Saturday, March 20, 2010

I'll Take 'Manhattan'


I recently was asked by a friend to write about any actor from the 1930s. So, here is a film that stars two popular actors from that decade -- Clark Gable and William Powell.

And some people may know the significance of this film, which I'll reveal at the end. Beyond that, this dated yet enjoyable movie features a top cast that includes Myrna Loy.

In today's movie parlance, this might be called a "bromance." That's because the story centers on a deep life-long friendship between Jim and Blackie. Within the first 10 minutes, the two boys -- unrelated to each other -- are orphaned after a devastating boat fire, adopted by one of the survivors, and then orphaned a second time when their new dad is beaten to death!

That's a lot for anyone to bear, but the two boys manage, and the film fast-forwards to adulthood, where Blackie (Gable) is a racketeer and Jim (Powell) is a clean-cut district attorney. Their paths cross again, and the friendship is rekindled. When Eleanor (Loy) leaves Blackie, she ends up with Jim, although this doesn't break apart the men's deep friendship. Then, as expected, Jim and Blackie are forced to deal with a murder case that pits them against each other.

This type of story -- childhood friends who end up on opposite sides of the law -- was told often in the 1930s, and perhaps it was this film that began that trend. Regardless, the plot seems dated. But that doesn't take away from the movie's enjoyment, thanks to W.S. Van Dyke's deft direction, producer David Selznick's impeccable powers for knowing what works, and that magnificent cast in residence at MGM.

By this point, Gable was an established star, popular and handsome. It was old hat for him to play a rogue with charm and have the audience like him. This was Powell's first movie at MGM, and if Jim is a little too good, Powell is clearly a likable presence on screen. This was also his first on-screen pairing with Loy, and how fortuitous. They would appear in "The Thin Man," released later in 1934, and it became a smash. In fact, the two stars appeared so comfortable onscreen that people through they must be married offscreen (not true). The two ultimately making 14 films together. For Loy, after nearly a decade in film, this movie helped push her toward the top as one of the decade's most popular leading ladies.

At this point in her career, Loy did have one important admiring fan, which brings us to the film's significance. John Dillinger liked Loy, which is why he went to the Biograph in Chicago to see this movie. Afterward, he was gunned down outside of the theater.

Finally, let's not forget the young actor who plays Blackie as a boy -- Mickey Rooney. Yes, the idea of Rooney playing Gable as a child may seem humorous today, but it was the start of a fruitful career for Rooney at MGM.

The script, which surprisingly won an Oscar for best original story, contains some unnecessary comic relief, although it does make some interesting choices in regards to what characters believe to be right and wrong. And I like how the friendship between Jim and Blackie remains strong despite the many obstacles facing them.

Despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed "Manhattan Melodrama," a popular film in its day. At the very least, it's a chance to enjoy an impeccable cast in a film from MGM's heyday.

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