Manhattan Melodrama Reviews
2) isn't it kind of ironic that Dillinger saw THIS movie, with Gables character and what happens to him, and then met his end immediately after ?
Clark Gable (who was also in "Dancing Lady") and William Powell play men who've had a life-long bond. They were orphaned together on the same day in a terrible boating accident. One is studious and upstanding (Powell); the other (Gable) is a drop-out who got into bootlegging and gambling.
When the studious one becomes Manhattan District Attorney, his close friendship with a gangster becomes a problem. When their lives begin to intersect more, including sharing a woman (played wonderfully by Myrna Loy), the complications multiply. It's a fascinating, pretty serious drama that I can't imagine would disappoint anyone. It's also briskly paced, brilliantly edited, and perfectly directed (by W.S. Van Dyke). Highly recommended.
Incidental note: Gangster John Dillinger saw this movie the night he died. He was shot by FBI agents as he exited the theater. I can certainly see why he would have been attracted to this movie. It's a complex portrait of a boy born on the wrong side of the tracks.
There are several reasons this movie might be considered worthy of note. It was the first pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy. It is the only pairing of William Powell and Clark Gable. It is a film wherein Micky Rooney achieves every boy's dream of the time and grows up to be Clark Gable. But what it is known for, what it will always be known for--the reason I was myself so looking forward to seeing it--is that it was the film playing at the Biograph Theater on July 22 that year. John Dillinger, on the lam, took an evening out for the movies and thus had possibly the most American of all deaths when he walked out of a movie theatre and was shot. I know very little about Dillinger the man; I know about Dillinger the character played by Johnny Depp. But I suspect that John Dillinger, had he known what waited for him on that hot Chicago street, would not have been as noble as Clark Gable is at the end of this one.
The story starts with a real tragedy in at least two senses--the sinking of the [i]General Slocum[/i] in the East River. Two boys, "Blackie" Gallagher (starts, as I said, as Mickey Rooney and becomes Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (Jimmy Butler and then William Powell), are both orphaned in the disaster and taken in by an old Russian Jew, Poppa Rosen (George Sidney). They grow up together, but Poppa Rosen is also killed. Blackie is a happy-go-lucky kid with all the luck in the world. He gets by on scams, and they do pretty well for him. Jim, however, studies and works, eventually getting through law school and joining the District Attorney's office. On the evening Jim is elected DA in his own right, Blackie sends his girlfriend, Eleanor Packer (Loy), over to congratulate Jim. She is taken by Jim's manner and leaves Blackie for him. But of course the two men must inevitably clash, as Blackie is a criminal and Jim is a prosecutor.
The film seems to come down pretty firmly on the "nature" side of the equation. Jim and Blackie have the same mentors, and they are raised in the same environment. However, the two boys have very different drives. Blackie runs an illicit gambling parlor. Jim wants to root out the kind of corruption that lets there be a token raid on it every six months which doesn't really change anything. Jim becomes a shoeshine-boy while Blackie is relying on his uncanny luck with the dice. They love each other like brothers, but at heart, they are opposed. It isn't Poppa Rosen who caused that, or even Leon Trotsky (Leo Lance). (Did you know Trotsky lived in the Bronx for a while? Was living in New York when the Tsar was overthrown?) It isn't kindly old Father Joe (Leo Carillo). Blackie is just a crook at heart, and Jim is just a law-bringer. Blackie doesn't take anything too seriously, which is why Eleanor leaves him. But she isn't too pleased with the fact that Jim takes everything seriously.
But of course the men are also tied by loyalty. In his speech before the jury when Blackie is on trial in the murder of Richard Snow (Thomas E. Jackson), Jim tells the jury that he saved Blackie's life when the [i]General Slocum[/i] went down and that it pains him now to ask for the death penalty for his friend. What he does not know is that Blackie killed Snow because Snow was going to use the men's friendship to keep Jim out of the Governor's Mansion. Eleanor asked him to help, and his "help" was killing Snow. But it's what he thought was best. It's what he thought would help his friend. And it did--prosecuting Blackie for the murder, getting the death penalty, is what propelled Jim into that job. The thing is, of course, that Snow was right. Jim was failing to act on evidence which probably would have sent someone else to Death Row because he couldn't believe Blackie did it. I don't think it was intentional, but I think it was a certainty that Blackie wouldn't just kill a man. Turns out Jim was wrong.
It's a bit of a hokey film, probably worth more for historical importance than anything else. I really don't know what Trotsky had to do with much of anything or why Poppa Rosen had to die in that stampede. There were a lot of little touches which seemed merely intended to add poignancy. (The friend from childhood who ends up working for Blackie; the girl who thinks Blackie will treat her better than he treated Eleanor.) And I think the entire final five minutes of the piece would have been better left on the cutting room floor. I think they may well have been added so we don't idolize Blackie too much. How Hollywood treated gangsters was becoming a Thing by 1934, which the movie indirectly acknowledges. But the scene, which I think is also intended to make Jim look more noble and less like a stuffy prig, fails at that. It doesn't make Eleanor look so hot, either. Except inasmuch as it was impossible to make Myrna Loy look anything but hot. The most believable part of the piece is that both men would love her.
Orphans Edward "Blackie" Gallagher and Jim Wade are lifelong friends who take different paths in life. Blackie thrives on gambling and grows up to be a hard-nosed racketeer. Bookworm Wade becomes a D.A. vying for the Governorship.
As orphans, two boys grow up and become successful. One illegally and the other legal. At the pinnacle of their lives, things catch up with both. Gable is never better as Blackie, the ammoral killer, watching out for himself all the time. Powell comes off as some sort of unhandsome boob as a result. With a face like William Powell you'd better not be acting beside Gable.
Gable steals the show as the devil may care free spirit, while Powell takes the honest road to his fame and ultimate demise. But Loy is pretty much played the same throughout, first a lover of Gable and when that plays out, a lover of Powell. How convenient for the studio, if she fell for the janitor we would have no movie.
I want to say this film was pretty rocky to get through the first half. This era of film making just doesnt get traction with me. But it recovers in the last third and makes it worth watching. Gable comes through the true star he was to become in Gone With the Wind.
Wrote one reviewer:
"This plot is now screamingly familar but, back in 1934, this was original. In fact it won the Best Original Story Oscar for its year. This could have been a real howler but a great cast, tight script and wonderful direction really put it over. Well worth catching--especially for a powerful climatic scene between Powell and Gable. A classic of its type."
NOTES about the film:
1 The film's success surprised the studio and made stars of Myrna Loy and William Powell in the first of their fourteen screen pairings. It also solidified the success of MGM's most popular male lead, Clark Gable.
2 The movie entered history as being the last motion picture seen by the notorious gangster John Dillinger, who was shot to death by federal agents on July 22, 1934, after leaving a Chicago theater where the film was playing. Myrna Loy was among those who expressed distaste at the studio's willingness to exploit this event for the financial benefit of the film.
3 Arthur Caesar won an Academy Award for Best Story for this film.
4 One of the very early films of Mickey Rooney
Clark Gable as Edward J. "Blackie" Gallagher
William Powell as James W. "Jim" Wade
Myrna Loy as Eleanor Packer
Leo Carrillo as Father Joe
Nat Pendleton as Spud
George Sidney as Poppa Rosen
Isabel Jewell as Annabelle
Muriel Evans as Tootsie Malone
Thomas E. Jackson as Asst. Dist. Atty. Richard Snow (as Thomas Jackson)
Isabelle Keith as Miss Adams (as Claudelle Kaye)
Frank Conroy as Blackie's Defense Attorney
Noel Madison as Manny Arnold
Jimmy Butler as Jim Wade as a Boy
Mickey Rooney as Blackie as a Boy *************
Shirley Ross as Singer in Cotton Club
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Produced by David O. Selznick
Written by Arthur Caesar (story)
Oliver H. P. Garrett
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
93 min - Crime | Drama | Romance - 4 May 1934 (USA)