Somewhat surprisingly, William Powell and Myrna Loy‘s performances together were not always in the comedic genre that suited them so well. Both were quite competent dramatic actors and Manhattan Melodrama is a great example of that. It also happened to be their first pairing, although you cannot tell because they seem so comfortable together.
The film opens on one tragedy after another for young boys Blackie (played by Mickey Rooney) and Jim. A boat catches fire resulting in the death of both their mothers and a friend. When the friend’s father takes the boys in, he is shortly thereafter trampled in a riot. The boys are raised by Father Joe and while Blackie perfects his gambling and grifting talents, Jim studies to become a lawyer. Jump to 1930s New York as Jim is elected District Attorney and Blackie is running a successful illegal gambling joint with the police tucked neatly in his pocket. It was pretty easy to predict between Clark Gable and Powell which would play the racketeer and which the upstanding politician. No casting against type here, except maybe initially for Loy. Her Eleanor character begins as the gal on Blackie’s arm, but after meeting Jim on election night, she decides she would prefer a legitimate life and relationship and later hooks up with the DA, quickly becoming his wife. Frankly, it was obvious she was better suited for Powell’s type of man anyway. Loy has never really given the hoodlum’s dame sort of impression.
The boyhood friendship between Jim and Blackie persists but the two do not see each other often and both are fully aware of the other’s morals. Unfortunately, the breakup with Eleanor has led Blackie to take up murder and Jim must take the case as his first as DA. Although “everyone” knows Blackie is the culprit, the hood provides his lawyer friend with a false piece of evidence that convinces Jim his pal could not be the killer. Matters are further complicated when Jim’s colleague threatens to let loose some “scandalous” information about the now gubernatorial candidate just before yet another Election Day. Blackie involves himself and kills the man but leaves a witness. Still-DA Jim prosecutes the case and sends his best friend toward the electric chair. Once he becomes mayor, he is given the opportunity to commute Blackie’s sentence to life’s imprisonment and so begins an overwhelming struggle.
I love the premise of Manhattan Melodrama. The concept of two friends growing up in different directions is not a new one, but the set-up between the good and evil roles allows for complicated circumstances. This easily could have been a story about the corruption of a once-honest politician in an effort to protect his shady friend, but instead Jim is presented as possibly the most honest individual that ever lived. He takes his duty as prosecutor and governor above his personal feelings. Even when Eleanor tells him she will leave if he does not offer Blackie clemency, he does not immediately resign to that course. In fact once he learns why Blackie killed the blackmailer, he is even more convinced his pal must die because “the state now has the motive” for the murder, further proving the man’s guilt. Jim’s morals go to extremes at the very conclusion of the film that I do not think would ever be seen in politics today, but I won’t give away the story.
I gave Manhattan Melodrama the middle-of-the-road rating because although the story is an interesting one, the performances did not overwhelm me and I would not go running to see it again. Powell’s character says at the end of the movie that he will try a new career. Perhaps he meant the couple should change their names to Nick and Nora Charles and pursue some detective work…but I’m just supposing.
- Manhattan Melodrama is set for 9:30 a.m. ET Feb. 1 on TCM.