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For a brief period in cinema history, the anthology film was all the rage. Movies like "Flesh and Fantasy" and "O. Henry's Full House" used large casts to tell several interlocked stories. "Tales of Manhattan" is the best of the anthology films, following the adventures of a tuxedo's tailcoat as it passes through the hands of several diverse people in New York. There's Charles Boyer, the Broadway actor who is carrying on an illicit affair; there's Henry Fonda who is helping Cesar Romero get out of a sticky situation with his fiancee Ginger Rogers (along the way, Fonda and Rogers fall in love and have one of the best-written love scenes to ever hit the screen); there's Charles Laughton who seeks one shot at glory conducting an orchestra; and, in the most touching and rewarding of the tales, there's Edward G. Robinson, a down-and-out bum who has been invited to his college reunion. If you're looking for an all-star cast and a first-rate cinema experience, "Tales of Manhattan" is the one. I consistently put this movie at the top of my all-time favorites.
The movements of an accursed tail coat about the Big City, and the
lives of those who use it, becomes part of the TALES OF MANHATTAN.
Fox Studios and director Julien Duvivier fashioned this most enjoyable film. The idea of the tail coat never becomes silly or gets in the way of the plot, which doles out equal amounts of irony, suspense, pathos & comedy. The all-star cast gives worthy performances which keeps the viewer's attention right to the very end.
SEQUENCE ONE An actor and his lover (Charles Boyer & Rita Hayworth) are confronted by her quietly sadistic husband (Thomas Mitchell). Eugene Palette plays Boyer's loyal valet. An unbilled Robert Greig appears as the corpulent creator of the elegant tail coat.
Most of the action in this sequence takes place at an estate outside of Manhattan.
SEQUENCE TWO A shy fellow (Henry Fonda) tries to help his friend (Cesar Romero) out of a jam with his suspicious fiancé (Ginger Rogers). Gail Patrick appears as Rogers' nosy gal pal; Roland Young plays Romero's protective valet.
A quite different tail coat is the center of the plot here, which can become a bit confusing.
SEQUENCE THREE A poor composer (Charles Laughton) finally has the opportunity to conduct his magnum opus at a concert. Radiant Elsa Lanchester appears as Laughton's adoring wife. Christian Rub plays a friendly cellist, while Victor Francen is very believable as the noble Bellini. An unbilled Dewey Robinson plays the bullying owner of a small café.
Laughton is magnificent, as is to be expected, giving another master class in how to turn a small part into something very special.
After being spiffed-up and accoutered in the tail coat, a skid row bum (Edward G. Robinson) makes a poignant appearance at the Waldorf-Astoria for his college's 25-year class reunion. James Gleason plays the kindly parson who runs a rescue mission; silent screen star Mae Marsh appears as his sweet-natured wife. Harry Davenport appears as a wise old professor; George Sanders snarls his way through his role as Robinson's old antagonist.
Robinson & Gleason do some impressive acting, making their characters come alive.
An eccentric professor (W.C. Fields) gives a temperance lecture to a gathering of high society swells, not knowing that the coconut milk has been liberally spiked. Phil Silvers shines in the brief role of the secondhand dealer who sells the tail coat to Fields. The monumental Margaret Dumont enlivens her scant appearance as the matron sponsoring Fields.
Before the film's initial release, there was consternation from some of the other major stars concerning Fields' large salary. The clamor grew to the point that Fox weaseled out by simply excising the sequence entirely. Rumor was allowed to grow that the removal was due to an inept performance from Fields. This is tragic, in that it was to be one of Fields' final appearances on film and he is hilarious, as is Phil Silvers (who has the distinction of being practically the only person in film history who ever managed to both outtalk & hoodwink Fields). After more than half a century, this sequence has finally been reunited with the rest of the film--the only problem, for anyone that cares, being a slight one of continuity, as it is not shown how the tail coat returns to the Santelli Bros. shop in time for the burglary that opens Sequence Six.
You have to be quick to read the painted sign on the Santelli Bros. window: WE TAKE AN ABSOLUTE LOSS ON EVERY TRANSACTION WE'RE ECCENTRIC
In the film's most photographically stylish sequence, a shanty town full of impoverished farmers rejoice when the tail coat--and its pocket full of cash--literally falls out of the sky. J. Carrol Naish plays the airborne robber who loses the coat. Paul Robeson & Ethel Waters are the couple who find it. Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson is their gently conniving preacher; an almost unrecognizable Clarence Muse appears as a greedy old grandfather. Members of the wonderful Hall Johnson Choir lift their voices as the jubilant townsfolk.
Once again, the action in this sequence mostly occurs far from Manhattan. The short song at the very end is the only occasion Robeson and The Hall Johnson Choir ever sang together on film--and, unbelievably, Miss Waters isn't allowed to sing at all.
Director Duvivier and stars Boyer, Robinson & Mitchell would travel to Universal Studios to make another sequential film, FLESH AND FANTASY, in 1943.
This movie is made up of many vignettes featuring many capable
stars--all centering on the same second-hand tuxedo as it is passed on
from one owner to the next. I won't try to elaborate on all the
segments, as one of the previous reviewers did a very thorough job of
describing them. However, they are all extremely well-crafted and
engaging. I would also agree that stylistically, this film is
reminiscent of IF I HAD A MILLION, though the stories in Tales of
Manhattan are generally less funny but more polished.
The one portion of the movie that really stood out for me was the one featuring the down-and-out Edward G. Robinson attending his college class reunion (from Harvard, I think). He goes in a tattered old hand-me-down tux hoping to fool his old chums into thinking he's made it in life. You really feel for the guy in his plight--especially when a mean-spirited member of the class seeks to expose the ruse! So give it a try, why don't ya?
This is a clever frame story that follows the "experiences" of a formal
tails jacket from the upper crust of the idle rich down through all levels
of society. The all-star cast give great performances in five well-written
The film's theme has to do with the American Dream and what it really means. To some it is just social pretense and money. But to others, it is the right to express one's own art, to retain one's dignity, and to live free from fear of poverty.
This is a charming and moving film. Don't pass it up.
This is one of the better multiple story movies from Hollywood, though it
demonstrates the limitations of the genre as well as it's strengths. At
it's best, this kind of movie manages to integrate the stories in some way
(think of the plot of GRAND HOTEL or DINNER AT EIGHT, where the problems of
different groups of characters manage to intertwine in a confined space -
another example (though a non-Hollywood film) is the British horror classic
DEAD OF NIGHT). Some of the anthology films based on the stories of a
particular writer (O'Henry or Somerset Maugham for instance) don't have to
blend the stories because of the style of the writer, which unifies the
different stories. But then you have a well made film like this one, with a
good journeyman director (Jules Duvivier, who had previously done the
similar FLESH AND FANTASY), and an all name cast to die for. This is the
only film that had Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Roland
Young, Eugene Pallette, Henry Fonda, Ginger Rogers, Cesar Romero, Charles
Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Victor Francken, Edward G. Robinson, James
Gleason, George Sanders, W.C.Fields, Margaret Dumont, Phil Silvers, J.
Carroll Naish, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson, and Clarence Muse
in one picture - even though they were in different stories.
But the running thread is weak. It is the passing of a "monkey suit" back and forth from one leading character to another - a pun on "tales" and "tails" (which is what such an elaborate tuxedo is called). That the actors who get the "tails" (Boyer, Romero, Laughton, Robinson, Fields) do not fit the same size clothes does not seem to be taken into consideration. Interestingly, Laughton did lose weight for the role, but he still is burlier than Boyer or Romero. As for the final recipients of the "tails" (Naish and Robeson), the former is a crook who wears the suit briefly while pulling off the robbery of a casino, and then uses the suit as a container for the stolen cash, and the latter never cares about the coat, but is mostly concerned with the cash that is dropped down inside it. The "tails" end up being used on a scarecrow on Robeson's farm.
It is a silly device to use, and the ending (an all African-American episode about how a rural town of African - Americans finds the "tails" containing stolen cash (dropped from a plane by J. Carroll Naish). As the characters in the other stories were all whites in the upper classes (even the now impoverished Robinson was once a successful attorney, and Fields is a social climber/ fake lecturer on the dangers of drinking. The Blacks in the film are definitely in the lower classes. What is unique about their segment is that the money that Robeson finds is not kept (as he would have done) by him but split into shares for every Black person in the town - a "Marxist" kind of solution that fits with Robeson's political views in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Dramatically the two best stories are the ones about Robinson pretending that he is not an impoverished bum, when attending the reunion of his college classmates (one of whom, Sanders, is an old rival who suspects the truth), and the first story about the purchase of the cursed set of "tails" by Boyer, and his subsequent discovery of the unworthiness of his lover Hayworth (who is left humiliated with her husband Mitchell). The continental flavor of Boyer's sequence may be the portion of the film based on a script of Ferenc Molnar's. The Laughton sequence is okay, but nothing to rave about (although the role of Victor Francken as the tempermental symphony conductor - who helps Laughton - is a clone of "Toscanini", down to the name of the character - "ARTURO Belini". The weakest is the Fonda - Rogers - Romero sequence, which should have been better (and the fine screen attraction of Fonda and Rogers makes one wish that they made a complete film together - tragically this segment was their only film together). The Naish sequence is too brief to be judged well, though Naish does exude menace as a thief.
That leaves the famous "lost" sequence of Fields and Margaret Dumont. It really was never fully lost - for many years film societies showing "Fields" specialties would show that sequence like a short. But it is not complete as it survives. How did Margaret Dumont get her head stuck in the chandelier that she is wearing? That is not in the final sequence that the video version of the movie includes.
It was their second movie together. Fields own NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK included his romancing Dumont (as the wealthy Mrs. Hemoglobin) despite the rivalry of Leon Erroll. That film was made in 1941, and perhaps Fields suggested reteaming with Dumont. She is a good foil for him, but nothing else (and nobody else) at the lecture is worthy of Fields' typical shafts of wit. The only other to stand out (at all) in the lecture portion of the sequence is Chester Clute, the alcoholic husband of Dumont, and he does not confront Fields.
But earlier in the sequence is a worthy adversary - in fact the only worthy adversary Fields ever had in a congame confrontation: Phil Silvers. As this was one of Fields last movies, it was one of Silvers first films. Television's future "Sergeant Bilko" had begun to perfect his style of flim-flam and fast talk, and it is a treat of sorts watching him con Fields into paying for the "tails" by putting a fake wad of bills in the coat (so Fields thinks he's getting the better of Silvers in the deal). A bit like watching the passing of a crown between champions of their days.
This movie leads us through a wide range of emotional interests -- good,
bad, and indifferent -- all based on the odyssey of a tuxedo coat (or
'tails') which also seems to carry with it a superstitious jinx of sorts.
At the start the first tale runs the gamut of intense romantic intrigue,
with a suave Charles Boyer drawn to beautiful Rita Hayworth, and Thomas
Mitchell as the husband with a few ulterior motives of his own in mind. I
think the cinematography by Joseph Walker is absolutely superb in this
episode. Those closeups are priceless.
I was surprised to see the episode with W C Fields in it and checked IMDb to note that this was included in a restored version, which is nice. Fields and his "liquid edification" are seldom far apart, and here it appears in the guise of cocoanut milk, with a few additives as you can guess, which he highly recommends for (?) I forget what it was.
Another tale is of Edward G. Robinson who gives an excellent performance as the down-and-outer dressed in the tux for a special gathering of old school chums. It has fine emotional content which I consider the dramatic highlight of the film and gives one much to think about afterwards. I might add here that this movie brings to mind some of Somerset Maugham's short stories that are on film as well.
The final Manhattan tale, starring Paul Robeson and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, has dialogue that is both amusing and touching at times. Ethel Waters, the matronly Esther, shows them a firm hand in directing them to do what's right. I always like to see Paul Robeson and hear his great voice. His singing ends their episode on a note of what freedom means to so many, and really brings the film to a fine conclusion. Great stuff!
It is a fascinating movie to experience and one of the best of its kind in my opinion.
This is a forgotten classic. It's funny, moving and old fashioned. Add the fact that it's chock full of stars and you have one fun movie to watch. Edward G. Robinson is a standout as a bum trying to make good. If you like old movies, try to hunt this one down.
Another variation of the same theme was used by writer Charles
Beaumont on Rod Serling's TWILIGHT ZONE. That story was
entitled DEAD MAN'S SHOES. In the TV drama, the shoes are
taken by a derelict and his life becomes that of the deceased man
from whom he took them.
The only problem with this film is that it was made in 1942, when
the American film studios were asked to show support for
Communist Russia. The concluding sermon by Paul Robeson is
more Marxist then Pro-Soviet, but its message will still haunt those
who were blacklisted for their support of Royalist Spain, or made
the mistake of attending Communist meetings in the early 1940's.
I still rank it as a must see, and I hope that the VHS edition will
become available as a DVD.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Tales of Manhattan follows the story of a formal cutaway coat as it
passes from owner to owner and the consequences to all that come into
possession. The original owner, Charles Boyer, is an actor having an
affair with Rita Hayworth and husband Thomas Mitchell finds out about
it with some dire consequences for Boyer.
Is it cursed, well the stories of the various owners would range the gamut of circumstances. All the episodes are pretty good quality although if Tales of Manhattan were made today the last one about the southern sharecroppers with Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters and a whole bunch of black players would be done a lot different now.
For years a story with W.C. Fields and Margaret Dumont with Phil Silvers in it was cut from the original release. It's now restored to Tales of Manhattan and I'm not sure why it was done. It's a very funny episode in which Fields gets the cutaway to use in delivering a temperance lecture to Margaret Dumont and friends. Ms.Dumont proves to be just as good a foil for Fields as she was for the Brothers Marx. Especially when the coconut milk being served is spiked with some spirits.
Fields, one of the celebrated inebriates of show business, reveled in his identity and that temperance lecture was a routine he did going back to his vaudeville days. We should be thankful it was preserved and restored.
The other comic episode involved Cesar Romero palming off the tails on Henry Fonda who is to be best man at his wedding to Ginger Rogers. He put a love letter from another woman in the pocket and Rogers finds it. Romero has Fonda claim the cutaway was his and the contents thereof. It works only too well.
Edward G. Robinson has a nice episode as a disbarred lawyer living in a mission shelter who uses the cutaway to go to a class reunion where he and his former classmates get a lesson in humility.
The other episode concerns how the tails nearly undid Charles Laughton's big break in the music world. Elsa Lanchester who is playing his wife here, buys the tails for her husband who is a piano player in a honky tonk dive. But Laughton is a serious composer and with a certain amount of wile and chutzpah he gets to see an Arturo Toscanini type conductor, Victor Francen. Francen loves Laughton's concerto and arranges to have him conduct it.
Sad to say that the cutaway is to small and starts tearing as the composer is conducting. The gales of laughter threaten to steal Laughton's big moment, but Francen who was a pretty egocentric character steps up and finishes the concerto and the applause is for him and Laughton.
This particular episode had minimal dialog, but Charles Laughton's closeups run the whole gamut of emotions from resignation to triumph to despair and back to triumph again.
The film is from French director Julian Duvivier who was in exile in America while the Nazis occupied his country. It probably could be remade, but formal cutaways just aren't worn any more.
I've never seen this film in a TV listing that I can remember, which is amazing considering the magnitude of its cast. Probably the best segment is the opening one, with Rita Hayworth (at her most glamorous), Charles Boyer (who is a bit too dramatic), & the ever effective Thomas Mitchell. The Ginger Rogers/ Henry Fonda/ Cesar Romero segment is OK. The Charles Laughton/ Elsa Lanchester segment is pretty good. Although I'm a big WC Fields fan, this was not his best work, although it had a couple of very funny moments (I'm surprised that I've never seen clips from this film on any of the bios about him). The Edward G. Robinson/ George Sanders segment was a bit too intellectual, but well acted (& it was great seeing a young Robinson do scenes I've never seen before). The film ended strongly with an all-black segment featuring Paul Robeson/ Ethel Waters/ Rochester, with the great Clarence Muse in a small part. As an extra treat, this last segment contained a song by Robeson, but the sets for this segment were Broadway stage-like, & not realistic looking like the rest of the film (compare the painted back-drops here with the realism of the Robinson alleyway in an earlier segment). Even if you don't enjoy the story segments, anyone who likes great actors/actresses of the 1930s - 1940s must see this film. I rate it 8/10.
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