Editor’s Notes: Manhattan Melodrama was recently released on made-on-demand DVD.
Manhattan Melodrama is one of those crazy Golden Age movies whose trivia threatens to outshine the film itself. It’s the first film to star William Powell and Myrna Loy, arguably the greatest on-screen romantic-comedy duo in the history of American film. Off-screen, Powell had just divorced Carole Lombard, who in about a year and a half would embark on one of the great Hollywood love stories with her new man: her ex’s Manhattan Melodrama co-star Clark Gable. The great American classic “Blue Moon” was first heard here, though with an early version of lyrics, and as mentioned in every documentary, book, article and television show about Prohibition, Manhattan Melodrama is the movie that notorious gangster John Dillinger saw just before being shot by federal agents outside the theater.
Manhattan Melodrama is so much more than a historical footnote. It’s a classic from MGM’s pre-Code era, one of the last films to be released by the studio before more strict censorship under the so-called Hays Code. As such, it was (somewhat) free to delve into heady topics such as political corruption, Trotskyism, religion, gangland crime and Prohibition, and was controversial enough that it had to endure several cuts on its 1939 re-release to be acceptable under the Code.
The main bone of contention the censorship boards had in 1939 was with the opening scenes set in the early 1900s, when two young boys, Blackie and Jim (Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Butler, respectively) find themselves the victims of criminal disregard by the police. Having already lost their parents in the General Slocum disaster, they later lose their adoptive father when he’s trampled by police horses during a political riot, and Blackie vows to get even with the police for what they’ve done.
Fast forward to 1920 and the adult Jim (William Powell) has become a state attorney, a rising star with his eye on the governor’s mansion, while Blackie (Clark Gable) is a slickly handsome gangster with one of the most popular illicit gambling houses in town. He’s surrounded by swells in tuxedos, beautiful molls and his lovely girlfriend Eleanor (Myrna Loy). She’s a moll too, of course, but in a tasteful Kay Francis-esque gold lame kind of way, and not covered in slutty sequins like all those other molls. And to really hit her heart-of-gold bona fides home, she’s totally, completely, holding-aspirin-between-her-knees turned off by Blackie’s criminal shenanigans, even though she’s covered in the kind of diamonds one only gets when funded by a successful gambling franchise.
Jim and Blackie have remained friends, lightly teasing each other that Jim will eventually have to bring Blackie to justice. Eleanor hops into Jim’s limousine one night, meaning to pass on a message from Blackie but instead finding herself falling for the handsome attorney. A quick break-up and an indeterminate passage of time later and she runs into Jim again, they begin to date, and the affable Blackie says sure, no problem, Jim, she’s a great gal.
This unlikely amicable love triangle at the heart of Manhattan Melodrama isn’t the least believable thing in the movie, not by half, even though the screenplay won the Oscar for Best Original Story in 1934. But this is a film that calls itself a melodrama right up front, so you can’t act too shocked when the plot goes off the rails, not when a series of unconvincing murders pits Jim against Blackie, not even when the movie decides to make fun of itself with characters named Tootsie Malone and Pants Riordan.
Legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe is responsible for one of the most exciting things about Manhattan Melodrama: its visuals. The film has its fair share of the kind of boilerplate medium shots that got the job done in the 1930s, but in its back half, Howe borrows several silent film techniques to great effect, especially in the courtroom scenes, a ballsy move in an era determined to wipe the memory of silents from the cultural conscience. Also notable are several shots during Jim’s political campaign which clearly influenced Citizen Kane, just as much as The Power and the Glory (1932), also photographed by Howe, had.
Loy and Powell fans will especially appreciate Howe’s ability to highlight the tremendous chemistry between the two actors with intimate angles and soft lighting. Ironically, this hurts the film to a degree, as Loy’s transformation from flat and dour with Gable to positively effervescent with Powell makes little narrative sense at first. They’re a joy to watch together, but wholly unconvincing when conflict in their relationship finally arrives.
But nobody watches a movie like Manhattan Melodrama expecting cinema vérité. This is, was, and always will be pure cinematic entertainment product, and in that regard it’s a solid hit. And even better, it lead to MGM immediately pairing Loy and Powell together again, along with Howe and director W.S. Van Dyke, for the 1934 classic The Thin Man.
After being out of print for some time, Warner Archive has re-released Manhattan Melodrama on a made-on-demand DVD with the same features as the prior release: two shorts, “Goofy Movies #2” and “The Old Pioneer,” and the theatrical trailer.