Tuesday, October 8, 2013

John Ford | The Whole Town's Talking

rabbit and rattler
by Douglas Messerli
Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin (screenplay, based on a story by W. R. Burnett), John Ford (director) The Whole Town’s Talking / 1935

Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson) is the seemingly perfect employee, having never been late to work in eight years! And, after years of near slavery, he is unknowingly about to receive a raise. That is until one morning when time stops. His new alarm clock breaks down and he is over a half-an-hour late! The same executive decree that is ready to award him, now proclaims he is about to be fired. The poor office manager-middleman, Seaver (Etienne Giradot) has an unsolvable problem.

       But that is only the beginning of the complex series of mirror oppositions posed in one of John Ford’s few outright comedies, scripted by Frank Capra’s usual collaborators, Swerling and Riskin. First of all, if this work is a comedy, it is also a gangster film that, perhaps because its small budget, escaped the censure of the Hays Committee, helping Robinson to transform his almost moribund career to become a master actor of that genre.       

     And then there is the second unsolvable problem of Jones’ imaginary love life with his office mate, Wilhelmina Clark (Jean Arthur), who, after working until 9:30 the night before, shows up for work even later, and is fired in Jones’ place. Fearful of everything (Wilhelmina describes Jones as a rabbit), Jones has nonetheless been so infatuated with her as to steal a photograph of Miss Clark. Even if he has been saved from unemployment, accordingly, his only dream of sexual happiness is about to be taken from him. And then on this particularly unlucky day for Jones—a day apparently chocked full of outrageous predicaments—the newspaper runs a photo of gangster “Killer” Mannion (also played by Robinson), a dead ringer for…Jones, of course! The man afraid of his own shadow is suddenly perceived as public enemy number 1. By lunch time, when he accidently joins Wilhelmina for lunch, the whole town, if not talking, is at least whispering about Mannion’s escape from prison and his determination to plug a small time informer, “Slugs” Martin (Edward Brophy). It only takes a nebbish snitch like a local diner, Hoyt (Donald Meek) to bring the police down upon the innocent Jones.

       A long scene of police self-congratulation for having finally gotten their man reveals the hypocrisy and self-complacency of the whole town—if not the whole country—follows. Jones continues to deny he’s Mannion, while the police and reporters so hound him with their “facts,” that in the end he hardly even knows his own name, sputtering out the word that combines his own identity with that of the gangster, “moans,” while simultaneously signifying his personal condition. When called to the police office to identify Jones, his employer J.G. Carpenter, who has not even seen most of his employees, can only repeat that the man they hold is Mannion. He has read the paper, of course!

     Arrested with Jones, Wilhelmina is taken into another room to be interrogated and in a much lighter and sarcastic manner admits everything, that she is not only Mannnion’s moll but that Mannion has committed every crime they accuse him of—hundreds of criminal actions!

      The comic mischievousness of these scenes, however, soon dissipates as we realize the Kafka-like dimensions of the situation, as Jones faints, finally being recognized by the office manager with whom the film has begun. The police realize that Wilhelmina has taken them, to use the American idiom of the film, on a sleigh ride.

      What to do now, with the man who looks like the most dangerous man on the run? In a gun-happy society, Jones will only be killed or soon be brought back into custody. Should they imprison the man, despite his innocence, just to protect him? Again, the implications of that action are extraordinarily darker than we are used to in what first appears as a semi-screwball comedy. And Ford takes advantage of that possibility by giving his hero a temporary break of an official letter identifying him as himself—reminiscent, certainly, later in the decade, of a German card identifying the carrier as a Jew or gay man, no real protection but death assured.

     In this vertigo of comic tropes, the director moves quickly to the political left by having Jones’ employer, Carpenter, call him in to congratulate Jones for the publicity he has brought to the company, and, along with a local reporter, whips up a writing series for Jones in which he will pretend to ghost-write Mannion’s “autobiography,” the mirror image relaying the truth of the man on the other side of the looking-glass. The implications of this maneuver, which they convince the innocent Jones to become involved through an afternoon of heavy cigars and alcohol (refused, at first by the abstentious employee), puts everything into a delirious tilt, as this nearly angelic everyman is forced to speak in the voice of the devil. Jones’ only reward for this ridiculous act is his insistence that his boss rehire Wilhelmina, who, when she hears of the situation, makes certain that Jones will also get paid.

      With whirlwind velocity, Ford takes his comedy into completely new territory as he brings Mannion into the poor Jones’ room, demanding, like his employer, control over Jones’ life: Jones may use his identifying letter during the day, but Mannion will use it during the night. By day, Mannion will sleep in Jones’ bed, and insists that Jones—as if he were a berated husband—return home by a certain hour. Even the metaphor of two men sharing the same bed might have led the Hays office of the day into horrible flutters of moral outrage, but somehow Ford and his writers got away with it all. It is clear now that Jones is trapped between the images of himself, trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. When Mannion returns the next morning, he finds that his “other” self has, understandably, not been able to sleep, a common problem of a disaffected mate.

      Now terrified that Mannion will read his boastful taunts in the newspaper, Jones spends the next day trying to reach the newspaper acquaintance without success, dragging himself home late, fearing the criminal’s reactions. But when Mannion reads the newspaper nonsense he demands that Jones write his “autobiography” through Mannion’s own words, a bit like turning the fiction inside out, the “ghost” becoming the voice of the real beast, not unlike Stein’s Autobiography of Alice Toklas. The result is that prison secrets are revealed that only a few know about, which again puts Jones into a dangerous position. Mannnion accepts the absurd suggestion of the authorities that Jones be locked up for his own protection, killing “Slugs” within the prison where he is arrested “in protection.” By this time, we sense, Ford has almost dropped the comic tropes of his fascinating film, transforming it to a possible tragedy, as we begin to perceive that Mannion’s gang has kidnapped not only Wilhelmina, but Jones’ elderly aunt, the busybody Hoyt, and the office manager, Seaver.

      With brutal determination, Mannion sends Jones to the bank with a deposit, calling the police to warn them of another Mannion bank assault. The police fall into position within the bank, preparing to kill Jones the moment he enters, and the comedy with which Ford has begun, begins to look more like the final showdown between police and the central figures of Bonnie and Clyde. Fortunately, the profoundly confused Jones has left the check behind, and turns back at the final moment to retrieve it.

     Returning to the gangster’s liar, Jones encounters Mannion’s henchman, now out to challenge the gangster’s control. In expressing their decision, they inadvertanly reveal to Jones that he has been the fall guy, and when Mannion unexpectedly returns, Jones orders them to shoot the man they presume is a returned Jones. For perhaps the first time in his life Jones has acted forcibly, accomplishing what no authorities have been previously been able too, as well as freeing his imprisoned girl, his aunt, fellow worker, and the busybody who has gotten him into this situation in the first place—even though it all ends, once again, in his faint. Instead of awarding the money to the ever-pleading Hoyt, the police award Jones, who uses to money to travel, with his beloved Wilhelmina, to Shanghai, a dream world he has long wished for. Comedy is restored, as the two wave away their fictional friends and the audience, about to spin off toward their slightly delusional and imaginary destination.

      In many of the commentaries of the films of John Ford, this movie, particularly since it has little of his western issues, gets little or no discussion. But I might argue that in this comedy—a genre which, Ford once argued, “is my forte”—his vision is far more revelatory, far less sentimental, and intentionally subversive than are any of his films of American history and, in particular, of the western culture. Along with this film’s fast-talking heroine, I’ll take the rabbit over the rattler any day.

Los Angeles, October 7, 2013

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