The friendship between two orphans endures even though they grow up on opposite sides of the law and fall in love with the same woman.The friendship between two orphans endures even though they grow up on opposite sides of the law and fall in love with the same woman.The friendship between two orphans endures even though they grow up on opposite sides of the law and fall in love with the same woman.
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.
- Nov 13, 2009