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-in-manhattan-melodrama
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-in-manhattan-melodrama
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.

william-powell-starring-in-after-the-thin-man
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.

Myrna Loy, William Powell star in After the Thin Man.png
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


 

 

 

 

 

 

Libeled Lady

Libeled Lady, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy. Directed by Jack Conway. B&W, 98 minutes.

When a reporter’s mistake leads to a calamitous lawsuit, the newspaper’s editor has no qualms about marrying off his jilted bride to an unscrupulous ladies’ man so he, in turn, can entrap a snooty heiress.

One of the top screwball comedies of the era, Libeled Lady takes the standard war of the sexes and doubles it with two couples facing farcical situations on the road to true love.

Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is set to marry Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) when he discovers his tell-all front page story about a socialite, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy), is false and she’s set to sue the newspaper for the astronomical amount of $5 million dollars (remember, this is 1936).

Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy Libeled Lady
Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy

Figuring the best way out of the situation is to turn the heiress into the homewrecker the paper reported her to be, Haggerty hires Bill Chandler (William Powell) to lure her into a compromising situation with a married man.

First, however, he has to marry Chandler off to his bride-to-be to make him the married man in question. Of course, nothing goes as it’s supposed to (how could it?), and there’s a smart and sassy ending that isn’t really an ending at all.

This film was a return to the brassier, outlandish characters Harlow was known and loved for in her earlier roles. Her most recent work had taken a different direction, one she’s said to have wanted, but it wasn’t as well received by audiences. Luckily, they loved her in Libeled Lady, as did critics, and the studio took note, planning more similar roles for the future.

In real life, William Powell and Jean Harlow were dating, and many expected them to be married. That never happened, in part, it was rumored, because Powell was reluctant, perhaps because Harlow had already been married three times at such a young age, or perhaps because of the failure of his own marriage to another young blonde comedienne, Carole Lombard. Sadly, Harlow died of kidney failure just eight months after the release of Libeled Lady. She was 26.

Loy, Powell, Harlow, Tracy Libeled Lady
Myrna Loy, William Powell, Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy

The availability of all four stars for this film was a result of the studio system, a benefit of that controversial and convoluted method of managing actors and actresses. The studio in particular had been looking for yet another successful Powell/Loy pairing; by this time the two were well-established as onscreen gold.

Libeled Lady was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to another Powell/Loy vehicle, The Great Ziegfield. Powell was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role that year for My Man Godfrey.

This is a movie any fan of screwball comedies will enjoy, with a top-notch cast playing at the height of their careers. Well worth the watch.

Myrna Loy, William Powell in Libeled Lady
Myrna Loy, William Powell

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.

 

My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey, 1936, Universal Pictures. Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard. Directed by Gregory La Cava. B&W (colorized version also available), 94 minutes.

A scattered young woman discovers a surprisingly sophisticated hobo and hires him as the butler for her wealthy family, and he in turn shines a sometimes unwelcome light on their chaotic, misguided lifestyle.

Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) and her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) are looking for a “forgotten man” as part of a scavenger hunt, and come upon Godfrey Smith (William Powell) at a city dump. The two women are on separate teams, and when Godfrey pushes Cornelia into the trash in response to her offer of five dollars to help her win the prize, Irene decides it’s best to walk away as well.

Lombard Powell My Man Godfrey
Carole Lombard, William Powell

But Godfrey, after talking to the flighty Irene, chooses to go back to the ballroom with her so she can win the scavenger hunt and triumph over her sister. She’s delighted, even when, after her team’s victory is declared, he stands and denounces the group of wealthy citizens. She offers him a job as the family’s butler, which he graciously accepts.

Cornelia remains bitter toward Godfrey, and does what she can to undermine his abilities and character. She quickly realizes, although the rest of the family seems oblivious to it, that Irene is falling for their new servant.

In addition to dizzy Irene and conniving Cornelia, there’s the mother, Angelica (Alice Brady), a featherbrained woman who perhaps drinks a little too much and indulges her “protegée,” Carlo (Mischa Auer), a man who is clearly taking advantage of the family. There’s also Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette), the husband & father, who’s burdened by the weight of his failing business and family’s antics.

Carole Lombard, William Powell My Man Godfrey
Carole Lombard, William Powell

Showing the wealthy to be frivolous and foolish was a classic Depression-era theme, as was giving someone down-and-out sudden wealth. This is a definitive screwball comedy, with yes, implausible plot elements, but a realistic plot line is hardly important here.

What is important is the effortless acting of the two stars, the strength of talent of the supporting cast, the fine direction by Gregory La Cava and all the elements of cinematography, lighting, set decoration, costume and the rest that sets movies of that era apart from movies today.

Powell had lobbied for Lombard to star in the movie, and La Cava, a personal friend of hers, was in agreement. The two stars had divorced three years earlier after two years of marriage, but remained good friends until her death in 1942 in a plane crash. The chemistry between them is evident and somewhat mirrors their real-life personas; he the quieter, more urbane of the two, she the unconventional, outspoken one.

William Powell, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey
William Powell, Carole Lombard

My Man Godfrey was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Actor for Powell, Best Actress for Lombard, Best Supporting Actress for Alice Brady, Best Supporting Actor for Mischa Auer and Best Writing, Screenplay for Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind.

It’s the only movie to date to be nominated in all four acting categories without being nominated for Best Picture, and until 2013, was the only film to be nominated in these six categories without winning any of them.

The movie has been colorized, and both versions are available on DVD (generally the same DVD). This trailer has been colorized: