First off, a happy birthday to William Powell, star of today’s film! I had no idea it was his birthday when I planned the July Five, but if anyone asks I totally planned it!
The first movie in our week devoted to Powell and his stalwart companion Myrna Loy has quite the history associated with it. Manhattan Melodrama was the first of fourteen pairings between the couple and garnered name recognition for being the movie gangster John Dillinger watched before he was gunned down; a little history lesson for you all. Sadly, the history is a more intriguing element than the movie itself. Manhattan Melodrama hasn’t aged well. The entire layout of the narrative is within the title: it’s a melodramatic look at where good and bad will take you. Swirling around the three stars, the final one being pre-Code Clark Gable, it’s a humdrum look at the perils of gang violence and corruption with little to recommend it other than the cast.
Blackie (Gable) and Jim (Powell) have been friends since childhood. As they grow older Black is wrapped up in dice games and gambling while Jim climbs his way up the political ladder. They soon fall in love with the same woman (Loy) but even that is easily negotiated. It’s when Blackie kills a man, in the hopes of helping Jim, and Jim is forced to prosecute his best friend that complications arise.
I just couldn’t get past the entire “Goofus and Gallant” situation that springs up in Manhattan Melodrama; it’s the living embodiment of every moral issue in Highlights Magazine. Blackie (played by a baby Mickey Rooney in the opening) and Jim (played by Jimmy Butler) set-up their characters within thirty seconds; Blackie is thieving and taking other kids’ money while Jim is studying. It’s one thing that never changes once they get older; we’re told this in a heavy-handed use of split-screen with rolling dice on one side (Blackie) and degrees on the other (Jim). The one thing they have in common is their extreme loyalty to each other. I wasn’t looking for deep characterization spanning decades, but the only type of love I got between Blackie and Jim was one of extreme bromance.
Yes, Manhattan Melodrama is a truly bromantic movie where the love both men feel for Eleanor (Myrna Loy) is nothing compared to the undying love they have for each other. It’s understandable considering that both their parents die on the same day, and immediately after that their surrogate father is run down in the street; these kids could be bad luck. Once Eleanor becomes involved I expected some type of love triangle with the female torn between two men. Nope, Eleanor starts off with Blackie only to up and leave him for Powell, which is where she stays for the rest of the film and no one argues about it. The relationship between Myrna Loy and Clark Gable is interesting because I’m used to watching Loy playing opposite men who are accommodating to her in a way Gable isn’t. As Blackie, Gable is everything he would come to represent as his career went on: masculine, aggressive, extremely sexual. All of this should create a powder keg of repressed sexuality between the two stars, but they come off as cold and hostile to each other. Part of it stems from the movie starting with Eleanor unhappy about her relationship with Blackie, and her hope of convincing him to settle down with her. Gable is of the sort that stops all of Eleanor’s complaining with a kiss, and who isn’t interested in hearing about her feelings. The story sets this up well, but Loy is so elegant and restrained that she doesn’t seem to know what to do with Gable, hence it’s hard to believe they’d go for each other in the first place.
The magic happens when she’s paired up with William Powell’s Jim. Eleanor isn’t a bad girl (she wants children and a marriage after all, ladies), so the movie wants you to invest in her relationship with Jim. This is where the movie shines because both actors exude that warmth and energy that would carry on into the Thin Man series. However, Jim is the goody-goody so their domestic drama isn’t particularly worthwhile to watch. And they just can’t escape Blackie no matter how hard they try. All their conversations are about him, and the movie leaves it unsaid but it’s evident that Jim is the only one who can truly understand and stand by Blackie (thus, why he’s the one who says goodbye to him at the end). I swear, there’s a thesis in there somewhere about bromance in the gangster genre.
For being only 90 minutes, the plot is incredibly thin and once Blackie is sentenced to jail you’re able to tune out and not miss much. If you need comic relief there’s a running gag about a dumb blonde who says the wrong things….it’s another thing that hasn’t aged well. Powell is okay, but his dramatic work always feels forced and stiff. He has a tendency to put on a grin so broad it looks painful and his voice sounds higher than it would become. He has a big speech at the end that wants you to both sympathize and castigate Jim, but I felt neither emotion. By the end, Goofus and Gallant both lose, although Gallant is tolerable.
Manhattan Melodrama is worthwhile purely for the trifecta of Powell, Loy, and Gable. The story is boring and cheap with none of the verve of better gangster movies. If you want to save your time, pick up an issue of Highlights Magazine instead.
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