Comic mayhem was always supercharged in the films of the 1930s because the buzz is palpable, the actors are always endowed with certain oddities, and the corkscrew plotlines run rampant with absurdities of their own. Penned by a pair of titans in Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, The Whole Town’s Talking opens with an inciting incident that’s a true comedic conundrum.
Bald and beady-eyed Mr. Seaver is called upon to fire the next employee who comes in late to work. A tough proposition to begin with but it gets worse. Arthur Ferguson Jones has not been late to work in 8 years and of course, today’s the day his alarm clock doesn’t work. Although he gets a reprieve. Still, the next person walking in isn’t so lucky. The hardy, wisecracking Miss Clark (Jean Arthur). And that’s our introduction to our main players.
But the real wrench comes from an age-old device that’s easy to scoff at initially. There’s a doppelganger. Yes, the same upstanding, timid Arthur Ferguson Jones is cut in the spitting image of Public Enemy No. 1, Killer Mannion. But before you check out, consider what this does for this ruckus of a story. It ties it up in knots.
Jones is the talk of the town. Exploding flashbulbs. Cover stories. Tumult. Back in the glory days when the press ran in a pack like hyenas. His boss invites him to dinner, wants an autograph for his boy. He’s being ribbed by his coworkers and Miss Jones takes an interest in his literary endeavors. This leads to a gig ghostwriting the gangster’s life story in the local paper.
Meanwhile, the police argue about what to do about him. They finally decide to give him a special passport. It says he’s not Killer Mannion. And hapless little Mr. Seaver still badgers his employee to finish up his waiting caseload. What no one expects is that Mannion will sneak into Jones’ home and sets up camp.
And from that point on, everything gets confused. Robinson gets a chance at a great deal of range sometimes having his two diverging roles playing off each other in the same frame. All you need to know is the gangster is looking to leave his new benefactor holding the bag for his numerous crimes. Whether it works out or not is quite another story.
This a particularly odd film for the talent assembled. It doesn’t especially feel like a John Ford film and not simply because it’s not a Western. But at this point in his career, his stock company isn’t even assembled.
Edward G. Robinson will always be identified with gangster pics and it’s true he was tired of that association. Here he’s playing comedy. He has one foot in his usual wheelhouse but the other seems utterly alien to his usual persona. As such it’s great fun. And his timid common man isn’t even a tragic figure like Chris Cross (Scarlet Street). The comedy is far more apparent and that in part stems from Arthur.
She shows up late to work, gets fired, and still has quips coming out of her ears. She plays all the journalists trying to pump her for facts and at the same time falls for this dope who has her picture framed by his bedside. Perhaps better than anyone she perfected how to be cheeky but still wholesome and caring. Arthur feels most at home in this film more than anyone else, given her comedic pedigree but she and Robinson bounce off each other well.
In a few years she would play a Miss Jones but for right now she’s content calling her colleague by the pet name “Jonesie” and (tiny spoiler) she does become Mrs. Jones. So an oddball romantic pair they might be, but that doesn’t make the partnering of Robinson and Arthur any less amusing. They’re both on their A-game in The Whole Town’s Talking and thankfully there would be many more arresting performances to come.