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Paul Vanderkill is extraordinarily wealthy because his grandfather happened to buy farmland in what was to become Midtown Manhattan. The Loveland Dance Hall is one of the tenants of the Vanderkill estates. To reassure his aunt Sophie, Vanderkill visits Loveland to determine whether it is as disreputable as Sophie suspects. There he meets a dime-a-dance girl, Madeleine MacGonagal, who charms him with her quaint proletarian accent. They begin a secret affair, which turns into a secret marriage when pregnancy ensues. When the baby fails to survive, Madeleine decides that since he had married her only for the baby's sake, she should make haste to Mexico to secure a divorce. There she meets Panama Canal Kelly, a former suitor who now owns a silver mine. Her plans for divorce and quick remarriage are complicated when Vanderkill arrives to confront her. Written by
Cameron Majidi <email@example.com>
Based on a play by Preston Sturges, still a diamond in the rough
It isn't easy to track down this movie, but it's worth the effort if you're a Preston Sturges fan and would like to see what his work looked like early on, when he was still in the process of finding his voice. Sturges first made his name as a writer with his smash hit Broadway comedy Strictly Dishonorable in 1929. After that, unfortunately, he produced three flops in a row before leaving New York for Hollywood, where he regained his bearings and ultimately became a master of sophisticated farce comedy -- but for the movies, not the stage. Child of Manhattan was the second of Sturges' three Broadway failures, though according to the various books about the author it wasn't really such a terrible flop: it ran for 87 performances, which wasn't so bad in those days, but the reviews were poor and the stage run didn't make back its investment. After the show closed the play's primary financial backer sold the material to Columbia Pictures, but for convoluted reasons Sturges didn't earn a penny from the movie version. Still, watching the results today we can see that the experience wasn't a total loss for the author, for it's clear that he used this somewhat rickety vehicle to explore themes he would develop more fully later on. His fans will recognize and enjoy the comic passages in the dialog, which suggest a workshop version of Sturges' great screenplays of the '40s, delivered by embryonic versions of the eccentric characters he would later polish to perfection.
Child of Manhattan tells the story of Madeleine McGonegal (Nancy Carroll), a taxi dancer who works at a dime-a-dance club called Loveland, which happens to occupy land owned by one of New York's wealthiest men, Paul Vanderkill (John Boles). Vanderkill is a middle-aged widower and an absentee landlord where the club is concerned, but one evening he visits to see if the place is as wicked as its reputation suggests. He meets Madeleine and finds her strangely innocent and charming, despite the tawdry setting. He romances her, buys her expensive clothes, then sets her up in an apartment as his mistress. You know you're watching a Pre-Code movie when an extramarital sexual relationship is presented as straightforwardly as it is here. Vanderkill buys his new girlfriend lavish gifts in a sequence that must have represented a wish fulfillment fantasy for Depression era viewers, and which contrasts sharply with Madeleine's harsh encounters with her shanty Irish family, who bluntly express their disapproval of her new mode of life.
When Madeleine gets pregnant she's apologetic, which I found confusing, frankly; why was it considered solely HER fault? It's briefly implied that Paul might arrange to have the pregnancy terminated, but instead he offers marriage on condition that it remain a secret. The plot takes several more twists from that point forward, but let it suffice to say that although the tone of the story grows darker, Sturges manages to perk things along with amusing character turns by familiar supporting players Jesse Ralph, Luis Alberni, and Tyler Brooke. Brooke is especially funny in a scene that is the film's comic highlight, Paul and Madeleine's trip to a fancy clothier's on Fifth Avenue called Madame Dulcey's. Brooke, who plays the proprietor of the shop, leaves no doubt about his sexual orientation as he waxes eloquent on the "too too divine" outfits he has in stock, outdoing himself with a description of a $12,000 chinchilla coat as "silver-grey, rippling like a river in the midst of early morn --and so virginal!" (Like I say, it's Pre-Code.) Nancy Carroll gives an excellent performance as Madeleine, at once both comic and poignant, reaching an especially impressive dramatic peak during a hospital sequence. It's a memorable turn, and makes me wonder why her career slowly fizzled out after brief stardom in the early '30s. Leading man John Boles is handsome but somewhat wooden, and too young to play Vanderkill; it's too bad Warner Baxter or Warren William weren't used instead. The most surprising casting choice is that of Nancy's spurned suitor, an Oklahoma native blessed with the unlikely name of Panama Canal Kelly. This role is played by cowboy star Buck Jones with requisite sincerity, but his dialog is full of awkward, pseudo-homespun sayings that would make any genuine Okie wince.
In this early effort Sturges explores the balance of power in man-woman relationships as he would later, with more sophistication and polish, in The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, and Unfaithfully Yours. Fans of those films will want to seek this one out, for although it's not entirely successful this movie is surprisingly enjoyable in its own right, considerably boosted by a sparkling performance by the unjustly neglected Nancy Carroll.
P.S. Since writing this review I've managed to locate a copy of the script for the stage version of Child of Manhattan. The basic plot is the same, and several of the play's scenes are repeated almost verbatim in the movie. In the play we see more of Madeleine's family, but most of that material was dropped from the film, and so was a sequence involving an eccentric room-service waiter. It's a funny scene, but it doesn't advance the story. Over all, I'd say this is a case where the screen version is an improvement over the source material. The movie is more tightly focused and satisfying than the stage play.
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