Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Clark Gable, MGM’s ever rising star-powered actor, is featured in this MGM picture about the dramas of crime and the perils of caring for those you love in spite of being condemned by the law. In this 1934 picture MGM looked to produce a rather quickly made film, shooting it out into the market to make a little money, but never in mind to put too much stock into. Simply set up to push ever more the idea of Clark Gable being the big leading man of the studio, the picture turns out to be a much more compelling tale about to lifelong friends that stand up for each other to the bitter end despite being on opposite ends of the law. Manhattan Melodrama features two small screen veterans, William Powell and Myrna Loy, on their way to becoming one of MGM’s top pairings in the mid 1930s. The film would release to theaters with little expectation, but become something that helped shape up production at MGM studios.

Manhattan Melodrama is a crime drama about two childhood friends who grow up towards opposite sides of the law and how their brotherly love for each other withstands the tests of their lives. Jim (William Powell) and Blackie (Clark Gable) are childhood friends who share a strong bond through the tragedies they endured as young boys. Their live diverge as Jim grows up studious, studing law, and becoming a rising assistant district attorney for New York. Meanwhile Blackie grew up throwing dice and scamming other boys, becoming an owner of an illegal casino. Being one that lives off the criminal side, Blackie is not against murdering a man that plans to blackmail his good friend Jim when he decides to run for governor. Blackie goes forth and kills this conspirator without Jim’s knowledge in order to aid him to office without wrongful defamation. Caught in the middle of this mess is Jim’s wife, and former lover of Blackie, Eleanor (Myrna Loy), as she knows of Blackie’s doings. Blackie is tried and convicted for the murder, with Jim serving as the prosecution. Jim wins the governorship, but Eleanor pleads with him to pardon. Jim struggles with idea of his dear friend dying for helping him, but Blackie bravely takes his sentence so that Jim can have a clean name. After Blackie is executed, Jim resigns from office for having his emotions compromised his values as governor, a sad, melancholy ending to an old friendship.

This picture has a great deal of heart and charm that sucks you into the story of these two old friends. Gable is the strong leading man, with the charisma that attracts you to him even though he is a cheat and a murderer. His dear friend, played by Powell, is very straight laced, but values the camaraderie he has with Blackie. The movie has suspense and tragedy as we view Blackie sacrifice himself for the good of his friend Jim. You watch with a broken heart as Jim walks away from Blackie for the last time and see the lights of the prison flicker, knowing that it is from the electric chair taking the life of the one he cares so much about. Both actors play their roles marvelously. Even Loy, who is somewhat thrown in the middle of all this, comes off as gripping, as she loves both men and cares deeply about their companionship, while being greatly saddened by events which were for good, but are undeniably criminal. The picture is quick, yet leisurely slow; full of love, yet sorrowfully tragic. This is fine piece of cinema put out by Hollywood’s most notable studio at the time, even if it was not intended to be anything special.

MGM had Manhattan Melodrama shot quickly and on a modest budget. The man that would accomplish this feat was one the studio’s most versatile directors, W.S. Van Dyke. With previous works with included complicated films such as Trader Horn and Tarzan, the Ape Man, this picture was far easier for the man that would become known as “One Take Van Dyke.” He loved to create the scene and have it all his shots done within one take, something that made his production quickly and cheap. He loved to let the actors improvise a little, creating unique chemistry for the characters, producing natural emotions and reactions. MGM loved his quality and frugality with his productions.

Clark Gable was once again pushed as being the leading man of MGM in this picture, further establishing this fact with is natural charisma and charm, something he in fact had to learn in his younger years in acting. Beside Gable, what flourished from the film was the pairing of Powell and Loy. Both were veterans of the screen from the silent days of motion pictures, but it was here that they found new ground which allowed their careers to take off. Powell served for many years in small roles, but here he was able to speak more than ever, manifesting his fine oratory skill that would catapult him into features yet to come. Loy was usually typecast as ethnic vamps or other exotic, mainly Oriental, women, because for her versatile, exotic looks and good figure that suggested other ethnicities. Here she was an American woman with passion for her feelings, not romantic feelings, even though that plays a part in it, but feelings of what she feels is right and just, pleasing for Jim to pardon Blackie. Van Dyke saw something special in these two and would cast both Powell and Loy in his next feature which started during the final stages of production for Manhattan Melodrama. This next film would be The Thin Man, and with it is a whole other chapter of MGM history.

A side note that also aided in the popularity of Manhattan Melodrama is that it was the final picture saw by the famous gangster John Dillinger. It was upon exiting the Biograph Theater in Chicago where federal agents opened fire killing the famous bank robber. It was polarizing event for the film as MGM loved the publicity, while others detested the studio soaking up the free moment in the spotlight and using it as a means of advertising by word of mouth. This moment forever linked this gangster related film with a real larger than life gangster.

Many things happened for MGM with the help of this picture. Gable was ever solidified as a major leading man, as he would be heard from for many years, not to mention the Oscar he would win for It Happened One Night, which opened just months before Manhattan Melodrama. Also on display early on in the feature is a very young Mickey Rooney in one of his earliest roles, playing the part of Blackie as a boy. Also featured in this film is a familiar tune, but with unfamiliar lyrics. The song was “The Bad In Every Man,” but new lyrics would be written by the successful lyricist Lorenz Hart for the flowing music, and by the end of 1934 it was published as “Blue Moon.” Not to be overlooked, Manhattan Melodrama would go on to win Best Story at the Academy Awards for screenwriter Arthur Caesar, capping off a great success story that the film came to be.

It is the unsuspecting places where you will find gold in cinema. MGM thought nothing of this film, made cheap and fast, but would go on to be a good success and a great footnote in the history of the studio and Hollywood overall. Its director was on the rise. Its star was firmly established from it. A new pairing would be established by it. And a little known boy cast is small. But important role would one day become one of the screens biggest and best known stars for years to come. Manhattan Melodrama, besides all these interesting facts, is a good film worth watching. It carries with it the charm of the 30s pre-code era of movies, as well as a huge heart that wins over audiences today as it did then.

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