W.S. Van Dyke & George Cukor – Manhattan Melodrama (1934)


Manhattan Melodrama is a 1934 crime melodrama film, produced by MGM, directed by W. S. Van Dyke, and starring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. The movie also provided one of the earliest film roles for Mickey Rooney, who played Gable’s character as a child, and introduced the Rogers and Hart song “Blue Moon”, with an entirely different set of lyrics by Lorenz Hart.

Filmed relatively quickly and with a modest budget, Manhattan Melodrama was expected to return a profit, but not to capture the imagination of the public. The picture’s smash hit success surprised the studio and made major stars of screen veterans Myrna Loy and William Powell in the first of their fourteen screen pairings, and also solidified the success of MGM’s most popular male lead, Clark Gable.

A very familiar tune is introduced in the film with utterly unfamiliar lyrics. The movie presents a nightclub scene featuring Shirley Ross singing an extraordinarily dark song called “The Bad in Every Man.” After the film’s release, the lyrics were rewritten by Lorenz Hart as the more famous “Blue Moon”.

The movie entered the lexicon of 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 Chicago’s Biograph Theater where the film was playing.[1] Myrna Loy was among those who expressed distaste at the studio’s willingness to exploit this event for the financial benefit of the film. Scenes from Manhattan Melodrama, in addition to Dillinger’s death, are depicted in the 2009 film Public Enemies based on Dillinger.

Arthur Caesar won an Academy Award for Best Story for this film.

From “Nothing Is Written – a film blog”

This morning, TCM showed Manhattan Melodrama (1934), a gangster film-melodrama that is best-remembered for being the film that John Dillinger watched just before his fatal showdown with a team of FBI Agents. The movie might thus be dismissed as a mere curio piece, but manages to be fairly entertaining despite its cornball story and unavoidable dated aspects.

In 1904, two small children, “Blackie” Gallagher (Clark Gable, played by Mickey Rooney as a kid) and Jim Wade (William Powell) are saved from the disastrous fire on the paddleboat SS General Slocum; they are raised as stepbrothers by kindly Jewish man Poppa Rosen (George Sidney). The two grow up on widely divergent paths: Blackie becomes a high-ranking gangster and gambler, while Wade becomes District Attorney for New York City, with ambitions for the Governorships. Both love the stunningly attractive girl Eleanor (Myrna Loy), who starts out as Blackie’s girl but soon drifts over to Jimmy. Of course, the two characters’ divergent career paths test their friendship; Wade can’t (or won’t) pin a murder on Blackie, but when Blackie kills a man threatening to expose a political scandal that could hurt his gubernatorial run, Wade is forced to convict him for murder and sentence him to death – no matter what his friendship or the distraught Eleanor tell him.

Manhattan Melodrama (produced by David O. Selznick of Gone With the Wind fame) is very much a product of classic Hollywood, a light piece of fluff with no basis in reality, driven by a desire to entertain and uplift its audience. Its story of noble gangsters, willing to have themselves killed to help a friend’s political career, is pure Hollywood fantasy, but any attempts to analyze the film based on “realism” are doomed to failure. This is pure Hollywood hokum, but of the most entertaining sort; one finds the characters likeable enough to make the story compelling, however ridiculous it seems at the surface. The movie is a brisk 90 minutes with great pacing and snappy dialogue to help it move along. The film’s direction by W.S. Van Dyke is surprisingly stylish and expressive, making the film a visual pleasure.

Clark Gable is wonderful here, perfecting his usual dashing, lovable rogue persona that he would make his trademark. William Powell does nice work as his conflicted friend, bringing the right amount of pathos and anguish into the role. Myrna Loy is utterly gorgeous and charming, bringing real heart into the role of Eleanor; one can certainly see what Mr. Dillinger saw in her. The film’s trio of stars is wonderful, providing a degree of charisma almost unbeatable; they provide a picture-perfect representation of old Hollywood acting and star power.

Manhattan Melodrama is a pretty good film for what it is. It’s not a masterpiece, but neither should it be dismissed as merely an artifact of the ’30s.


Subtitles:English, French

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