Eighty-four years ago today, the whole town of Hollywood was talking about Columbia Pictures, the humble but hard-working studio that had triumphed the preceding evening at the Academy Awards®, winning all five top prizes – Best Picture, Director (Frank Capra), Actor (Clark Gable), Actress (Claudette Colbert) and Best Adaptation Screenplay (Robert Riskin) – for the surprise romantic comedy box-office hit It Happened One Night (1934), plus a couple of additional trophies, Best Scoring and Sound Recording, for the Grace Moore vehicle One Night of Love (1934). The production company was moving into the big leagues, and appropriately, opened a new urban comedy, with adult, romantic and screwball touches, helmed by another A-team director, showcasing a dazzling dual-role lead performance by its esteemed star, and co-written (with Jo Sperling) by freshly minted Oscar® winner Riskin, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was called, appropriately enough, The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), and because John Ford and Edward G. Robinson were involved in expert form, sparked conversation and admiration.
Between the plentiful supply of laughs in its whimsical premise, and the delicious sense of discovery surrounding the frisky and luminous Jean Arthur, there lurked something deeper, summed up by Searching for John Ford biographer Joseph McBride, as the theme of “the struggle between good and evil within human nature, although in a largely humorous manner. (The screenplay, based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, was written by Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling, best known for their work with Frank Capra.) Edward G. Robinson plays the dual role of a timid office worker and a notorious gangster named ‘Killer’ Mannion. This dark comedy of mistaken identity is as expressionistic as a German silent film in its stylized depiction of man’s duality, but no one seemed to notice because The Whole Town’s Talking presents itself as lighthearted escapism.” It gives pause to those who might consider The Informer (1935), Ford’s later, more artfully stylized, future Oscar®-winning effort that stepped into the Music Hall 10 weeks later, to be the director’s only foray into German Expressionism and man’s duality that year; though this might be considered journeyman work for Messrs. Robinson and Ford away from their usual studio and subject-matter stomping grounds, it’s briskly paced, impeccably cast and nimbly executed. “Pungently written, wittily produced and topped off with a splendid dual performance by Edward G. Robinson, it may be handsomely recommended as the best of the new year’s screen comedies,” Andre Sennwald proclaimed in The New York Times. “Mr. Robinson, while he succeeds in being unbelievably downtrodden in the wistful little man who looks like Public Enemy No. 1, has not forgotten how to play Little Caesar, and he stifles the laugh in your throat when he is being Killer Mannion. With a splendid narrative like this, he returns with a rush to the front line of film players.”
The mighty Robinson wasn’t the only one creating a rush, as biographer John Oller noted. “Robinson’s character Jonesy, a usually punctual office clerk, is threatened with the loss of his job after he slithers into work 25 minutes late, the victim of a failed alarm clock. Moments later a pretty blonde co-worker breezes into the office, tosses aside the cigarette she has been puffing and noisily punches the time clock before she is accosted by her boss. ‘You’re late!’ he screeches, and she replies, quizzically, ‘What for – has something happened?’ ‘I want to know why you see fit to step in at 9:30 this morning,’ he demands, to which she pertly responds, ‘Well, if you must know, it’s because I saw fit to step out at 9:30 last night.’ She is fired on the spot, but this only seems to make her day. At that moment, a new screen comedienne was born,” declares the author of the 1997 career study Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew. “The Whole Town’s Talking was the first of Arthur’s films to feature her in the type of role with which she would always be associated: the hard-boiled working girl with a heart of gold, who successfully urges a meek but good man on to glory. Even if the role seems stereotyped today, it is a stereotype that Arthur helped invent, and it was exhilarating at the time.” It certainly was to Arthur’s co-star; Robinson recalled in his posthumously published 1973 autobiography All My Yesterdays (written with Leonard Spigelgass) “that curious, neurotic actress with so touching and appealing a nature that she really brought a new dimension to the screen. Hardly pretty by ancient Hollywood standards, with a voice that grated like fresh peppermint, she seemed to me to be living – off and on screen – in a dream world of her own devising. 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 know.”
Arthur had worked for Ford before (in 1923’s Cameo Kirby and 1924’s The Iron Horse), and the nifty character actor ensemble consisted of Ford movie reliables, like Wallace Ford (The Informer), Arthur Byron (The Prisoner of Shark Island) and Donald Meek (Stagecoach), or crackerjack comedy faves like Etienne Girardot (Twentieth Century) and Edward Brophy (A Slight Case of Murder). And if a screwball star was born 84 years ago today in the person of the amazing Arthur, somewhere in the uncredited ranks of briefly glimpsed bit players, employees hustled to safety in the late-in-the-movie midtown bank scene, is a lady who would also later ascend to her own unique comedy coronation, Lucille Ball. There’s much to discuss – and delight in – as The Whole Town’s Talking arrives March 19 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open March 6.