A friend of mine took the time this week to write a series of Facebook posts spotlighting the things she is most thankful for in her life. Among other things she noted life-long friends who made her who she is thanks to their support through the years. It wasn’t until I read that commentary that I realized why I enjoy the story told in W. S. Van Dyke’s Manhattan Melodrama (1934) so much. That is that the friendship that serves as the catalyst in this story gets to me. It’s the reason why Manhattan Melodrama is my choice for the You Gotta Have Friends Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini.
Manhattan Melodrama tells the story of Edward J.”Blackie” Gallagher and Jim Wade, boys who are orphaned at a young age and remain friends for life despite choosing different paths. One chooses a life of crime and the other a life in law.
Blackie – played by Mickey Rooney as a youth and later by Clark Gable – is a born gambler. Throwing dice and subjecting friends to dirty bets is what Blackie thrives on. He grows up to own an illegal casino, which survives by paying off cops. Blackie doesn’t bat an eye about shooting a guy if he thinks he or his friend have been wronged, he is loyal to a fault and his admiration for Jim knows no bounds. To Blackie Jim represents all that is good and right with the world and despite his own life decisions he needs the steady presence of good. By the way, Gable’s portrayal of Blackie Gallagher happens to be one of my favorites of his performances with both the mean criminal and good-hearted friend served well.
In contrast to Blackie, Jim Wade is studious and straight-laced. Played by Jimmy Butler as a youth and later by William Powell, Jim keeps his nose in the books while his friend works on the crooked scam. Jim becomes a lawyer and later the district attorney of New York. As Jim’s star continues to rise toward a governorship so does his best friend descend further into a life of crime. What never changes is the love Jim has for Blackie, a love that’s tested when the career of the former rests on the life of the latter.
Myrna Loy plays Eleanor Parker, the third lead in Manhattan Melodrama. Eleanor is in love with Blackie when we first meet her, but ends up marrying Jim. More importantly Eleanor is another good egg, a loyal friend to Blackie through good and bad times who only wants him to live his best life. As far as performances go Ms. Loy is as good as always in this. Using her ever so subtle wiles to adjust her performance when playing opposite her two powerful, but different leads, Loy manages to be a different woman with Blackie than she is with Jim. All the while, however, up front and honest, which is why we can so easily understand why she doesn’t cause a rift between the friends even though they both love her.
Manhattan Melodrama has the distinction of being the first of the 14 pairings between Myrna Loy and William Powell, by the way. While I wouldn’t place this among their greatest collaborations, the solid chemistry between these two is palpable from the get-go. In fact, if you’re familiar with these two as Mr. and Mrs. Charles you’ll enjoy their getting to know each other in this movie as a precursor to the great love affair we witness between the debonair sleuth and his classy wife.
There are a couple of true-to-life events associated with Manhattan Melodrama that bear mention before I end this mini tribute to a friendship. The story in the movie spans twenty years beginning in 1904 as the real-life tragedy of the General Slocum plays out. The PS General Slocum was a passenger steamboat that caught fire and sank in the East River on June 15, 1904. More than 1,000 people perished changing New York’s lower East Side forever. In the movie that event irrevocably changes the lives of the protagonists, which kicks off the drama in the piece with solid realism.
And then there’s the Dillinger connection. As many of you know Manhattan Melodrama is the movie that John Dillinger had just seen before he was gunned down in front of the Chicago Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934. Ads for the movie soon boasted, “The Picture that Brought Dillinger to His Fateful Doom!”
Aside from its three hugely popular leads, Manhattan Melodrama can boast a terrific slate of supporting players. These include favorites Leo Carrillo who plays Father Joe, the priest who guides Jim and Blackie since childhood and Nat Pendleton who plays Spud, Blackie’s dull-witted second banana. Both of those are favorites of mine so they get a special shout out, but there are other notables so take a look at the complete cast and crew list here.
Upon the release of Manhattan Melodrama the New York Times reviewer noted that the material is beneath the film’s three stars and there’s a good argument for that. If nothing else one has to recognize it’s not near the best work of either Gable, Powell or Loy. That said, I think it does this movie an injustice to sweep over what it tries to do seriously, which is to pose questions about morality and friendship under extremely difficult circumstances. When one is forced to choose between love, loyalty and a life’s worth of dreams…well, who says where the line between right and wrong is to be drawn? Manhattan Melodrama blurs those lines memorably. It gives the criminal an unwavering sense of loyalty and a notably soft heart while the one on the right path is faced with the ultimate moral choice forcing us to question his motives. In the end, however, it is the friendship that’s given great honor even if the friends fail.
Remember, You Gotta Have Friends so visit the blogathon by clicking on the following image: