“Manhattan Melodrama” (1934) gives us a squeaky clean District Attorney/Governor, a best pal on the other side of the law, and Myrna Loy, best gal to both of them. In these days of New York Governors a little low on integrity in a really public way, this film captures an era equally guilty of graft and self interest, yet presented through the story of one good guy who feels guilty despite his integrity, and one bad guy who seems not so bad. It also gives us some interesting history of that era.
We are taken back to the characters’ boyhoods, and a traumatic event on the steamer General Slocum. A fun thing about this film is instead of creating an entirely fictitious scenario, we have a fictional story played on a background among real events. The General Slocum burned in 1904, with over 1,000 deaths. The only New York tragedy to claim more lives was 9/11. Few today may even know about the tragedy, but at the time it was an horrific event. We are also shown newsreel shots of 1920s Times Square with a Squibb’s advertisement, trolley cards, and marquees for the Palace and Loew’s. The characters attend the Cotton Club in Harlem, and there is a brief scene showing an actual hockey game (played without helmets or protective gear) at Madison Square Garden.
But for all the realistic shots, all it takes is the inevitable few bars of “Sidewalks of New York” to set the scene of long-ago Old New York and two boys playing on the decks of the General Slocum. One boy is studious, reading even on this outing, and the other is a rogue, played by Mickey Rooney, who plays tricks and cons other kids out of their pennies.
But the boys are pals, and come to the aid of another pal, a boy named Morris, when Morris is picked on. We are shown the immigrant hyphenated Americans on their one day off from the factory, Irish, Italians, Russian Jews. A fire breaks out and there is panic. Many die, including the two pals’ parents, and their friend Morris. They are rescued by a priest whose thick Italian accent tells us he is also an immigrant. Morris’ father, mourning his son, tearfully asks the boys, “How would you like to come and live with me and be my sons?”
“But I’m not a Jew and neither is Jim.” Mickey Rooney replies.
“Catholic, Protestant, Jew. What does it matter now?”
It is a lovely lesson in brotherly love that is sometimes true even if it is not universal, and our inclination to smile or roll our eyes at such innocence is condescending. The boys become the sons of “Poppa” Rosen, but he is later killed in a riot when he challenges the anti-American speech of a Bolshevik soapbox speaker. We move from a lesson in religious tolerance to Bolshevism is bad no matter if the speaker has a right to say what he thinks.
Years pass, Mickey Rooney grows up to be Clark Gable, and William Powell plays his bookish friend, now a New York City District Attorney. Myrna Loy is Gable’s girl, a world-weary and streetwise sort of moll who yearns for a different life. Gable, called “Blackie” is a gangster. A charming, handsome gangster, but still a gangster.
When she meets Powell, she is impressed with his gentlemanliness absent in the roguish Gable. This is Powell’s and Loy’s first film pairing, and their chemistry led to “The Thin Man” series. At the Cotton Club a singer played by Shirley Ross (who, minus the darker skinned makeup was Bob Hope’s partner in the famous “Thanks for the Memories” song in “The Big Broadcast of 1938”) sings “The Bad in Every Man”, the anthem for this movie, a Rogers and Hart tune which we know more commonly as “Blue Moon.” Apparently the original lyrics weren’t catchy enough, so Lorenz Hart was asked to come up with some new words.
Miss Loy leaves Gable for Powell, becoming his wife. But there are no hard feelings, and Mr. Gable is astoundingly cheerful not only at loosing his girlfriend to his best pal, but pleased almost to the point of giddiness when Powell’s investigations into racketeering threaten Gable’s business deals. He is immensely proud of Powell’s career climb. He is happy for their marriage. Clark Gable is one of the few actors who could pull off the sincerity he is supposed to feel, and even say lines like, “Everything is hotsy-totsy.”
However, trouble looms when Powell is threatened by a bad egg in his administration, and Gable kills the bad egg to help Powell’s bid for Governor. Clark Gable has some interesting scenes with Myrna Loy after she is Powell’s wife. His attention to her is solicitous, and intimate, but not sexually predatory. He exudes genuine affection for her, much more than when she was his ever-waiting girlfriend, almost as if his esteem for her rose only after she left him. The warmth he displays for her when they sit together at the races is among the sexiest scenes he has ever played.
“Do you ever lose?” she kids him when he has won the horse race.
“Yeah, every once in a while.” He charmingly replies, referring to having lost her. He says it without self pity or rancor, and that is adorable.
But the wheels are in motion, and Gable is caught for the murder he committed in a cold-blood by shooting another bad guy in the men’s room at Madison Square Garden. Powell must prosecute him, and while Gable enjoys the courtroom drama, proud of his pal’s integrity, “Class, it’s written all over him,” Powell suffers agonies. In his summation, Powell mentions the long-ago General Slocum tragedy, and he tearfully groans, “I made a boyish effort to save Blackie Gallagher’s life. Today I demand from you his death.”
Gable is given the death sentence, Mr. Powell wins the governorship, dons a wing collar and swallowtail coat, and Loy leaves Powell for what she sees as his fanatic obsession with the law and his lack of loyalty to Gable. He visits Gable in the death house, and the love the two men feel for each other, especially when joined by the Italian priest from their boyhood days, gives us a powerful scene. Powell weakens, and offers Gable a commutation of his death sentence, which Mr. Gable refuses.
“If I can’t live the way I want, at least let me die when I want.”
If such bravado is difficult to believe, then Powell’s remorse that drives him to resign the governorship is even more difficult to believe. He resigns because, as he makes a public confession to the Assembly, his feelings for Gable made him offer the commutation, against the wishes of the public who voted him in office for his very prosecution of his friend. Such scruples, more than a gangster and murder’s admiration for a man with integrity, more than Myrna Loy turning from gun moll to First Lady of New York, more than Clark Gable saying things like “hotsy totsy” stretches our belief. Scruples in public office? Integrity? A social conscience? Yeah, right. Maybe if the former Governor of New York and the present Governor had pencil-thin mustaches, then maybe we could trust them.
Another bit of trivia, well-known by now, is that the real-life gangster John Dillinger had just emerged from Chicago’s Biograph Theater, having seen this film, when he was shot and killed by the FBI.