Orphans Edward "Blackie" Gallagher and Jim Wade are lifelong friends who take different paths in life. Blackie thrives on gambling and grows up to be a hard-nosed racketeer. Bookworm Wade becomes a D.A. vying for the Governorship. When Blackie's girlfriend Eleanor leaves him and marries the more down to earth Wade, Blackie harbors no resentment. In fact, their friendship is so strong that Blackie murders an attorney threatening to derail Wade's bid to become Governor. The morally straight Wade's last job as D.A. is to convict his friend of the murder, and send him to the electric chair. After he becomes Governor, Wade has the authority to commute Blackie's death sentence-- a decision that pits his high moral ethics against a lifelong friendship. Written by
Gary Jackson <email@example.com>
When Myrna Loy learned that John Dillinger was shot after seeing this film, her reaction (according to reports) was "Oh, that poor man." See more »
When having breakfast in bed, the phone on the nightstand rings, and Eleanor moves to answer it. It the next shot her hands are not in the same position, and she has to reach out again to answer the phone. See more »
"If I can't live the way I want, then at least let me die the way I want"
From what I can gather, two main social factors led to the popularity of the gangster genre in the 1930s. The first, and most obvious, was the prevalence of criminals like Al Capone and John Dillinger, who were glorified by the national media. The second was the Great Depression, and how it impacted the traditional notion of the "American dream." Families regardless of character or social standing were torn apart amid the economic collapse, and no doubt many ordinary citizens contemplated crime as the route to happiness.
Films like 'Manhattan Melodrama (1934)' and 'Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)' place great emphasis on the thin line between "good" and "bad" characters, and often the central criminals are lamented as victims of circumstance. For example, James Cagney's Rocky Sullivan and Pat O'Brien's virtuous priest were separated by a matter of metres when the former is condemned to a life of crime. Circumstance, too, drives the fates of the characters in 'Manhattan Melodrama.' As children, both Jim Wade (William Powell) and Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) lose their parents in the burning of the steamship SS General Slocum, a true-life disaster caused by gross negligence that cost over 1000 lives. Each child responds to this injustice in their own way: Blackie rebels against the judicial system that betrayed him, whereas Jim enters law in a bid to reform it.
Whereas Warner Bros. was responsible for most of the decade's gangster films, 'Manhattan Melodrama' was produced by M-G-M, and helmed by W.S. Van Dyke (director of the first four 'Thin Man' films), whose decidedly non-gritty aesthetic style at first seems at odds with the required mood. However, it would be misleading to compare the film with the likes of 'Little Caesar (1931)' and 'Scarface (1932).' Firstly, Hollywood was now working, for the first time, under the active supervision of the Production Code Administration. Also, the studio's intentions for the film were undoubtedly geared towards a higher-brow audience, further suggested by the unintimidating, woman-friendly title.
Gable's "Blackie" Gallagher is not a paranoid hot-head like Tony Camonte or Rocky Sullivan, and, indeed, remains oddly passive throughout the film. When he does commit murders, it seems to be merely out of an obligation to genre conventions. Even when old friend Jim Wade dramatically demands his execution, Blackie looks on with a detached, amused smirk, doodling idly from the defendant's chair; the expected outburst of emotion never arrives. Instead, the story's central conflict unfolds entirely within the righteous Wade, who must choose between his personal and professional allegiances.
'Manhattan Melodrama' has achieved some notoriety for being the film that killed John Dillinger, so to speak. The fugitive bank-robber was gunned down by FBI agents as he emerged from a screening at Chicago's Biograph Theatre on July 22, 1934 (clips from the film were recently featured in Michael Mann's 'Public Enemies (2009)'). These curious circumstances can't help but make one ponder what Dillinger had thought of 'Manhattan Melodrama.' Had he, like Blackie, accepted that his time was coming to an end? Did he welcome death over a lifetime of legal persecution? At the very least, he checked out having experienced a very fine addition to the genre.
3 of 4 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?