Manhattan Melodrama

Manhattan Melodrama, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. B&W, 90 minutes.

Boyhood friends Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (William Powell) survive a disaster as children when the ship they are on catches on fire and sinks, killing many on board, including their parents. They are adopted by another survivor, but their life with him is short-lived as he is trampled to death by a policeman’s horse during a protest. A life-long bond between the two boys appears to be firmly set.

As adults, Blackie and Jim have gone down divergent paths, albeit paths destined to cross each other. Jim has taken the high road as an assistant district attorney on the fast-track. Blackie, on the other hand, has turned to a life of gambling, mostly in an illegal casino that’s allowed to stay in business with regular payoffs to the police department.

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Clark Gable, Myrna Loy

Blackie is dating Eleanor (Myrna Loy), but she objects to his lifestyle, and leaves him on the evening Jim is elected district attorney. By New Year’s Eve, she is brave enough to seek Jim out, despite Blackie’s predictions she would never be good enough for him. It turns out he was wrong, and Eleanor and Jim are soon engaged.

That same New Year’s Eve, Blackie shoots and kills a man who double-crossed him. Jim doesn’t know who committed the murder, but has the task of seeking out the killer, and his search leads him to Blackie, something Eleanor cannot abide.

Manhattan Melodrama marked the first pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who would go on to make a total of fourteen films together, including the six in the Thin Man series. The Thin Man, in fact, was released only three weeks after Manhattan Melodrama; it was also directed by W. S. Van Dyke.

Loy later recalled her first connection with Powell, “I don’t remember much about my scenes with Clark. The picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in. From the very first scene, a curious thing passed between us, a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct for how one could bring out the best in each other. In all our work you can see this strange kind of rapport. It wasn’t conscious. Whatever caused it, though, it was magical.”

Her belief that the “picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in” is debatable, as Gable gives an engaging performance as the likeable ne’er-do-well.

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Myrna Loy, William Powell

The ship sinking portrayed early in the movie was that of the General Slocum on June 15, 1904, when the excursion steamer, carrying more than 1300 passengers, among them 300 children, caught fire below deck. Ship hands, who had never taken part in a fire drill, discovered the hoses were rotten, as were the 2,500 life preservers they tried handing out to the doomed passengers. The final death toll was 1,021, the greatest disaster in New York City until 9/11.

This film is historically famous for being the movie John Dillinger was watching just before being gunned down by federal agents outside of the theater. It won one Academy Award, for Best Original Story (Arthur Caesar).

Manhattan Melodrama is a story that has been told numerous times since the making of this movie, making the tale seem a bit clichéd. It is, however, a notable film for a number of reasons, including the horrifyingly realistic depiction of the burning of the General Slocum, the assured performances of three stars, and a decent script. It is a movie classic film fans will want to see, if for no other reason than to watch the dynamics between Powell and Loy. Magical, indeed.

 

The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve, 1941, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda. Directed by Preston Sturges. B&W, 94 minutes.

Charles “Hopsie” Pike (Henry Fonda) is fresh on the boat after a year-long expedition up the Amazon studying snakes and other assorted reptiles. The first evening on board the luxury liner he meets socialite Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn)…only father and daughter aren’t who they claim to be. Unbeknownst to Charles, they are card sharks and con artists, out to fleece their latest victim.

Jean, however, finds herself falling for Hopsie. She’s ready to go straight and begin a life together with her new love, when his friend and bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest) discovers the truth about the Harringtons. Charles dumps Jean and leaves her heartbroken, as well as out for revenge.

She returns to his life as the Lady Eve Sidwich, ready to break his heart just as he broke hers. But she is at risk of being sidelined by her own desires.

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Charles Coburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The third film both written and directed by Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve is considered by many to be his finest work. It is a smart combination of satire and slapstick comedy, with plenty of sexual innuendo and mockery of the wealthy. Sturges, who had once been married to a socialite, was known for poking fun at upper crust society.

But the fun isn’t all at the expense of the privileged. Others in this film have a moment of having his or her foibles exposed or dignity bent.

Paulette Goddard and Brian Aherne were the studio’s choices for the lead roles, but Sturges, who had clout after the success of his first two films, insisted on Stanwyck and Fonda. It was one of the few comedies Stanwyck had appeared in during her career so far, and its success led her to the starring role in Ball of Fire later that year.

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Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The film was well-received by critics and audiences alike, with The New York Times critic writing, “It isn’t often that this corner has good reason to bang a gong and holler ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry!’ As a matter of fact, it is all too rare indeed that we have even moderate provocation to mark a wonder of the cinematic world.”

The film received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Writing, Original Story (Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the original short story the final script was based on). It lost to Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Stanwyck was long known for her professionalism on the set, including always being prepared for the day’s shooting schedule, as well as her kindness to fellow cast members and crew. It was a rare actor who met the high standards she set, but Fonda appears to have been one of them. He later wrote she was his favorite co-star, and is even rumored to have had a long-time crush on her.

The Lady Eve is sophisticated despite its slapstick comedy, and a prime example of Preston Sturges at his finest. It does lose a little shine with a few details such as Stanwyck’s distinctly bad English accent, although perhaps that was a deliberate element, but overall remains sharp and funny today.

 

Humoresque

Humoresque, 1946, Warner Bros. Starring Joan Crawford, John Garfield. Directed by Jean Negulesco. B&W, 124 minutes.

Violinist Paul Boray (John Garfield) has overcome family objections and the constraints of the Great Depression to achieve modest success as a musician. That’s not enough for him, however. To help his search for greater fame, his closest friend, wise-cracking Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant), introduces him to socialite and patron of the arts, Helen Wright (Joan Crawford).

The two begin a tug-of-war toying of the emotions, with Paul mindful of her married status and she, not used to being rebuffed by men, alternately playing it coy, then cool. Paul has a childhood sweetheart who is clearly better for him then the tempestuous Helen, but he is being pulled into her affections.

It is a dangerous situation, and both are aware of the potential destruction to their lives, but as happens so often, passion draws them into a deeper and wider stronghold against their better judgment. At the same time, Paul is torn by his mother’s insight into his career and tortured relationships.

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John Garfield, Joan Crawford

The relationship between patron and musician is complex, and performances by both Garfield and Crawford are up to the task of portraying the intricacies of the dynamics between the two. This is often noted as one of Crawford’s finest roles, coming on the heels of her Academy-Award winning portrayal of Mildred Pierce.

Close-ups of Garfield playing the violin are actually the hands of famed violinist Isaac Stern, who also served as musical advisor for the film and was the solo violinist on the film’s soundtrack. Stern was only 25 at the time, and this was a huge boost to his career.

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John Garfield

Crawford later recalled one scene, in which she performs her own stunt by falling off a horse going at full gallop, in an interview with a biographer. “I must have been crazy because I said I wanted to do my own stunt. They must have been crazier, because they let me do it.

“The powers-that-be had decided it was too racy to have Johnny Garfield lay on top of me. We had to re-shoot the scene so I ended up on top of him. That passed. I couldn’t really understand what was the difference, him on top of me or me on top of him.

“Well, the difference was I had to fall off the horse again. I did, and I lived to tell the tale.”

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Joan Crawford

The film was nominated for one Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring (Franz Waxman).

A musical term, “humoresque” means “a short, lively piece of music,” and while that is heard throughout the film, it is perhaps not the strongest title for the film, nor does it give much of an indication of its plot or tone.

One of the few movies ever made that features classical music in a key role, Humoresque is a compelling tale of a complicated relationship with flawed characters and an uneven path to romance, a path that ultimately leads to tragedy born of emotional, and likely distorted, decisions.

 

After the Thin Man

After the Thin Man, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. B&W, 112 minutes

Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) Charles have returned to their San Francisco home, just in time for a New Year’s celebration thrown in part in their honor. They are summoned to the home of Nora’s Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) for dinner, where Nora learns a favorite cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi) is worried sick over the disappearance of her husband, Robert.

Also in attendance is long-time family friend and admirer of Selma’s, David Graham (James Stewart). David convinces Selma to join him and the Charles’ for a night out on the town, including a trip to local nightclubs to search for Robert. They find the errant husband easily enough, but as the clock strikes midnight, he is shot to death, and Selma, who is seen shortly thereafter standing over his body, holding a gun, becomes the prime suspect.

Skippy as Asta, William Powell and Myrna Loy in After the Thin Man
Skippy as Asta, William Powell, Myrna Loy

The search for Robert becomes a search for the truth about his killer. Joining the Charles’ in their venture is their loyal dog, Asta, who, it appears, has some new — and adorable — additions to his canine family.

This was the second of six Thin Man movies, and is nearly as good, and certainly as enjoyable, as the first, The Thin Man. Like the original, it is based on a story by Dashiell Hammett (although not a published novel or short story), with the screenplay written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay.

The Nick & Nora Charles of the films were a bit audacious with their heavy drinking and for-the-era racy adoration of each other (there’s no doubt this couple has a healthy private life), but the pair portrayed in Hammett’s novel were “a couple living in a liquor-soaked open marriage” according to a PBS biography. Even pre-Code Hollywood considerably toned down that element in the original The Thin Man, and the Code, with its tighter moral standards, was in effect for After the Thin Man.

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William Powell

Still, the characters in the films aren’t stereotypical Hollywood. Delivering such lines as, “let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty,” Powell gives a dry, sardonic and sophisticated performance as the former detective called upon by the family who looks down on him to investigate the murder, and arrest, of their own. A fiercely determined Loy once again gets herself in trouble with her sincere efforts to help her husband, but he is always a step ahead of her. She’s no slouch or encumbrance, however, and delivers crucial evidence, despite her lack of investigative savvy.

James Stewart, still early in his career and limited to co-starring roles, is sympathetic as the man facing unrequited love, never willing to give up on the woman he believes would be happiest with him.

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Myrna Loy, William Powell

This is a clever story with any number of viable suspects who, one by one, are eliminated through Nick’s dogged detective work. It moves quickly and leaves few, if any, loose ends.

Perhaps the best of the “Thin Man” sequels, After the Thin Man is quintessential whodunit fare combined with wit and colorful characters, part of what makes this series an enduring element of pop culture.

Mrs Asta and family in After The Thin Man
Mrs. Asta and family


 

 

 

 

 

 

Madame Bovary (1949)

Madame Bovary, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jennifer Jones, James Mason, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. B&W, 115 minutes.

Emma Rouault (Jennifer Jones) is a young woman living alone with her father in rural France, lost in her dreams of romance and excitement, lives she has read about in forbidden novels while in a convent school. One day she meets aspiring doctor Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), who immediately falls for her and pursues her as he tends to her father’s health.

Charles has no illusions about himself. He tells Emma he is a rather dull person and not a highly skilled doctor, but promises to treat her well and provide a good living. Emma, captivated by her own dreams, doesn’t appear to hear his blunt words and lackluster promises when she accepts his proposal.

They marry, and Emma immediately begins living beyond their means, which an indulgent and weak Charles allows. Emma, never satisfied, begins an affair with first another man in their village, then with an aristocrat (Louis Jourdan) who moves nearer to Emma so they can be together.

The realities of life are overwhelming for Emma, and take her on a tragic course that destroys the lives of all who love her most.

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Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan

Lana Turner was originally considered for the role of Emma Bovary, but was considered too sensual, a problem given the way producer Pandro S. Berman was trying to frame the film. Too appease censors, he set up the story with the real-life courtroom drama of the book’s author Gustave Flaubert attempting to defend his novel against charges of indecency. In the movie (which loosely draws from the real-life trial), Flaubert, played by James Mason, portrays Emma Bovary as a sympathetic young woman who has fallen under the spell of romantic novels and seeks a lifestyle that doesn’t exist. Her dreams of beauty and excitement make her sympathetic and deserving of forgiveness, Flaubert argues, and not harsh condemnation.

Perhaps it was that set-up of the plot that was problematic for the critic for The New York Times, who questioned whether or not the story of Emma Bovary was “timely.” However, he had high praise for the male stars, saying “Louis Jourdan is electric as her elegant lover, and Van Heflin is quietly appealing as her trusting, small-town spouse.”

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Van Heflin, Jennifer Jones

The tale of Emma Bovary has withstood the changing whims of time because of the unflinching way it reveals human nature and foibles, spelling out the reality of disillusionment and despair in unrelenting terms. The story has been brought to film numerous times, but this production stands out, perhaps because of its stark focus on Emma’s character without sharp judgment, letting the story speak its own truth.

Minnelli’s opulent storytelling, including the dance sequence during which reason is lost and passions are flamed, supplements the great heartache and loss that is found in Madame Bovary. The courtroom drama seems nearly moot in the end, but still leaves us pondering the fate of all who crossed into the life of Emma Bovary.

It Should Happen to You

It Should Happen to You, 1954, Columbia Pictures. Starring Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Peter Lawford. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 86 minutes.

Young and broke, Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) dreams of a better life, better than “marrying the first man that comes along…or maybe the second.” She has been saving for the rather unusual goal of buying billboard space, where she plans to place her name and picture for all of New York City to see, believing fame will bring her what she wants.

She catches the attention of budding filmmaker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon) while walking through Central Park one afternoon in her stocking feet.  The two hit it off, and when Pete tells her she may end up in one of his documentaries, Gladys is thrilled at the idea of being in the movies.

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Jack Lemmon, Judy Holliday

Later that day, she acts on her dream of fame and fortune and buys 90 days of billboard space. With her name in letters that seem sky-high, Gladys is on her way to the happiness she desires. Or so it seems, until the Adams Soap Co., which traditionally has purchased that same billboard space each year for the same three months, steps in. With negotiations designed to intimidate, Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) works to get back what he sees as rightfully his.

In the meantime, Pete has moved into the same apartment building Gladys lives in, and the two begin a romance of sorts. Pete’s interest is obvious, while Gladys, although appreciative of his attentions, is more intent on seeing where the notoriety from the billboard can get her.

Judy Holliday portrays Gladys as a likable young woman who, despite her dreams of glory, is basically happy in life. Most importantly, she knows what she wants, although the path she believes will lead her there is perhaps ill-advised.

There are some wonderful lines in this film that reveal Gladys’ perceptive side and keep her from being merely a ditzy blonde. She is, in fact, more insightful than simple, and well-equipped to take care of herself in treacherous situations.  The script was written by Garson Kanin, who also wrote Born Yesterday and Adam’s Rib, two significant vehicles for Holliday’s career.

This was the first major film appearance for Jack Lemmon, who is at his best as the sincere, baffled man in love with a woman who is stubbornly pursuing a foolish goal. He stands in stark contrast to Lawford’s slick and sleazy character, a man who takes advantage of women as a matter of course.

Look for a delightful duet between Holliday and Lemmon, interspersed with conversation and casually confident piano-playing, one of the finest parts of the film.

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Judy Holliday, Peter Lawford

It Should Happen to You was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Costume Design (Black & White). It was well-received by both critics and audiences, and its popularity for classic film fans has grown in recent years with the onslaught of reality shows making the film’s mockery of being famous for being famous seem both prescient and insightful.

This is a movie with all the elements for a great comedy, and it delivers. The script is original and sharp, the performances by Holliday and Lemmon endearing, and the direction by George Cukor once again showing he knows how to bring out the best in both actors and a script. The better scenes are perhaps in the early parts of the film, but it remains charming until the heartfelt end.

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella Dallas, 1937, United Artists. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley. Directed by King Vidor. B&W, 106 minutes.

Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) is brassy, brazen and audacious enough to step outside of class constraints and pull herself out of the hovel she grew up in to take her place in high society. She has set her sights on vulnerable Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who recently broke off his engagement with the refined Helen (Barabara O’Neil) when his father committed suicide after the family business failed. While waiting until he moves up enough in his new job to support the woman he loves, he discovers Helen has married another man. Heartbroken, Stephen is on the rebound, and falls for Stella’s efforts to charm him into wedlock.

A year after the two marry, they welcome their daughter, Laurel. Soon that child is the only bond between the couple. With his attempts to change his wife’s unrefined ways a marked failure, Stephen is increasingly put off by Stella. Add to that her friendship with the uncouth and loud Edward Munn (Alan Hale), a man of whom Stephen strongly and openly disapproves.

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John Boles, Barbara Stanwyck

Eventually Stephen accepts a job transfer to New York, and Stella stays behind in Massachusetts with Laurel (Anne Shirley), now a young girl on the verge of womanhood. Stella is a devoted and loving mother, and dotes on the growing girl to a surprising degree, given her otherwise self-absorbed nature.

Things take a dramatic change when Stephen has a chance meeting with Helen, now a widow with three boys. Their romance starts anew, with Helen welcoming Laurel into her life. Stella is faced with choosing between her own happiness and that of her daughter’s.

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Anne Shirley,  Barbara Stanwyck

Stella Dallas was based on the book of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote the novel Now, Voyager, on which the film starring Bette Davis was based. Prouty also became a mentor to Sylvia Plath and is believed to be the inspiration for the character Philomena Guinea in Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. Prouty, who herself suffered from psychological issues, had a strong interest in the internal motivations of the characters in her books.

The book had been made into a silent film in 1925, starring Ronald Colman and Belle Bennett, and was also re-made as the movie Stella in 1990, starring Bette Midler and Stephen Collins. The story has been analyzed numerous times for its perception of a woman’s role in society, the ideals of motherhood and the perils of sacrifice.

Melodramas of this sort were popular during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and to an extent we still see them today, albeit on the small screen. They are presented on cable channels such as Lifetime, notorious for somewhat overblown stories of human pathos. However, that is not what is delivered here. In the time Stella Dallas was made, production values for films of this calibre were much higher than the made-for-TV movies of today, and it shows in the final product.

The film received two Academy Award nominations, Best Actress for Stanwyck and Best Supporting Actress for Shirley.

This is a tale of woman who first wants more for herself, than dreams those dreams for her daughter, who is actually in a position to obtain them. It is both warm and tragic, with a character who is on the one hand appealing, and on the other, a bit appalling. In the end, whatever you may say about the decisions she made, her final motivation was from a mother’s heart.