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.

 

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


 

 

 

 

 

 

The Thin Man

The Thin Man, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. B&W, 93 minutes.

Nick Charles (William Powell), a retired detective with a droll wit, is a man who’s happy to now live on his wife’s fortune and, well, drink a lot. Nora (Myrna Loy), for her part, is a classy, sassy woman capable of keeping up with her husband in both drinks and saucy banter. Joining the two in their convivial life is Asta the dog.

(It’s important to note this movie was made two years after the end of Prohibition, so the Charles’ drinking was looked upon, and portrayed, in a different light.)

Despite his contentment in retirement, Nick is drawn into a case by the daughter of a long-time friend of his, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis). Wynant has abruptly disappeared, and the appealing Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) pleads with Nick to look into it. Nick can’t resist helping Dorothy — after all, he’s known her since she was an infant — and ultimately, it’s his expertise that leads the police to the truth.

Myrna Loy, William Powell
Myrna Loy, William Powell

Simple case? Not a chance.

This plot goes down a winding path and brings in a long list of viable suspects. Nick, in his dry, observational manner, notes key elements the detective misses, ultimately leading them to what turns out to be the skeletal remains of the murder victim.

The group of suspects is brought together at a dinner party in the Charles’ home, where Nick skillfully pares down the list until the guilty individual is revealed.

This was the second of 14 films Powell & Loy would make together, including the six in the Thin Man series. Their chemistry was immediate and never failed, and they were a match in the pace and timing of their repartee and delivery.

Their performances are key to the success of the film, but the numerous Damon Runyon-esque characters play an important part in the overall feel of a fine & fun mystery.

William Powell, Myrna Loy
William Powell, Myrna Loy

The screenplay was based on the immensely popular novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, one of the most highly-regarded mystery writers of all time. The adaptation was written by the husband/wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who were also responsible for the screenplays of numerous other notable films, including It’s A Wonderful Life and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

The Thin Man was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay. These nominations were a somewhat remarkable feat and a tribute to all involved in the production, as the movie was given a “B” movie budget (read: small) and a short time frame for completion. Studio executives had low expectations.

Well, always easier to deliver when no one’s looking for success.

A little piece of trivia: contrary to popular belief, “The Thin Man” refers to the murder victim, not Nick Charles. However, that name caught on and was also used in the title of every other film in the series.