Welcome to another Film Friday! Today, we’re continuing our series of posts on the Pre-Code work of Myrna Loy, one of M-G-M’s sharpest and glamorous stars of the ’30s and ’40s. Though her greatest successes would come during the Post-Code era, the films of Loy’s early career demonstrate her versatility and the slow appropriation of what would become her niche — the sophisticated dame who could make audiences both laugh and cry. The films we’ll be covering over these next few weeks — and we will NOT be going chronologically — are all very different: in some we’ll see Loy as merely a supporting player; in others, she’ll be our leading lady. As one of the busiest actresses of the Pre-Code era, these posts will examine the way in which a second-tier actress grappled with defining her image into something that, though strangely Pre-Code, would soon take off and make her a major star in the immediate Post-Code years to follow. So far we’ve covered Penthouse (1933), Transatlantic (1931), The Animal Kingdom (1932), and Love Me Tonight (1932). Today, Manhattan Melodrama (1934)…
Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
Boyhood friends grow up on opposite sides of the law. Starring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. From an original story by Arthur Caesar. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.
An exceedingly high class addition to the Pre-Code’s hallmark genre, gangster flicks, Manhattan Melodrama has gone down in history for its infamous connection to the country’s most notorious gangster, John Dillinger. Yes, this was the picture Dillinger saw on the night he was gunned down outside of the movie theatre. History aside, this is actually a well-constructed and capably entertaining film with a great cast and some justifiably dramatic situations. (Oh, and an early version of a famous Rodgers and Hart tune — “The Bad In Every Man,” which later became “Blue Moon.”)
“Blackie Gallagher and Jim Wade lose their parents when the General Slocum sinks in New York harbor, but they are rescued by Father Joe. Because he has lost his own son, kindly Poppa Rosen takes the boys in, but a few years later he, too, is killed, trampled by police horses used to break up a riot against the Russian agitator Leon Trotsky. While Blackie grows up gambling and playing, Jim studies hard and becomes an attorney. During the 1920s, Blackie runs a gambling club while Jim has been elected district attorney. Blackie worships Jim, even though they are on opposite sides of the law. When Blackie’s mistress Eleanor meets Jim, she is also impressed, and tries to convince Blackie to stop gambling and settle down with her. He lets her go, not wanting to change his life, and wishes Jim luck when he marries Eleanor some months later. After gambler Manny Arnold is shot, suspicion rests on Blackie. Because Spud, their childhood pal, has accidentally left Jim’s coat at the scene of the crime, Blackie has Spud bring an exact duplicate that he has had his tailor make to Jim, thus mistakenly convincing Jim that Blackie is innocent.
“Soon Jim runs for governor, but his assistant, Richard Snow, tries to pressure him by indicating that the Arnold case makes Jim look like he is mixed up with murderers. Eleanor tells Blackie about it and Blackie murders Snow in a men’s room, unaware that a man sitting outside is not blind, as he pretends, and reports Blackie’s crime to the police. During the gubernatorial campaign, Jim must try Blackie for murder. Though convicted, Blackie is still proud of Jim’s honesty, and is happy when Jim is elected governor. Eleanor pleads with Jim to pardon Blackie, but he refuses, even after she tells him that Blackie killed Snow to help him. Jim changes his mind after she leaves him though and visits Blackie, but Blackie says that he would rather be electrocuted than get life in prison. After Blackie’s death, Jim resigns as governor and Eleanor embraces him after he leaves the state assembly.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The story works surprisingly well — given some of the unrealistic leaps the script makes in regards to character and their motivations. The success at putting across each beat, as usual, falls upon the shoulders of the capable actors, and Manhattan Melodrama is blessed with a trio of top performers who, in addition to being perfectly cast, share excellent chemistry. Gable is in his element as the hoodlum who only does bad things for good reasons. The King, having played gangsters before, is a different kind of performer than Cagney or Robinson; he’s more folksy, with a likability that heightens his danger. Additionally, there’s a maturity about Gable that demands we hold him accountable for his actions — no matter how much we root for him.
Powell is also in his element as the principled hero who bares the brunt of the conflict and, as mentioned above, there’s a great chemistry between the two. Still, however, Gable really steals the focus (as the bad ones often do), because we just want him to succeed more than anyone else. Part of this has to do with the simple fact that we see Gable before we see Powell. (Though protagonists are rarely the first person onscreen in films, there’s an undeniable bond that viewers make with the first likable character they see.) Also, given the strength of these two characters’ friendship — first demonstrated in the early scenes where young Mickey Rooney plays Gable and Jimmy Butler plays Powell — all of Gable’s actions, for the good of his best friend, are motivated. Powell, though on firm legal and moralistic ground, must make choices that go against their friendship. In less capable hands, this would render Powell’s character unlikable. Fortunately, he makes it work, and as the character who carries the conflict, his behavior, whether we agree with it or not, can be at least appreciated for the role it plays in the ratcheting up of the drama.
Meanwhile, the featured actress in our series of posts, Myrna Loy, plays the third part in a quasi-love triangle with the two best friends. I say quasi because she’s at first involved with Gable, but when he refuses to settle down, she moves on to Powell. And there’s really no muss, no fuss, as far as feelings go — Gable can’t commit to her the way she wants. But who are we supposed to root for? Loy is such a superb actress that she’s totally convincing at being in love with both men! She was with Gable first and, by her own words, loves him. But when she later gets with Powell, she loves him more than she’s ever loved anyone before. I guess we’re supposed to want Powell to get her, as he does in the end, but the film sure does play with OUR feelings, even if it downplays the feelings of Gable and Powell. So Loy ends up being a wonderfully complex complication, enriching the film with quiet moments of humanity — all marvelously and believably played. (Even if the love triangle is only quasi!)
The title Manhattan Melodrama is appropriate for this film, as many of the situations are indeed melodramatic. But with three performers who turn their characters into living and breathing human beings, every scene seems appropriate and necessary. The script is not superb, but it’s good enough to be enhanced by the performers — meaning, the script does not hurt the film in any way, especially since the actors, combined with the lively direction, work together to make the picture incredibly entertaining for all of its 90 minutes. In brief, I recommend this film wholeheartedly.
Come back next Friday for another Myrna Loy film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!