Sunday, February 22, 2015

When Edward G. Robinson Gave 'Em Something to Talk About

"You know something, a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."

Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson)

I'm sorry to say that I had not heard of "The Whole Town's Talking," which premiered 80 years ago today, until a month or two ago. Then I watched it online, and I must say that it is one of the most underrated movies of all time.

It had a great cast — Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur and Lucille Ball in a small uncredited role. It was directed by John Ford. It was a great comedy, not exactly what you'd call a screwball comedy, although Arthur was very good in those. It was more a case of mistaken identity.

Robinson actually played two roles in the movie — mild–mannered clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones and a notorious killer. The resemblance was so strong that, after the initial mistake was clarified (in which the clerk had been detained on the suspicion that he was actually the notorious killer) and the police knew who he really was, they issued him a special pass instructing anyone who stopped him to let him go.

Word got out about this special pass that he had been issued, and the notorious killer saw an opportunity to take advantage of his look–alike.

It was kind of a refreshing change. Robinson was mostly known for his gangster roles — and roles that, while not exactly of the gangster type, were rugged individualists. Arthur Ferguson Jones was, to use modern labels, a wimp, a wuss.

Now, "Killer" Mannion was precisely the kind of character everyone imagines when they think of Edward G. Robinson. Robinson probably could play that role in his sleep. For 1935 filmmaking technology, though, it was pretty impressive to see Robinson confronting Robinson on the big screen.

Anyway, as I say, I wouldn't call this a screwball comedy — but I could call it a romantic comedy, given the sparks between Robinson and Arthur.

And Arthur's character, as she so often did in her movies, fell in love with her leading man. It usually made for a rather unconventional romance bristling with extraordinary obstacles. In this case, the obstacle was that her leading man happened to look like a notorious killer, public enemy #1 — yes, they actually used that phrase in the movie — and he posed quite a threat to their lives.

To be fair, there was a kind of screwball, slapstick quality to the final minutes of the movie. At times, it resembled a human shell game. Which Edward G. Robinson was the mild–mannered clerk, and which one was the killer? Don't look away from the screen for even a second, or you might miss something important.

Arthur, wrote Robinson, "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 to know."

Someone who may have benefited from working with and knowing the "quintessential comedic leading lady," as Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne called her, was Lucille Ball, whose memorable TV career almost certainly was influenced by Arthur.