There’s a lot to like here for Edward G. Robinson fans who get to see their hero play both the milquetoast “Jonesy” and gangster “Killer” Mannion—sometimes in the same scene!
Arthur Ferguson Jones’ day is off to a bad start thanks to a broken alarm clock and his company’s new zero tolerance policy for tardiness. It only gets worse for Jonesy after co-worker Miss Clark (Jean Arthur) spots a photo of appropriately monikered “Killer” Mannion in the morning paper and is astounded by the gangster’s likeness to Jonesy. Soon after that a fellow-diner, Hoyt (Donald Meek), spots the good Jonesy out with Miss Clark, assumes he’s actually seeing Mannion and reports the sighting to police with hopes of a reward.
In Jonesy we get a peek of the Robinson to come, his mannerisms very reminiscent of the later Chris Cross of Scarlet Street, released ten years later. A highlight of The Whole Town’s Talking is Jonesy freezing upon entering his apartment, a look of terror overtaking him, as the camera swings around to reveal his harsher double, “Killer” Mannion, a Little Caesar of sorts, with the added benefit of experience behind him.
In essence this revelation of Mannion is the pay-off in Columbia’s The Whole Town’s Talking, a rebirth of Robinson’s most glorious role coming just in time to kick-start a sagging career which Warner Brothers, his home studio, would take advantage of moving forward by casting him in pictures such as Bullets of Ballots (1936), Kid Galahad (1937), and taking it full-circle in the comedy A Slight Case of Murder (1938).
But there’s plenty here for Jean Arthur fans to sink their teeth into as well. While her character’s camera time is limited to third place behind each of Robinson’s parts, Miss Clark is a prototype of the strong working girl characters to come for Arthur. In fact, Arthur brings a confidence to this character that seems somewhat dissipated in her more memorable later roles, even her Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
When she arrives to work late and is dismissed Etienne Girardot’s office manager, she brushes it off as a matter of no importance. She kicks her feet up on the desk and chit-chats with her fellow employees like one of the guys, a characteristic that would continue to win fans over in her coming films, but perhaps it’s what’s missing here that adds a layer to Arthur’s portrayal; she’s not lovelorn.
Typically Arthur must suffer some to get her man, think of how emotionally fractured she is after her Babe Bennett is outed in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) or her Saunders turning to the bottle to escape her demons in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In The Whole Town’s Talking she’s got Jonesy wrapped around her finger the moment she wants him without ever requiring a heartrending redemption scene to seal the deal.
Miss Clark can afford to be cocky and Arthur pulls it off without becoming annoying. It’s no wonder that this would also be a career turning role for her with Arthur becoming hugely popular going forward and through the World War II years.
The Whole Towns Talking is an excellent mid-30’s comedy with crossover appeal for gangster fans. I enjoyed it thoroughly despite a couple of problems which really gnawed at my own suspension of disbelief. 1) Why wouldn’t “Killer” Mannion just do away with Jonesy so he could have his police pass 24 hours a day? And since he didn’t, 2) Why wouldn’t Jonesy go right to the police when the pass was in his possession and lead them back to his apartment to apprehend Mannion? I know, it’s a movie, sit back and enjoy it, so I’ll shrug my shoulders here and say that I can get over my first point, as to the second, I could believe that such a bold move would be a big step for the meek Jonesy, maybe he just didn’t have it in him.
John Ford directs The Whole Town’s Talking for Columbia Pictures. Besides Robinson and Arthur, as well as the aforementioned Donald Meek and Etienne Girardot, the film features Paul Harvey as the owner at Jonesy’s office, Wallace Ford as a reporter, and Edward Brophy as “Slugs” Martin, a gangster on the outs with Mannion.