A hugely popular film when first released in May 1934, "Manhattan Melodrama" is today historically important for three distinct reasons. It was the first picture to feature the by-now-common story line of two boyhood friends who grow up to become opponents in the realm of criminal justice. It saw the first pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy, whose chemistry on screen here worked so well that they would ultimately be teamed 14 times together in films. And, of course, it was the last picture seen by the notorious bank robber John Dillinger, who, upon exiting Chicago's Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934, was killed during a gun battle with police and G-men. Today, almost 80 years since its release, the film still retains its impact and wonderful entertainment value, thanks largely to a terrific script and the megawatt star power of its three leads.
In the film, we meet two young chums, Jim Wade and "Blackie" Gallegher (the latter played by 13-year-old, 14th billed Mickey Rooney). After the sinking of the General Slocum steamship on the East River on June 15, 1904, in which over 1,000 lives were lost, the boys are left orphans, soon taken in by a kindly Jewish man. When their benefactor is killed in a riot shortly thereafter, the boys are left to their own devices. Jim grows up to become the N.Y.C. D.A. and ultimately N.Y. state governor; the personification of moral rectitude, as played by William Powell. Blackie, on the other hand, as played by Clark Gable (here just a few months after the February 1934 release of "It Happened One Night"), grows up to become an underworld figure and professional gambler. Strangely enough, the two remain staunch friends, although trouble does loom when Blackie's moll, Eleanor Packer (yes, Myrna Loy), throws him over and marries Wade. And then things become even more problematic, when Blackie kills a man and D.A. Wade must prosecute the case and find the killer....
Harking back to Dillinger, I must say that if you are ever given the choice as to what your last movie will be before being executed, you could do a lot worse than "Manhattan Melodrama." All three stars are given ample opportunities to shine here: Gable is extremely likable, his faithfulness to his old buddy never wavering; Powell gives two tremendous speeches, one in the courtroom as he urges for the death penalty for his old friend, the other in front of the State Assembly; and Loy is just as sexy and beautiful as can be. The film's script just sparkles (the picture won an Oscar for Best Original Story), and the events depicted move along briskly and with not a bit of flab. A quick check of the names behind the camera might convince potential viewers of what a class production "Manhattan Melodrama" is. The film was produced by the legendary showman David O. Selznick, cowritten by the famed Joseph L. Mankiewicz, lensed by one of Hollywood's foremost cinematographers, James Wong Howe, and features a tune, "The Bad In Every Man," by Rodgers & Hart. (Lorenz Hart would later rewrite the lyrics and turn it into the familiar standard "Blue Moon"!) Not to mention the crackerjack direction of W.S. Van Dyke, who would go on to helm four of the six "Thin Man" films starring Powell and Loy, and three films with Gable, including "San Francisco." Perfect entertainment package that the film is, it also offers the viewer a trip to Harlem's Cotton Club, a hockey game at Madison Square Garden AND a horse race at Belmont (during which the boys get out of Manhattan for a while, for an afternoon in Queens). Plus, we are also given some very amusing comedic relief, thanks to the antics of one of Blackie's henchmen, Spud (played by Nat Pendleton), and his dim-witted galpal Annabelle (Isabel Jewell). What most viewers will most appreciate, though, I feel, is the solid camaraderie that Blackie and Wade enjoy, although life has set them in opposition. Indeed, Blackie's love for Wade never flags, even while he is sitting on Death Row. And I'd like to think that as Dillinger felt the first bullet enter his body, he flashed back to Blackie's Death Row words: "Die the way you lived, all of a sudden. That's the way to go. Don't drag it out. Living like that doesn't mean a thing...."
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