Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Whole Town's Talking

The Whole Town's Talking (John Ford, 1935) Director John Ford never made an outright screwball comedy (not even his service comedies, but one could make a case for the inadvertent Tobacco Road), but he comes close with this Columbia studio gangster version of "The Prince and the Pauper" (based on a story by W.R. Burnett, who wrote "Little Caesar" and did dialogue work on Scarface)

Bookish ad drone Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson) lives by The Book—never late for work, always does his job, never stands out. But he oversleeps one morning and events start to cascade. He gets in late to the office, is arbitrarily chosen to be fired to be "made an example of," and when he's on the street, he's arrested for bearing a startling resemblance to "Killer" Mannion (Robinson again) a notorious racketeer. Jones becomes a sensation, with reporters clamoring for interviews, and police and politicians making political hay out of the arrest.

Only one trouble—they have the wrong man. When "the real" Mannion is arrested at the same time Jones is in jail, the police realize their mistake, but before setting Jones free, they give him a letter, explaining to any official who really is, despite the resemblance, so no further misunderstandings can happen.

Jones' world turns upside down—he becomes a sensation, attracting the attention of the wise-cracking Wilhelmina "Bill" Clark (Jean Arthur), as well, as the town newspaper, which begins exploiting Jones' bizarre story for headlines.

Then, things get complicated, story-wise and technically. Mannion escapes from jail and is waiting for Jones when he gets home from work. Ford stages it as if it's going to be the standard actor/stand-in substitution, even employing some "Kirk-lighting" to keep the gangster-actor's identity under wraps. Then, begins some of the most intricate split-screen work seen before or since. Robinson is a consummate professional and never slips characterization and he's always looking himself in the eye when he talks. Ford shoots long takes of dialogue between the two Robinson characters and there's nary a hesitation.

This movie was made in 1935, a mere eight years after The Jazz Singer ushered in sound. Yet this double-performance tricks border on the magical. In the shot above, Jones (on the left) will hand the newspaper—with its incriminating headlines to Mannion (on the right).  The hand-off will occur behind the lamp—a pretty simple feint. How, then, do you explain Jones handing his letter of identity to Mannion (so that he can carry out his crimes undisturbed by the police) in full frame with no lamp or other stick of furniture as camouflage? How do you explain the dialogue scenes between Jones and Mannion where the latter is smoking a cigar and the smoke enters Jones' field of vicinity? How do you explain the mirror shot of Robinson's Jones seeing Robinson's Mannion behind him in reflection (reflected rear-projection?)?

Ford was a director of telling details, but the intricacies of these special effects shots are something above and beyond the typical character moments that Ford was becoming famous for. These little acts of magic were designed to sell the double act to an audience already on the look-out for tell-tale signs of discontinuity and trickery. Ford was already a master of the frame and of visual story-telling from years of directing during the silent era. But his co-conspiracy with Robinson (they would not work together again until Cheyenne Autumn in 1964) to create two distinctive personalities is one of their great little tricks on the audience, making this minor film (for both) something of a triumphant challenge.

Which Mannion is it?

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