‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ and Edward G. Robinson’s Case of Mistaken Identity

American actor Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) is known primarily for his roles as a gangster. In fact, Robinson’s performances defined and even created the gangster film genre. Yet, Robinson made close to 100 movies before the end of his life, so his range included a variety of roles having nothing to do with gangsters. It’s not surprising, then, that John Ford’s 1935 film, The Whole Town’s Talking, showcased Robinson’s special talent for moving fluidly from one character to another.

The Whole Town’s Talking is the quintessential screwball comedy of mistaken identity. Robinson plays Arthur Ferguson Jones, a mild-mannered and meek clerk who works for an advertising agency. He’s secretly in love with one of his co-workers, Wilhelmina Clark (Jean Arthur). Jones fancies himself a writer and sends anonymous love notes to Miss Clark, who is annoyed in the first place by their anonymity but is even more irritated at their lack of imagination.

Apart from this small excitement in life, as well as the canary and cat that live happily in his small apartment, Jones doesn’t have much to live for. His work as a clerk means everything to him, and although he is one of the most diligent employees, when he is not being ignored he is viewed with detached bemusement by the higher-ups.

Maybe Jones’ life is one of “quiet desperation,” but Ford’s film doesn’t take us on an existential and dramatic exploration of Jones’ interior life. Instead, The Whole Town’s Talking is a comedy of errors, and what happens to a person when his doppelgänger is a criminal. This unfortunate circumstance does bring some excitement into Jones’ life but it’s not the sort he bargained for.

The notorious bank robber, “Killer” Mannion, is on the loose and police are on a feverish lookout to capture him. Jones happens to be the spit and image of Mannion, which gets him captured by the police. The fast-paced dialogue that includes the police, the district attorney, the press, and Jones himself add a great deal of comedy, similar in style to what appears five years later in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday.

Poor Jones can’t seem to explain himself and his attempts to affirm his identity are fruitless as his meekness, bordering on cowardice, is taken for a ploy by Mannion, who assumes Jones just wants to escape his predicament.

But Jones is in luck! While he is in jail trying to extricate himself from this awful situation, Mannion robs another bank, and this proves Jones’s innocence. To prevent Jones from being mistaken for Mannion again, the district attorney gives Jones a letter testifying to his real identity, a “passport” if you will, that allows him to move about the town freely. Despite all this, Jones’s life is about to get even more complicated as he finds “Killer” Mannion waiting for him in his apartment.

Mannion has only one thing on his mind: To continue his spree of bank robberies and now he will do it with the aid of Jones’s “passport.” Jones is placed in a bad situation, to say the least, but not even that will rouse him from the slumber of his cowardice. Things do eventually work out for Jones, because the only person who appears to believe in him is Miss Clark. Jean Arthur’s wonderful performance certainly fit the role. As Edward G. Robinson writes in his autobiography, All My Yesterdays (penned with Leonard Spigelgass), “She [Jean Arthur] 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.”

Robinson accepted the role of Arthur Ferguson Jones reluctantly. He was under contract with Warner Brothers, but for The Whole Town’s Talking, he was “borrowed” by Columbia Pictures. This part came shortly after his most successful role as Rico Bandello, a mafia boss, in the pre-code film Little Caesar (1931). Robinson had grown tired of always playing gangsters, and although he technically plays one in The Whole Town’s Talking, Robinson warmed up to the film because of the challenge of performing as two opposite characters at the same time.

John Ford was always interested primarily in telling a good story, and not in showing off with some virtuosic element of filmmaking for its own sake. The same is true here. Robinson had certain stubborn tendencies about how a role should unfold during the filming. Yet, he had nothing but admiration for John Ford. “I felt safe and secure with him,” writes Robinson in his autobiography. “If I argued a line of dialogue with him or objected to a bit of business, I can assure you it was more to assert my ego than it was to attack him. Almost entirely throughout the film, when we clashed, it turned out he was right and I was wrong. The main point to be made is that he would sit me down and show me where I was wrong. He is a totally remarkable director and one of the few deserving a place in the Pantheon.”

As in most of Ford’s films, The Whole Town’s Talking is tight. There isn’t one minute of the dialogue or screen time that feels wasted or, conversely, like something is missing. Even side jokes (such as the recurrence of the man who is trying to get the reward for handing over Mannion—but really Jones—to the police) add to the humor of the film.

Jean Arthur brings light and spunk into her role. She’s never clumsy or overtly “feminist” (like, for example, Katherine Hepburn often is in her screwball comedy roles), instead asserting her womanhood through humor and an honest desire for love.

Robinson’s Jones eventually plucks up the courage to face “Killer” Mannion. Jones remains in his own skin, and (spoiler alert) he even gets his lady in the end. It is the great disruption of his rather dull life that ends up affirming Miss Clark’s inkling that there’s something more to this funny looking and mild-mannered man.  

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