Manhattan Melodrama (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934) begins with a formative moment in the lives of two young boys, Blackie Gallagher and Jim Wade, in which they lose their parents in a maritime disaster. Later, during a group meeting to rally the troops for revolution (“Trotsky’s getting’ wilder every year”, a listener scoffs), the Russian immigrant father figure who came to their rescue (George Sidney) goes on an anti-Russia tirade bolstering the American dream, blasting Russia for giving him nothing and praising America for servicing his basic human rights. Mid-speech, his Slavic lilt falters and the actor’s American accent takes over — “woik”, he says. Another accuses, “You dirty capitalistic stoolpigeon!” and a brawl breaks out. It’s all very transparent but you can say one thing for co-writer Joseph L Mankiewicz: his sure demonstrates his sharp talent for expressionistic dialogue.
When Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and their thuggish companion venture out to Gable’s new yacht, the thuggish companion stares out to the bay and says, “Them ships don’t look real. They look like etchings drawn against the sky.” (“Why Spud, there’s a bit of poet in you.”) It’s great insurance against their set design — although James Wong Howe does an excellent job, as always, of photographing the film. There’s more humour, later: just before Gable murders a notorious yet weaselly welsher, he says, “You better cross yourself, Manny, and make it double. Because this is once you double crossed yourself.” It’s a great line, especially when spoken with Gable’s slick tone.
The scene in the coffee club, when William Powell — the childhood friend — and Loy are waiting for Blackie, Shirley Ross sings “The Bad in Every Man” with a backup orchestra and fancy, floating camera, that gets in to the groove of the song. The scene is one of those “meaningful” scenes, of course, and later Loy gives up Gable for Powell, the “better man”. The lyrics of the song are excellent, as is the tune — after the film’s release it was rewritten as “Blue Moon”. I’ve never been a fan of the rewrite, but the original here is too good to pass by.
Arthur Caesar won the Academy Award for Best Story, but by now, these things aren’t too original. The plot elements become obvious before they’ve hardly begun to roll out. Two men, friends since childhood and closer than brothers, head down different life paths, and ironically, bitterly, one’s success depends on the other’s downfall. Both make sacrifices for the other until there’s nothing left to sacrifice. And in this ultimately uplifting, very moralistic picture, Clark Gable is more of a good sport about heading to the chair than James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1937). “I’m just a no good guy, that’s all,” Gable chirps up, matter of factly. But then MGM had to slap something on, given that this was released at the beginning of the heaviest censorship cycle in Hollywood — in the first few months of the Hays Code. Couldn’t let a man get away with murder, and had to give the Catholics something for allowing a man and woman to broadcast their sin. So he died a noble hero, and a happy one; up until Carole Lombard was killed and his life shattered, that was just about all Hollywood allowed him to be.