (August and Ford worked together four more times after this film.) The story had been written by W. R. Burnett, famous as the writer of Little Caesar (1931), often quoted as the first ‘gangster’ picture and an early starring role for Edward G. Robinson. Later Burnett would write High Sierra (1941), the film that finally clinched Humphrey Bogart’s leading man status. Columbia must have been confident that Burnett’s story (with a screenplay by the staff writers Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling) would make a profitable picture and therefore brought in not only Ford but also Edward G. who was a contracted player at Warner Bros. Jean Arthur was by now a contract lead player at Columbia and there is some suggestion that her performance in this film encouraged Frank Capra to use her in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936.
As soon as the film begins we experience a glorious tracking shot along the rows of desks in an office. It isn’t on the scale of the famous shot from The Crowd (1928) but in its own way it is just as beautifully choreographed. One of the extras on the Blu-ray is a video essay by Tag Gallagher which analyses much of the camerawork. It’s necessary to set up the office and the first comedy situation as the little man who runs the office becomes faced with a dilemma because the one person who is missing is Arthur F. Jones, the mild-mannered accountant played by Edward G. Robinson. I won’t spoil the gag. Jones is the central character in the narrative, except that he has a doppelgänger, a murderous gangster, ‘Killer’ Manion, who has escaped from prison and is suspected of being somewhere in the city. Inevitably, Jones will get arrested as Manion and then inveigled into a scheme to try to catch the real Manion. It’s a classic comedy, and especially romantic comedy, idea for constructing a narrative. In her role as ‘Miss Clark’, Jean Arthur is the single woman in the office who ‘Jonesy’ (as she calls him) secretly admires. His role as Manion’s double will bring them together.
There is an enormous energy about the film in its crowd scenes, partly because Robinson and Arthur give lively performances and partly because of that strange convention that bedevils Hollywood crime films, causing police to arrive armed to the teeth in busloads and every photographer in the city jostling for space in the press briefing rooms. Ford and August handle all these scenes with aplomb and it’s interesting to see Ford working in this swift kind of screwball comedy. There is some remarkable optical work in doubling Edward G. without the use of digital FX. There are also some nice sight gags including the one above of Ettiene Girardot as Mr Seaver, Jonesy’s boss. I don’t think it’s making fun of a short man to enjoy the difference in height. There is an exciting finale but the weakness in the film for me is a failure to fully exploit the potential of Jean Arthur’s character, i.e. the screwball comedy elements get lost in the mix. (The Blu-ray disc includes an enthusiastic and enjoyable presentation on Jean Arthur’s career by Pam Hutchinson, but unfortunately there isn’t very much about her work on this particular film.) There is a suggestion that aspects of the original story don’t appear in the final cut as there were concerns that they would contravene the newly operational Production Code, so several plot developments take place off-screen (a kidnapping and Manion’s violence in prison). Having said that there is already a great deal squeezed into the film’s running time of 93 minutes. Two bits of IMDb ‘trivia’ are worth mentioning. First there is one of the worst ‘goofs’ I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood feature in which either continuity or the edit team missed the consequences of an action. It drove me mad for a while – Ford did have a reputation for sometimes not worrying about tying up loose ends. The second trivia point is that IMDb claims that this film prompted a Hindi cinema Shah Rukh Khan starrer Duplicate in 1998.
I’ll remember this film for Edward G. Robinson’s dynamic performance, Jean Arthur’s comic chops and Ford’s energetic direction. Oh, and there is another Fordian character with a running gag featuring Donald Meek as a claimant for the reward after he first spots Jonesy as Manion early in the film. Meek appeared in several Ford films, including as the mild-mannered booze salesman in Stagecoach. In retrospect it is a shame Ford didn’t continue with this kind of busy comedy.