erik lundegaard

Sunday July 05, 2020

Movie Review: Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Is there a more unlikely kid actor growing up to be his adult counterpart than Mickey Rooney becoming Clark Gable in this movie? That’s some adolescence he went through.

“Manhattan Melodrama” won an Oscar for best original story for Arthur Caesar (over “Hide-Out” and “The Richest Girl in the World”), and it has an OK rating on IMDb (7.2), but it’s not a good film. It’s one of those “two best friends grow up on opposite sides of the law” movies like “San Francisco,” “Dead End,” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.” “Angels” is the epitome. This? It’s MGM so it loses Warner Bros.’s brashness for a nobility nobody buys. Both men act noble beyond reason. Even the crook. Especially the crook. He’s got a joie de vivre even as he’s doing the dead man’s walk to the electric chair. No worries about me, you just make sure you win that governorship. Put ’er there, pal.

Saved by central casting
Both boys are orphaned after the General Slocum catches fire and sinks in the East River in 1904—a real-life incident in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives, the single-worst tragedy for New York City until 9/11. But central casting to the rescue. The boys are saved by a sturdy priest, Father Joe (Leo Carrillo), and adopted by the emotional Poppa Rosen (George Sidney), who is subsequently killed at a communist rally after standing up for America. Despite all the tragedy, Blackie Gallagher (Rooney/Gable) continues his happy-go-lucky, gambling ways while Jim Wade (Jimmy Butler/William Powell) hits the books and becomes a lawyer, then assistant D.A. Then he runs for D.A. and wins. He’s always modest, never ruthless. He always does right.

As does Blackie, running an illegal casino. Whenever the two meet, they’re happier to see each other than you’ve ever been to see anyone in your adult life. For one meeting, Blackie’s busy, so he sends his girl, Eleanor (Myrna Loy), who’s been trying in vain to get him to go straight and settle down. She’s quickly enamored of Jim, and he of her, and she soon leaves Blackie to be with Jim. How does Blackie react? Fine. She couldn’t have chosen a better guy. Put ’er there, pal.

Two deaths—murders—get in the way of all this brotherly love. Manny Arnold (Noel Madison) keeps chiseling on his gambling debts so Blackie kills him. (I think Manny’s going for his gun or something.) Jim investigates and finds a clue: his own tan overcoat, which he left behind after walking Eleanor home, and which Blackie or his dopey right-hand man, Spud (Nat Pendleton), leaves behind at the scene of the crime. Helluva story: D.A.’S COAT AT MURDER SCENE. Except we don’t go there. Blackie has another coat ordered, exactly to specifications, and puts a gavel tchotchke that Jim had bought in the pocket. Jim’s convinced. He’s schnookered. The crime remains unsolved.

Until Jim begins an “aw, shucks, me?” run for governor. Then a corrupt assistant D.A., Richard Snow (Thomas E. Jackson), who’s been dropped from the ticket, tries to blackmail him about the Manny Arnold murder. Does he have evidence? We never really find out. At the racetrack, Eleanor tells Blackie, who then murders Snow in a bathroom at Madison Square Garden. This time, though, Blackie is caught—the blind beggar outside the bathroom isn’t blind—and is put on trial. Jim, as D.A. running for governor, recuses himself from prosecuting his best friend, of course. Hah. Kidding. This is MGM so they have to milk all the sentimentality they can out of it. But Jim gets the conviction and wins the governorship and man Blackie is proud of him. It’s all so dopey.

Loy’s character is the dopiest and the movie doesn’t seem to realize it. She tells Blackie about the blackmail? What did she think he would do? Then she visits Blackie at the jail—even as her husband is about to prosecute him? “And I thought you were smart,” Blackie tells her, with something close to contempt. “That’s what I always liked about you. You were even smart enough to walk out on me.” 

It gets worse. She demands Jim, as governor, commute Blackie’s sentence. He refuses. So she leaves him. So he rushes to Sing-Sing to stop the execution. Blackie won’t have it. He prefers death anyway than a lifetime in jail. And you need to run for president someday. Put ’er there, pal.

Top of the world, ma
After the execution, Jim, ever noble, tells all before the legislature and resigns the governorship despite cries from the gallery pleading that he stay. Outside, he finds Eleanor. They reconcile. And off they go to … who gives a shit? “Manhattan Melodrama” is mostly interesting for two reasons: the reenactment of the General Slocomb tragedy, and the fact that this is the movie John Dillinger was leaving when he was gunned down by federal agents. Poor bastard. Should’ve been a Cagney.

Posted at 08:08 AM on Sunday July 05, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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