Thursday, August 8, 2013

Adventure in Manhattan - 1936

Adventure in Manhattan (1936) is a strange mixture, not always successful, but intriguing, nevertheless, of drama and romantic comedy—and stretches our ability to suspend our disbelief simply because it is both suspenseful and comedic.
The movie pairs Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea for the first time (they would later be paired together in the magnificent The More the Merrier– 1943, which we discussed here).  Some comments I’ve noted express disappointment that Arthur and McCrea fail to live up to the Nick and Nora Charles image in this movie.  That’s because they’re not Nick and Nora Charles.
I sometimes wonder if we are not too mired in genre to an extent that we cannot accept hybrid.  I find it very odd that an audience that can accept films of fantasy and science fiction and are able to suspend their disbelief under the implausible circumstances of these kinds of films, yet cannot suspend their disbelief watching a movie which simply has both dramatic and comic elements to it at the same time.  We struggle to paste one label or the other on a film.  Adventure in Manhattan is both, sometimes alarmingly so.
This week and next were going to cover two movies that deal with stolen art.  Unlike films about bank heists that show thuggish gangsters, theft in the art world always seems to be done by gentlemen, or at least devil-may-care scamps.  We are perhaps left with the fallacy that no one really gets hurt in art theft, and that it is more or less a high-stakes gentleman’s game, like polo without the horses. But crime is done, people do get hurt, there are consequences, and these two films show us the difference in genre and how we accept genre.
The movie we’ll talk about next week is Crack-Up (1946), strictly noir, and the gentlemanly art of stealing art shown as a world of dark shadows and grim postwar angst, psychological terror, and a really mean trick.  It stars Pat O’Brien and Claire Trevor, and they are not Nick and Nora Charles, either.
Both films have plots that hinge on a really mean trick.
Adventure in Manhattan is part 1930s with a little hint of 1940s noir thrown in, quite unexpectedly, and this is what is most tantalizing about the film—and most unbalancing.  It seems to be a precursor of what will come, but quite unconsciously.  It is not trend-setting; it is only experimentation.

Joel McCrea is a writer of crime stories.  He writes newspaper columns on real-life crimes and mystery novels about famous cases.  He is very successful, very much in demand, and very well aware of his gifts and his success.  He’s charming and so confident that he drives everyone else around him nuts.  He’s the kind of guy who does everything perfectly.  You want to see him mess up just once to see if he’s real.
A series of art thefts and jewel robberies has occurred, and we are told this as the film starts with several flashing headlines and the blare of police sirens.  We are in New York City in the middle of the Great Depression.  

Thomas Mitchell is a newspaper editor, the kind of crabby, shrieking, in-your-face-palooka who wants a feature story on the crime wave.  He hires Joel McCrea to investigate and to write purple prose on the crime spree.
“Involve a woman in it!”
He’s getting a little ahead of us.  But we can tell by the cast of credits that the only woman listed is Jean Arthur, so there’s going to be a woman in it, and the job is all hers.
I wonder if newspaper offices are to thirties movies as living rooms are to fifties movies?
Enter Joel McCrea, know-it-all, laconic, wearing his fame like a kingly robe.  He presumes to sit right down at Thomas Mitchell’s typewriter, still wearing his hat and begins to weave a tale.  (I recall a funny line in the old Mary Tyler Moore Show where the character of Lou Grant tells Mary about the good old days when he used to work in a newsroom, and he said that they were real newsman because they wore their hats in the office.)
Mr. McCrea takes a break from his masterpiece, and heads to the local bar the reporters hang out, where he grabs a beer and a cheese sandwich, and where his fellow journalists are playing pool. One of the fellows is a playwright, played by hangdog Victor Kilian, who we last saw with Jean and Thomas Mitchell in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  The play he is currently writing will figure a great deal in the story, but we don’t know that yet.  And neither does he.
McCrea is smooth and confident and chatters about the latest robbery, which aggravates the other reporters who just can’t seem to get any leads.  McCrea acts self-superior, lecturing them, but it’s not just arrogance.  He really is superior.  He’s much smarter than the fellows and he takes the route of solving the crimes by what today we would consider a rather modern tactic: he uses profiling. He tries to get into the head of the man he thinks is behind these crimes.  McCrea, interestingly, plays his character like a charming egghead, who knows people’s psychology, but does not have the social skills to get close to anyone himself.  For all his intelligence, he is socially inept and doesn’t know it.
He plays pool and makes fantastic shots, never missing one.  When he leaves, Mr. Kilian remarks, echoing the other guys’ thoughts, “How do you live with a guy like that?”
Jean Arthur enters the story at this point, and her work in this film, as usual, is deft and many layered. We’ve mentioned before that there’s no one like her for playing along that thin knife edge of comedy and drama, of evoking great pathos, even tragedy, and yet still being able to shine a ridiculous spotlight on her character.  In this movie, her character might be considered all over the place by some viewers because at times she is very dramatic, and at other times she is doing screwball comedy.  We struggle to find what pigeonhole to put her in.
This is probably the same difficulty that early directors and the studio head Harry Cohn had with Jean Arthur, until the mid-thirties when she began to hit her stride, showing that she can do these unusual characters that flourished in the Depression era like nobody else. She’s not doing Nora Charles.  She’s doing Jean Arthur.
We first see her walking down a crowded city street.  She is bundled up to the neck in a plain unflattering raincoat and her cloche hat is pulled down close over her eyes.  Droplets of rain dot her hat and shoulders as she sidles up to people quietly, with anxiety and embarrassment, but desperate, she begs for money.
Joel McCrea sees her.  Neither he, nor the movie audience of the day, is surprised to see woman trying to quietly ask for change on a city street corner.  But his attention is distracted by an automobile accident close by.  We hear the screech of tires, a crash and everyone walking on the crowded sidewalks rushes to the scene of the accident.  We see that Jean Arthur moves through the crowd and tries to get close to Joel McCrea, because it looked as if he might have given her some money only a moment before and she doesn’t want to lose him. Instead, she gets up to him and then disappears.  When the chaos dies down, he realizes his wallet is missing.  He looks around and sees Miss Arthur walking quickly away.  She has taken his wallet.
She gets into a taxi.  He gets into another and utters that immortal line “Follow that cab!”
She gets out at a beauty salon.  A beauty salon?  We would have expected anything but this, and from this point on the next series of scenes is nothing like we would’ve ever expected to see. 
And culminates in one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie of this era.
Bess Flowers is one of the beauty shop attendants.  At least she has to work in this movie and is not just some party guest this time.
He waits for her to come out of shop because he wants to follow her to see what she is doing with his money.  She emerges beautifully coiffed and in a dazzling white outfit.  She gets into a cab.  He forces his way in, and she is embarrassed and nervous and wants to stall him from going to the police.  He is cynical and disbelieving of her pleas for help.  He has every intention of turning over to the cops, but he is a student of human nature, and he wants to make her wriggle on the hook while he dissects her emotions.  He does not really care about her plight; this is only another psychological game for him.
She tells him that she had to steal the money, because she’s waited three years for tonight.  She has an appointment to see someone and begs him to give her only the next few hours and then she will go with him to the police.  He is dubious, but she invites him to come with her because he doesn’t trust her.  It’s wonderful to see Jean Arthur in these scenes because of her sensitive ability to seem so complicated and yet so transparent.  I can think of so many other actresses who would put a hearts-and-flowers spin on the scene, like an orphan in a snowstorm. Jean just looks very real and very uncomfortable, as if her own words are being dragged out of her, as if the very act of giving plot exposition is killing her.
She tells him that she is going to visit her ex-husband.  He was very cruel to her and they were divorced.  She fell in love with another man, and ran away with him, but she is now separated from that man, and she is alone.  She had a daughter with her husband and he kept custody of the child.  Today is her daughter’s fourth birthday, and she is going to go visit her.  She had asked her husband repeatedly to allow her to see the child, but he always refused.  Finally, tonight, he’s allowing her to see her daughter.  Jean tells Joel, “I couldn’t let her see me the way I was.”
Her damsel in distress routine is very genuine, but it does not move Joel.  He has told his reporter friends that they get too sentimental in their stories, they forget to be objective and that is why he is always able to solve crimes.  
They arrive at her ex-husband’s mansion and the butler answers the door.  The husband is there, pompous and severe.  He allows Jean Arthur to go visit her daughter, and tells her the girl is in the next room.  Jean rushes into the room, leaving the ex-husband and Joel McCrea to size each other up in the foyer.  We think that the husband probably thinks that Joel McCrea is Jean’s latest lover.
Okay.  You know this thing I have about always giving out spoilers.  I’m not going to go into detail about the mystery of this story, or who the guilty person is.  But I have to go into detail about this scene that’s coming up because it shocked the socks off me.  If you do not want to get the surprise, run away from this paragraph as if you are running for your very life from the bulls of Pamplona.
Are they gone?  Good.  Now we can talk in whispers.
Just as we are about to smile at the way Joel McCrea realizes he is being mistaken for “the other man,” we hear Jean’s piercing scream from the other room.  Joel rushes into the room and we get a quick, sliding close-up on his shocked expression.
Then the camera shifts to the interior of the room and we see a small white child’s coffin dimly illuminated in the dark room.  Suddenly this has become a Universal horror picture.  We look around for Bela Lugosi.  Jean is prostrate on the floor, crying. 

Joel leads her away.  The pompous ass of a husband says that the child died the day before yesterday, so there would be no harm for her to have her visit from her mother, now.  He has exacted his final, most-heartbreaking revenge on his ex-wife.
This scene will cause you to offer up your favorite exclamation of alarm and dismay, perhaps several times.  You may even need a drink.  I recall myself saying to the TV, "I can't believe they did that."
The discomfort this scene causes the audience is remarkable and may be one of the greatest reasons why some viewers tend to see this film as a failed Nick and Nora Charles, because so much of the rest of it is funny and lighthearted, with teasing banter between Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea.  But this scene stands out like a sore thumb.  It is too much reality shoved into a cozy little romantic comedy world.  It is not movie-melodramatic, the way you might see the coffin in a monster movie, because it is real, and because it is Jean Arthur.  She has such a real presence in her films.  She is the woman on the Depression-era streets.  She’s the shop girl.  The newspaper reporter.  She’s the noble, the indefatigable and the downtrodden common woman.  And yet she still manages to be somehow ethereal and above us, if only for the purity of her conflicting emotions.
The next scene finds Jean in Joel’s apartment, lying on his bed, and he revives her with a drink. She really looks ill.  She is not the swooning type, but she really looks like she wants to die and doesn’t want to say so.  Joel tells her that she will stay here for the night and asks if there’s anything else he can do.  With difficulty, she tells him that she would like to have her daughter’s ring.
Mr. McCrea, with the relish for revenge, and the first real flush of emotion we’ve seen him display so far, says that he is only too happy to go back and face her ex-husband.  We imagine he wants to sock him.
When he goes back to the mansion, it is dark.  There are no lights in any of the windows and when he approaches the door, a night watchman questions him and asks him to leave.  Joel tells him that he was here only a little while ago speaking with the owner of the house.  The night watchman tells them that the owner is in Europe, and that the tenant to whom he is renting the home is not here right now.  And he kicks Joel out. 
Huh?  Is this a ghost story?
Now we have a different mystery on our hands, quite apart from the jewel heist.  Joel McCrea, with his inquisitive mind and his stubborn nature, is intrigued.  He sneaks back into the house and walks around in the dark.  He finds the child’s coffin, which has been tipped over one end on the floor.  There is no body inside.
We have definitely entered creepy movie territory.  Joel is then accosted by man with a gun, played by Reginald Owen.  They exchange words, and they also exchange neckties.
The man with the gun admires Joel’s tie, and Joel, attempting to be cute and to distract him because he’s pointing a gun, tells him he can have it, and so they trade ties.
Is the guy with the gun a crackpot?  Or have we just crossed over back into screwball comedy?
Suddenly the lights come on and people come out of the woodwork.  They are Joel’s reporter buddies with Miss Arthur in tow.  She is an actress in Victor Kilian’s play and some of the others are actors in his cast.  It was all a practical joke.
Jean Arthur is rueful, feels guilty, but thanks Joel for being gallant enough to come to her aid. We can see that he is embarrassed and sore about it, but he is a gentleman and a good sport.  He offers to buy everybody drinks, and this the beginning of his teaming up with Jean Arthur. 
We also have a foreshadowing in the scene of who the real criminal is behind the robberies, and very shortly, the film tells us point-blank who the bad guys are, so there really isn’t much of a mystery for the viewer.  From now on, the movie is about how Joel McCrea cracks the case, and a lot of that has to do with how he also plots to get back at Jean Arthur for her trick on him.  Both subplots are intertwined.
Victor Kilian’s play also has a lot to do with the case.  It is a World War I melodrama and Jean Arthur plays a kind of Red Cross volunteer or ambulance driver.  We see her in a kind of uniform.  She is a good actress and she is a lady, not a chorus girl.  Listen to her voice in this movie.  It’s slightly lower than her usual squeak, the quality of her voice that Edward G. Robinson once commented was like freshly grated peppermint.  There is something wistful and sad about her, as if she is still wearing the cloak of her many damsel-in-distress roles of the twenties and early thirties.  She made five movies in 1936, including the magnificent Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  She was starting to come into her own and Columbia started to realize this.
Another movie she made in 1936, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, was the real Nick and Nora knockoff, with William Powell, the real Nick, as her costar.  We’ll talk about that one sometime or other.
Adventure in Manhattan seems to start to get off-kilter from this point on, but mainly perhaps because Joel McCrea was trying to keep Jean Arthur off-kilter.  He sets the tone for the whole movie by playing small jokes on her to make her exasperated.  He invites her to the Ritz for lunch, but brings her home to his apartment instead, which he says he calls the Ritz and they eat beans.  She ends up having to cook them herself.  Reginald Owen shows up.  He is a wealthy man about town and is also the angel in charge of producing Victor Kilian’s play.  
When he shows up unexpectedly for lunch, they invite them to have beans and they sit there, eating their beans, trading banter.  We’re deep in screwball comedy territory again.  At one point Mr. Owen wanders into Joel’s bedroom to admire the valuable and artistic furnishings—Joel has an eye for art, which is probably why he’s so good at finding art thieves.  All three of them go Joel’s bedroom and eat their plates of beans.
A climactic scene occurs with a robbery during a live performance of the play in which Jean is performing.  She stumbles on the bad guys backstage, and drags Victor Killian to help her investigate, because after all, when you’re really in trouble, you go to the nearest playwright.  I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me to fight crime.  It’s really annoying.  I’m just sitting down to dinner, and they’re at the door, just because I write plays and I’m in the neighborhood.
The shift between scenes of extreme horror and extreme silliness make this film seem like it’s swinging back and forth on a pendulum and we don’t know what to think of it—but isn’t that the very essence of a mystery, a suspense story?  It plays upon what we were expecting and does not deliver.  I think the ultimate joke is played on us.  The audience, unlike Joel McCrea, are not always good sports.
Come back next Thursday for Crack-Up, where, again, all is not what it seems, and this nearly sends Pat O’Brien into a mental breakdown in a psychological post-war art mystery.  But it’s noir, so we don’t take offense if we’re caught in the middle of a shell game. That’s to be expected.


Moira Finnie said...

Good interpretation of the various elements in this film. I would love to see you review "Whirlpool" (1934) sometime. It changed my (largely negative) impression of Jean Arthur.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I'd love to get around to "Whirlpool" sometime. I think that might the first time we see a hint of the future cynical, wisecracking, empowered Jean. "Largely negative" impression? Zounds. I'd love to know what films you saw that did not charm you.

Yvette said...

I NEVER SAW THIS ONE!! Okay, Jacqueline, you got me good. Other films you've posted about always sound vaguely familiar to me and I always assume that at some time in my dim past I must have seen them or at least, read about them.

But this one sounds SO unfamiliar, that I can only assume I must have missed it first, second and third time around. Maybe because I'm not usually a Joel McCrea fan. But this film sounds right up his alley. I also love films about newspaper reporters.

You should do a Blogathon about newspaper films!

I hope I do get a chance to see ADVENTURE IN MANHATTAN (LOVE the title!) at some point. I'm still keeping an eye out for MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT which you talked about a while back and which I am dying to see - again. Yeah, that one I did see once upon a time and vaguely remember.

I'm not sure I'm at all happy with you bringing films to my attention that I'm usually dying to see again (or in this case, see for the first time). I am not one for delayed gratification, Jacqueline.

Jeez I love a good movie. :)

Caftan Woman said...

So, when do we get your new series starring JTL, international crime solving playwright?

I've gotten into knock down drag outs with folks who cannot accept changes in tone. As if no one ever laughs in a hospital or there is no crying at a birthday party!

grandoldmovies said...

Just love your great description of Jean Arthur's quality, of being one of us and yet above us. I think that nails her and why she's so special onscreen. I saw this film and it does have a peculiar narrative, but, as I recall, the actors are so good you tag right along with it; you're never left with a feeling of hanging back and trying to figure out the plot mechanics. The film is an interesting oddity of its era.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yvette, I sympathize with your frustrations of delayed gratification. There are some movies I've had to wait years to see. Hang in there.

By the way, as regards newspaper movies, there's going to be a blogathon (see here at Comet Over Hollywood - in September and I'm going to write about "-30-" from 1959 starring Jack Webb. See if you can get in on this blogathon, should be fun.

Caftan Woman, I'm waiting for Jessica Fletcher to retire to Florida so I can move into her house up in Cabot Cove, Maine and take over the crime solving in that murder capitol of New England. I intend to play myself in the TV series based on my exploits.

GOM, thanks very much and I think you're right that the actors draw is in so that we're not troubled by plot mechanics.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

And I love this..."I've gotten into knock down drag outs with folks who cannot accept changes in tone. As if no one ever laughs in a hospital or there is no crying at a birthday party!" Exactly, CW.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

This sounds like an entertaining movie...though I can imagine some viewers coming away with mixed feelings after having a trick like that played on them.

The title and the newspaper element were the first things to catch my attention, see, I'm planning on writing a comedy novel set in 1930s NYC where a few important characters are reporters. I've drawn a blank trying to find books about newspapers/reporters of the period, so I wondered—can you recommend any old movies (particularly from the '30s) with a lot of good newspaper-office scenes? I just want to get the feel of it: the newsroom, the jargon, what kind of work junior reporters would do and how it would be assigned, etc.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Elisabeth, your upcoming novel in 1930s NYC sounds like it will be a lot of fun to write and to read. Here are a few movies that may help:

"The Front Page" 1931
"His Girl Friday" 1940 (a re-working of "The Front Page" to make the lead a woman)
"Meet John Doe" 1941 - great newspaper office scenes.
"Five Star Final" 1931
"Scandal for Sale" 1932
"Libeled Lady" 1936
"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" - 1936
"It Happened One Night" 1934

The last two films have only a few newspaper office scenes, but they're great to give you the feel of it.

I can tell you that back in the day, most reporters did not get bylines. You had to work your way to the top and earn them. A cub reporter phoned in facts to a re-write man, who actually wrote the story. Only the rock stars on staff got to write their own stuff and get a byline for it.

Good luck, and shoot me an email if I may be of any further help.

Kevin Deany said...

This sounds like a most interesting movie. I'll catch up to it sometimes. I've been enjoying these Columbia 1930s flicks on TCM that haven't been shown in decades, and there's some really nice gems there.

TCM showed one awhile ago called "Air Hawks" (1935) with Ralph Bellamy, that started out as a melodrama about an airline operation trying to stay open for business, and then degenerates into a serial-like adventure with Edward Van Sloan inventing a death ray that shoots planes out of the sky. Add a romance and you have quite a tidy little 65-minute flick that is pleasurable on many levels.

I love newspaper movies, and was fortunate to work for a company that publishes a daily newspaper. Loved the reporters and the editors there, true characters every one of them. The movies' portrayal of them is not too far off the mark.

Anyway, thanks for the heads up on this one. It sounds great.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I've not seen "Air Hawks", but I agree that TCM pulls a lot of gems out the vault.

Newspaper movie are fun, aren't they?

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, first of all, I love your blog's new look! Second, I almost stopped reading when I read about the apparent-dead-baby scene! Once I realized it was all a put-on, I realized ADVENTURE IN MANHATTAN was one of those nutzoid movies that go all over the place, so I cheerfully sat back and let the offbeat vibe reel me in! Great review, as always, and I'm very much looking forward to your review of CRACK-UP, a longtime favorite of mine! :-D

Rich said...

IMDB lists three screenwriters for this movie, plus a fourth credited with the story. Would you call these mood swings cohesive or do they seem like the result of writing by committee?

Like the blog redesign BTW.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Dorian, and I'm pleased you're a fan of "Crack-Up", because I don't think it's shown too often.

Rich, I think you may have hit the nail on the head. Too many cooks?

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Jacqueline. And I somehow missed your mention of the newspaper blogathon on my first visit—I'll have to look there for ideas too!

Ted S. (Just a Cineast) said...

For some more good 1930s newspaper scenes, look for the Torchy Blane movies starring Glenda Farrell. Glenda also played a journalist in Mystery of the Wax Museum, the original version of House of Wax. I love watching Farrell as she's a dynamo in all her performances.

There's also James Cagney as an ex-con turned tabloid photographer in Picture-Snatcher, which has a scene based on real life in which Cagney's character gets a photograph of an execution.

Clarissa Smith said...

Love this film. I lost Whirlpool since they took it off YouTube. Right now it's weird anyway....I'm about 300 million years back.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Ted, for more good newspaper movies. I forgot about Torchy.

Clarissa, so glad you're a fan of "
Adventure in Manhattan." Too bad they took "Whirlpool" off YouTube. I haven't checked for Arthur films in a while. At one point there were several on YouTube.

Clarissa Smith said...

Two years ago on YouTube also was THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING, PARTY WIRE, PUBLIC HERO #1 and DIAMOND JIM (all 1935). I'm above all missing the first one. They're not selling that on DVD either -- it's like today's corporatists keep down progressive 30s cinema.

Related Products