There are a number of historical footnotes associated with “Manhattan Melodrama” (directed by W.S. “One Take Woody” Van Dyke) that lend it more glamour than perhaps it deserves, but it’s not a bad example of mid-thirties disposable entertainment — so long as you don’t take a word of it seriously. It’s the first time William Powell and Myrna Loy appeared together onscreen. The next picture they made together, also directed by Van Dyke, was their most celebrated: “The Thin Man.” “Manhattan Melodrama” features a beautiful Rodgers and Hart tune called “The Bad in Every Man”; after the picture was released, Hart rewrote the lyrics (to make the song more commercially appealing) and renamed it “Blue Moon.” Perhaps most interesting of all, “Manhattan Melodrama” was the last picture Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, ever saw: he was gunned down by Melvin Purvis’ G-men outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater immediately after seeing it. Myrna Loy was said to be Dillinger’s favorite movie star. It was reported that Dillinger had come out of hiding specifically to see her latest picture. Many years later, Loy’s response to this was characteristic: “Personally, I suspect the theme of the picture, rather than my fatal charms, attracted him, but I’ve always felt a little guilty about it, anyway. They filled him full of holes, poor soul.”
William Randolph Hearst owned Cosmopolitan Productions, which he formed to showcase his mistress, Marion Davies. After Dillinger was killed, Hearst insisted that the Cosmopolitan name be withdrawn from all prints: he didn’t want his company’s name sullied with associations to Dillinger. The opening credits were quickly altered; ever since, the names of producer David O. Selznick and director W.S. Van Dyke, rather curiously, appear twice.
Two years later, Van Dyke would direct the granddaddy of all future disaster pictures, but the opening episode of “Manhattan Melodrama” gave him a good warm-up for the extended shake and bake sequence that takes up most of the last twenty minutes of “San Francisco.” “Manhattan Melodrama” begins aboard the General Slocum, a popular excursion steamer on the East River, on the morning of June 15, 1904. It was on that day that the boat suddenly caught fire, was quickly engulfed in flames, and sank. More than a thousand people died in the disaster, most of them women and children. Van Dyke stages the sequence with a surprising amount of brutality: an overweight middle-aged man yanks the life-jacket off the shoulders of a young woman and roughly throws her down as he leaps to safety. Women and children are trampled under the feet of panicking men. Except for one kindly priest, who offers assistance to two boys who are drowning, nobody acts with dignity or honor, let alone courage. A few minutes later — several years have passed — there’s another crowd scene which turns into a melee on the barest of provocations . . . Through these turmoils, we see the two boys who nearly drowned grow to manhood — bad boy Blackie Gallagher (Mickey Rooney, who grows up to be Clark Gable(!)) with his swindles and his crooked dice, and goody-two-shoes Jim Wade (Jimmy Butler, who grows up to be William Powell) with his nose forever in a book. They have nothing in common, yet they’re inseparable best friends. No explanation is offered for their friendship . . . but after all, it’s Clark Gable and William Powell, so why the hell not? Of course they’re best friends . . . Myrna Loy shows up eventually, as Gable’s long-suffering girl friend. Then she ends up with Powell, which only makes sense. Gable thinks so, too.
The picture is a lot of fun until the last third, when Jim Wade is elected Governor of New York. From that point on, the story begins to darken until it turns fantastically, excruciatingly sententious. Every big studio obeyed the No Crime Shall Go Unpunished commandment of the Production Code, but the moralizing over at Metro was always the most rigorous and gruesome. It would be interesting to know what Dillinger made of “Manhattan Melodrama”: for most of the picture, the charming outlaw, Blackie Gallagher, is zestfully, unapologetically amoral (much like Gable’s Blackie Norton in “San Francisco”). We know Blackie’s a scamp, but he’s loyal to his old pal, even after Jim becomes district attorney and swears to shut Blackie’s illegal operations down. Audiences must have admired Jim Wade, but Blackie was the one who had their heart. Jim loves Blackie, but that won’t stop him from sending his dear old pal to the clink the first chance he gets.
Of course it’s all nonsense, but for most of the picture, it’s played lightly, which keeps it in a Runyonesque fantasy underworld. But once Blackie murders a vicious political blackmailer, the fun drains out of the picture . . . Had “Manhattan Melodrama” been produced at Warner Bros., Blackie would have been sent up the river for a long, long time. His crime would not go unpunished: there would be some yammering about how private citizens must not take the law into their own hands, but some allowance would be made for Blackie’s having done a public service, albeit in an unlawful fashion that must not be condoned. But this was an MGM picture, so Blackie needs must sizzle for his crime — and it’s a melodrama, so it’s his best friend who must insist that the punishment be carried out, just to show how honest he is. Appalling. Wait, there’s more: at the last moment, Jim proves himself a weak sister — he can’t send his friend to sit on Old Sparky.Blackie therefore confesses to a second murder and forces Jim’s hand. So Governor Jim gives the order, and Blackie rides the thunderbolt. Now that justice has been served, Jim goes before the good people of New York and resigns his office. In a ringing oration, he confesses that for a few awful moments, he had put his personal affection for an old friend ahead of a barbaric law and therefore is unfit to govern. What did Dillinger think of this? Well, whatever he thought, he didn’t think it for long . . .
During the Production Code era, no Hollywood studio let criminality go unpunished (though Warner Bros., in 1943, after considerable wrangling, got a special dispensation from the Hays Office for “Watch on the Rhine,” which allowed a noble patriot to escape punishment for murdering a Nazi spy on American soil), but Metro was the only one to produce a series of shorts called “Crime Doesn’t Pay,” which were intended to awe and terrify audiences with stories of the impossibility of committing a crime and escaping detection . . . At Metro, even the good guys went to hell if they so much as entertained a dishonorable notion in the back of their minds. In MGM crime dramas, the criminals were rarely as implacable or nearly so ruthless as the lawmen who hunted them down and punished them. Even in the Andy Hardy pictures, Judge Hardy’s punishments of his son’s trifling, adolescent missteps tended to be of the severity you’d expect to find in the works of Victor Hugo.
“Manhattan Melodrama” would be a lot more fun without the moralizing. Before the crusading kicks in, there is much to like about it; some of the writing (by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz) is nice and punchy. Arthur Caesar won the Oscar that year for Best Writing, Original Story. That’s Hollywood for you: the worst thing about the picture is the story. The screenplay goes a long way to hiding its faults, but the screenplay wasn’t even nominated.