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.

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.

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.



It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night, 1934, Columbia Pictures. Starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 105 minutes.

Spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with dashing King Westley, much against the wishes of her father, who plans to do everything in his considerable power to keep the marriage from going forward. Ellie jumps ship while in Florida and hops on a bus to New York in an effort to reunite with King, and it’s there she meets up with down-on-his-luck reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable).

It doesn’t take Peter too long to figure out just who Ellie is and what a story he has on his hands, and he takes full advantage of the situation. What he doesn’t count on, of course, is falling for the foolish, yet appealing, Ellie, and she in turn begins to feel something for him. But that doesn’t stop her from wanting to defy her father and stay married to King.

This was one of the last films released before the Motion Picture Production Code began to be enforced, and it shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There’s still the distinct element of propriety between a non-married couple, even when Clark Gable strips down to his underwear (sans t-shirt, which is said to have cost that industry thousands of dollars for about a decade because of one simple scene. If Gable didn’t wear a t-shirt, well, your average American male apparently didn’t feel a need to do so, either. No doubt a legend of some truth, some myth).

Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert

But the dialogue is subtly racier, and details surrounding the case are as well. If you aren’t familiar with the restrictions of the Code, you may not pick it up, but the sexier, saucier quality is there in spades. It’s largely a product of the chemistry between the two stars, who transcend the almost stereotypical nature of their roles and create a film that proves witty dialogue can compensate for an average plot line.

It Happened One Night won what are considered the top five major Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin) — a feat matched only by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Interestingly, it didn’t initially do well at the box office, but eventually took off as word of mouth from moviegoers and critics got around. Critics remarked on its original dialogue more than the story itself, as well as the interaction between the two stars.

Both Colbert and Gable were said to have been reluctant to star in the film, but contractual agreements brought about the pairing. Colbert, after shooting was completed, told friends she’d just finished “the worst picture in the world.” At the time, Columbia Pictures was best known for B-movies, and for other studios to lend their stars to Columbia was generally a punishment or a desperate move in bargaining.

Colbert did not expect to win the Oscar and didn’t plan to attend the ceremony. She was at the train station when studio representatives arrived to “drag her to the awards” if necessary, by orders of producer Harry Cohn, who’d learned she would, in fact, win that night (winners were announced prior to the ceremony at that time). She arrived just in time to accept her award, and turned around to return to her waiting train.

Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable It Happened One Night
Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable

The film has been remade countless times in countless ways, including a variation that is substantially different in tone and ending than It Happened One Night, but parallels with the concept of the dissatisfied, well-off young woman who runs from her situation straight into the arms of the errant reporter, and that is Roman Holiday. A good director with the right writer can take a strong idea and make a movie that is right for the times, classic for the ages, and different from what’s been done before. Both films should be on the must-seen list of all classic film fans.