(American, 1934, 93 minutes, b&w, video)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
Even as Dillinger was carted off to the city’s morgue, and his fellow Biograph patrons began dipping handkerchiefs in the pools of his congealed blood for souvenirs, it must have occurred to at least some of them that Dillinger’s fatal trip to the movies had a remarkable irony to it. He had chosen the Biograph over the somewhat closer Marbro because of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. He particularly enjoyed gangster films, said fingerwoman Anna Sage, already infamous as "The Lady in Red." His death sounded like the climax to one of the movies he loved, and which his short, violent career had helped to inspire.
MANHATTAN MELODRAMA is a classic MGM confection, made up of a substrate of Depression grit under a varnish of MGM gloss. Two New York boys, "Blackie Gallagher" (Gable, played here as a boy by the typically hysterical Mickey Rooney) and "Jim Wade" (Powell), suffer the same terrible loss in the notorious General Slocum excursion boat disaster. From there, each goes his separate way, Blackie to a life of romantic danger and considerable financial gain as a criminal, and Jim as a crusading District Attorney. Increasingly, their only point of contact is "Eleanor" (Loy), who loves them both. Gable, in order to save the friend he still admires, and the woman he not-so-secretly loves, puts himself in jeopardy.
MGM never had much luck with straight gangster films. A similar story, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, would be made in 1938 at the far more proletarian Warner Brothers’ studio with considerably more Depression-era angst and realism, but this smooth, David O. Selznick production perfectly expresses the air of social fantasy that MGM virtually patented. MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was directed by studio craftsman W. S. Van Dyke, who was responsible for Powell and Loy’s THE THIN MAN, among many others.1 Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s great wits, worked on the screenplay, and Arthur Caesar won that year’s Oscar for best original story on MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. Cinematographer James Wong Howe brought his many flourishes with low-key lighting to the film, and the result was classic ’30s movie schizophrenia: a film that took up the harsh realities of its beleaguered audiences, reprocessed them, and created a sparkling dream of social order, family prosperity, and individual elegance.
The glossy MANHATTAN MELODRAMA caught little of the flavor of Dillinger’s life, which had been conducted on the run, in squalid rural hideouts and dusty Midwestern back roads, lurching from one bank robbery to another, the hard-won money never buying him the security or the elegance he craved. Dillinger’s last days had been spent in a nondescript rooming house, half a continent and a universe away from the penthouses and plush gambling dens of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. Yet by that June night in 1934, the movies had completely circumscribed Dillinger’s world. His face was so famous from newsreels that he had recently undergone painful blackmarket plastic surgery. His great antagonist, publicity-seeking F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, was using his power to shape the way movies depicted criminality, doing his best to turn Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and their cohorts from modern Robin Hoods to Frankensteins in the public’s mind. And perhaps most pathetic, the movies painted a world of unselfconscious luxury and ease that Dillinger, for all his notoriety, could never know. In one way, at least, Dillinger was no different from millions of other Americans that July night in 1934: he was trying to escape, through the movies, to an easier, less anguished existence, if only for the running time of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. It was only in his last, bloody, dramatic moments that his own life, finally, became the screenwriters’ envy.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
1. MANHATTAN MELODRAMA marks the first appearance of Powell and Loy together on screen. Legend has it that they rehearsed their lines separately and literally met for the first time, cameras rolling, as Powell tumbles into the back seat of the limo holding Loy. The chemistry between the two is palpable. Woody Van Dyke was so taken with what he saw, he begged Selznick to loan the pair out to Republic for a low budget B-picture Van Dyke was contracted to shoot. Selznick needed Loy back in three weeks to begin shooting STAMBOUL QUEST. Van Dyke shot his film in eighteen days. It was THE THIN MAN, the first of more than two dozen films Powell and Loy made (six of them in THE THIN MAN series), films that established Powell and Loy as Hollywood’s favorite onscreen couple. Still, Loy and Gable teamed up again through the 30s, notably in the disastrous PARNELL (1937), TEST PILOT (1938) and TOO HOT TO HANDLE (1938). By the end of the decade, Gable and Loy were voted, in a flamboyant publicity campaign, the King and Queen of Hollywood, though it is her teamwork with William Powell for which she is most remembered.
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