Manhattan Melodrama

Is it fair to criticize a film for being melodramatic when “melodrama” is right in the title? I mean, you certainly can’t criticize it for false advertising. I guess when you go into such a film it’s all just a matter of how well the writing, direction, and characters suck you in and make the drama skillfully effective rather than overtly affective. So, which is it in this case? It’s a bit of both, actually. Manhattan Melodrama was the first of twelve pairings of William Powell and Myrna Loy who, later that year, would shoot to superstardom with their roles as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. It was also written by Joseph Mankeiwicz and co-starred Clark Gable, so the film certainly wasn’t short on talent.

The story concerns the life-long friendship of two men, “Blackie” Gallagher (Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (William Powell). At an early age, both lose their parents when a fire breaks out on a riverboat. But even then, there characters were already established. Blackie is a degenerate gambler and small-time mobster, while Jim is an upright, highly moral man who studiously studies to become a lawyer, and works his way up to district attorney and then governor. Myrna Loy is Eleanor, the girlfriend of Blackie, who begs him to go straight, settle down, and marry her. But Blackie refuses, and when he sets her up to meet Jim, Eleanor falls in love with him and leaves Blackie. Blackie doesn’t mind though, because he loves Jim as much as she does. But Blackie and Jim’s paths are destined to meet when Jim vows to clean up the city’s crime, even at the expense of his friend.

Manhattan Melodrama is one of those films that sinks or swims with its characters and writing, and while neither in this case are spectacular, they’re enough to keep the film afloat (if not exactly swimming). Joseph Mankiewicz is probably best known for his “perfect screenplay” for All About Eve, but before Eve, Mankiewicz was a reliable screenwriter throughout the 30s with films like A Letter to Three Wives, Somewhere in the Night, and Dragonwyck (all films he directed as well). Perhaps it could be said that Mankiewicz screenplays came off better when he was behind the camera as well, but Manhattan Melodrama certainly bears some of his distinctive marks with its sharp characterizations and economical narrative.

The film is helped immensely by the natural grace and charm of the principal actors. Nobody could play the lovable rogue as well as Gable, and if Blackie doesn’t quite have the three dimensionality of Rhett, Gable is still able to cast his spell to make us fall for him. Powell’s Jim is a bit more problematic, perhaps because his staunch morality crosses the line between admirable and absurd. While we certainly respect him at the beginning of the film, perhaps more so because Blackie loves him so much, near the end he almost becomes a laughingstock. But he’s also helped boy Myrna Loy, who always played wonderful alongside Powell. While here they lack the dynamic allure of Nick and Nora, they’re still a great deal of fun to watch together, and Loy’s Eleanor may be the most interesting character of the three.

Van Dyke’s direction is, for the most part, technically sound but generally uninteresting. He simply isn’t able to generate the kind of drama or emotion through the visuals in the same way the best directors from the Golden Age did. When you combine the sub-par direction with a film that becomes increasingly ridiculous as it wears on, it’s bound to test the sensibilities and sympathies of a modern viewer. Ultimately, Manhattan Melodrama is a film you watch because you enjoy its stars more than anything. If you can get past the silly contrivances and the emotions which are more laughable than moving, you’ll find a nice little character piece that is perfectly harmless and occasionally quite fun.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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