(director: John Ford; screenwriter: story by W.R. Burnett/Robert Riskin/Jo Swerling; cinematographer: Joseph August; editor: Viola Lawrence; music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff/Louis Silvers; cast: Edward G. Robinson (Arthur Ferguson Jones/’Killer’ Mannion), Jean Arthur (Wilhelmina ‘Bill’ Clark), Wallace Ford (Healy), Arthur Hohl (Sgt. Michael F. Boyle), Edward Brophy (‘Slugs’ Martin), Donald Meek (Mr. Hoyt), James Donlan (Howe), J. Farrell MacDonald (Warden), Etienne Girardot (Seaver), Paul Harvey (“J. G.” Carpenter), Effie Ellsler (Aunt Agatha), Arthur Byron (DA Spencer), Ralph Remley (Sam Dixon, Office Worker); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: John Ford/Lester Cowan; Columbia TriStar Home Video; 1935)

“A sheer joy to watch.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Ford (“The Informer”/”Stagecoach”) directs this snazzy gangster drama/comedy that effectively mixes in melodrama and silliness. It’s briskly written by Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling from a story by W.R. Burnett (author of Little Caesar). Edward G. Robinson, on loan from Warner’s to Columbia, has a double role, as there’s a case of mistaken identity–he’s a white-collar clerk who resembles an escaped killer. Along with A Slight Case of Murder (1938), this is the flick (one of the few comedies for Robinson) that revived his slumping career after being in a number of second-rate features.

Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson) is a mousy office clerk who is late for the first time in eight years because he overslept. It comes at a time when he was about to get a raise in salary by boss J. G. Carpenter (Paul Harvey), who wants to reward him with a raise for his punctuality to set an example for the others. But his orders are also to fire anyone who is late. Officer manager Seaver (Etienne Girardot) decides to do nothing because he’s confused about giving Jones a raise and then firing him. But Wilhemina “Bill” Clark (Jean Arthur), a cheeky coworker, is canned for coming in late. The firing is to take effect at the end of the week. While still around, she jokingly points out to the staff the resemblance between a picture in the newspaper of the escaped convict “Killer” Mannion and Jones. Later when Jones goes to a cafe, a zealous but slightly nutty patron named Hoyt (Donald Meek) also notes the similarity while observing Jones in the cafe and turns him over to the police for the $25,000 reward.

After being grilled at the station, the real Mannion commits a bank robbery and DA Spencer (Arthur Byron) gives him a special passport to prevent any further arrests over mistaken identity. The big boss J. G. gets Jones, an aspiring writer, to sign a contract with slick newspaperman Healy (Wallace Ford) to write a serial on Mannion. J. G. hopes to cash in on the publicity for his firm and the three schemers get tipsy. When Jones leaves the office meeting, he gets up enough nerve to kiss his secret love Clark and, to boot, tells Seaver that J. G. agreed to rehire Miss Clark. Back at Jones’ flat, Mannion awaits for him and orders Jones to let him use the passport at night when he commits his crimes. Mannion threatens to have one of his gang kill him if he blabs. Mannion further intimidates Jonesy by having the articles about his life embellished with his reminiscences of the prison break. This gets the authorities suspicious, as Jonesy writes about things only the guards involved and Mannion would know.

The police complain that with Jones showing his passport at night, they can’t stop Mannion from committing crimes. So the DA orders that Jones be placed under protective custody in prison until Mannion is caught, but Mannion takes Jones’s place when he learns that stool pigeon “Slugs” Martin (Edward Brophy) is also in protective custody. He’s the reason Mannion escaped, hoping to get even with him. While in prison Mannion knocks off the frightened Slugs and a guard, but before the cops are aware of this he’s released. Seaver picks him up from jail, thinking it’s Jones, and is taken to the gang’s hideaway with other hostages Miss Clark and Jones’ visiting Aunt Agatha from Bridgeport. There’s a dragnet out for Mannion, and he reasons that his best chance of escaping is to get Jones killed in a police ambush where they mistake him for Mannion (he seems to have forgotten about fingerprint identification). Mannion schemes to get Jones shot by having him go to the bank disguised in a mustache to deposit money for his mother in case he dies. But instead the gangster tips off the police about a robbery involving Mannion in a mustache. Jones was about to walk into the bank and get shot, but returns to the hideout because he forgot to take the money. When standing outside the door of the hideout, Jones overhears the gang talk about how clever it was for the boss to have the police knock off Jones. So Jones enters the hideout pretending to be Mannion, who stepped out to be with his girl. When Mannion returns, Jones orders the gang to kill Mannion with a machine gun and then picks up the abandoned machine gun and holds the gang hostage until the police from the bank ambush arrive to arrest the gang. Jones also frees the hostages, gets a $25,000 reward, gets his dream girl, Miss Clark, and takes her to Shanghai on a honeymoon.

There were too many plot holes to take this as anything but as a farce, but it’s such a well-executed comedy with all the zany antics being highly entertaining that it was a sheer joy to watch. It also helps that Ford directs with such grace and Arthur and Robinson give superb performances. But character actor Etienne Girardot stole every scene he was in and made me laugh the most.

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