The Whole Town’s Talking is the story of milquetoast Arthur Ferguson Jones who lives a dull, uninteresting life until one day a co-worker, Miss Clark, played by Jean Arthur, who is criminally underutilized in the film, notices his striking resemblance to an escaped gangster who goes by the name “Killer Mannion.” Unfortunately for Jones, she’s not the only one who notices the resemblance, and soon he’s in police headquarters, desperately trying to convince the police that he’s not Mannion. Eventually, he is successful, and the police give him a letter explaining the coincidence to prevent further trouble. Meanwhile, the real Mannion catches wind of the whole thing in the papers, decides he can put the letter to better use than Jones, and shows up in his apartment. Hilarity ensues. That must have been the pitch anyway, as the film is billed as a comedy.
The film does have some funny moments, but they come from secondary and tertiary characters and seem out of sync with the main story line, which is played straight up by Edward G. Robinson. The result is a movie that never quite finds its moorings. The screenplay was written by Robert Riskin, who is primarily known for making several hit movies with Frank Capra, and directed by, of all people, John Ford. Whether those two are the source of the cognitive dissonance or not is anyone’s guess, but it does seem an odd pairing, not to mention how odd it is to think of John Ford directing a screwball comedy to begin with.
There’s also some odd gender stuff going on. The contrast between Jones and Mannion is played a little over the top, if excellently by Robinson. Jones says “yes sir” to everyone, apologizes a lot, and frequently thanks people who should be apologizing to him. He’s depicted as a doormat who writes versus to the woman he’s attracted to but can’t muster the courage to sign them or let her know of his feelings for her. Instead, he goes the creepy route, stealing a photograph off of her desk and placing it at his bedside. Meanwhile, “Mannion,” whose name is overt enough in itself and who is described by Jones’ love interest as a “real man,” threatens, cajoles, and murders his way to whatever he wants. Whereas Mannion is depicted with phallic symbols, such as guns, Jones is shown wearing an apron and even pantless at one point. What all this is supposed to add up to, I don’t know, but the end result is that Jones, who presumably is supposed to be sympathetic, isn’t. When he finally does have the opportunity to show courage, it’s simply the result of a lucky break rather than any cleverness or heroism on his part, after which he simply faints.
The most impressive feature of the film, really the only reason to watch it, is the performance of Edward G. Robinson. Because he also plays Mannion impersonating Jones and Jones impersonating Mannion, it’s really four characters he has to pull off, all without the benefit of physical comedy and costuming a la Peter Sellers. One wonders if Edward G. Robinson would be a star today. Regardless, he gives an acting clinic in this one.