Thursday, March 27, 2008

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

“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.


J.C. Loophole said...

Great post!
I actually liked this flick, mainly because until Powell meets Loy in the car (which is the real first time they met) it's a rather pedantic picture. Then we have an instance of incredible chemistry popping on the screen right before our eyes. The interaction between the two is undeniable and the film is even more enjoyable thereafter, although I have to admit I agree with you about the ending- which was a concession to the Hayes code as much as anything else.
WS Van Dyke who directed later stated that while he was considering doing the Thin Man film, he was unsure until he filmed the scene of the first meeting of Powell and Loy. When he saw it and reviewed it later, he knew he had Nick and Nora and agreed to do the film as long as he had his two stars.
So, as a fan of The Thin Man films I have to say I love Manhatten Melodrama. (which also inspired several "Melodrammer" titled cartoons that year)!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, J.C., thanks for stopping by. You always contribute an interesting viewpoint. It's a fun movie in many respects, as you say especially for the chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell. I enjoy movies that use real historical events as a backdrop. I am surprised, though, that they'd depict Clark Gable gunning down a man in cold blood. Usually they'd have the other bad guy shoot first to give the impression his firing back was self-defense. I know he's supposed to be a gangster, but he's also Clark Gable, for heaven's sake, not Cagney or Bogart. Gable's incessant cheerfulness in the face of this violence almost make him seem psychopathic. I wonder if it made the front office nervous?

J.C. Loophole said...

Very true re: Gable, but then on the other hand, would Cagney and Bogart (during the point in their careers when this was made) have been able to pull off the loyalty and nobility bit and even make it semi-believable? It's an interesting question. Warner's was always pushing the edge with the bad boy stuff around this time, so I wasn't necessarily suprised. Of course they made the guy who was shot dispicable,etc. Audiences might have rooted for the likable gangter or rogue during the depression but murder is another question. Hence, the victim is dispicable and Gable still gets the chair in the end and Powell has to resign. As you know this is a very interesting period for films.
On a side note I am reviewing the new Warner Brother's Gangsters Collection Vol. 3 for a Shelf review (check it out very soon. I am happy to say that most of the films are appearing on DVD for the first time, and most are from the early thirties. It's a great local at pre-code flicks, including a sub-genre that is sorely represented on DVD: the so-called "shyster satire" or con-man/gangster comedy. Pretty good stuff. I am especially glad to see Lady Killer as it features one of my favorite, sadly underrated actresses, Mae Clark and one of my all time favorite actors: James Cagney.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

That's probably true, Gable may be the only one whose sense of loyalty you'd believe. Looking forward to your review of the Gangsters Collection Vol. 3.

VP81955 said...

Remember, early in Gable's career he played a number of menacing heavies ("Night Nurse," "A Free Soul"), so for audiences of that time it wasn't that far removed from what he had previously shown on-screen.

Also note that "Manhattan Melodrama" is the only film Gable and William Powell made together...and, of course, both were married to the lady in my avatar (Carole Lombard).

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, vp, and thank you for stopping by. You're right, Gable did have a turn at playing a few heavies. Though here he's lot more likeable than in his "Night Nurse" role. Too bad Gable and Powell did not make more films together. Great avatar.

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