Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Manhattan Melodrama is a 1934 American pre-Code crime melodrama film, produced by MGM, directed by W. S. Van Dyke, and starring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. The movie also provided one of the earliest film roles for Mickey Rooney, who played Gable’s character as a child. The film is based on a story by Arthur Caesar, who won the Academy Award for Best Story for this film.


Notorious criminal John Dillinger attended a showing of the film at Chicago‘s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934. After leaving the theater, he was shot to death by federal agents. Myrna Loy was among those who expressed distaste at the studio’s willingness to exploit this event for the financial benefit of the film. Scenes from Manhattan Melodrama, in addition to Dillinger’s death, are depicted in the 2009 film Public Enemies..


On June 15, 1904, the ship General Slocum catches fire and sinks in New York’s East River. Two boys, Blackie Gallagher (Mickey Rooney) and Jim Wade (Jimmy Butler), are rescued by a priest, Father Joe (Leo Carrillo), but are orphaned by the disaster. They are taken in by another survivor, Poppa Rosen (George Sidney), who lost his young son in the sinking. The boys live with Poppa Rosen for a short while; then Rosen, a Russian Jew, is trampled to death by a policeman’s horse after he heckles Leon Trotsky at a Communist rally and a melee breaks out.


The boys remain close friends, though their lives diverge. Studious from the very beginning, Jim (played as an adult by William Powell) gets his law degree and eventually becomes the assistant district attorney. Blackie is a cheerful, happy-go-lucky kid who loves to throw dice and trick other kids out of their money; he (Clark Gable) becomes the owner of a fancy, if illegal, casino. Though his casino is regularly “raided”, the cops have been paid off and business resumes immediately after they leave. Blackie’s girlfriend Eleanor (Myrna Loy) loves him, but pleads with him in vain to marry her and give up his dangerous life.


Jim is appointed district attorney. Blackie, always a supporter and admirer of Jim’s (knowing he is incorruptible), arranges to meet him for a celebration, but something comes up, and he sends Eleanor to keep Jim company at the Cotton Club until he can join them. Jim and Eleanor talk the night away. Afterward, she gives Blackie one last chance to marry her and settle down. When Blackie refuses, she leaves him.


Months later, Jim and Eleanor meet by chance and start keeping company (she informs Jim that she has not seen Blackie for months). Meanwhile, Blackie kills Manny Arnold (Noel Madison) for not paying his gambling debts. Jim summons him to his office, where he tells him that he and Eleanor are going to get married. Blackie is sincerely happy for both of them. Jim also informs his friend that he is a suspect in the Arnold murder. However, there is no real evidence, so the crime goes unsolved.


Though Jim invites him to be the best man at his wedding, Blackie discreetly turns him down. After returning from his honeymoon, Jim runs for governor of New York. Snow (Thomas E. Jackson), who had been his chief assistant until Jim fired him for corruption, threatens to tell reporters that Jim covered up for Blackie in the Arnold case. Though untrue, this would lose Jim a close race for the governorship. By chance, Blackie and Eleanor meet at the horse track. Eleanor tells Blackie about Snow. Blackie shoots Snow dead in a washroom of Madison Square Garden during a hockey game. A beggar who pretends to be blind sees him leave the scene of the crime. Jim has no choice but to prosecute Blackie. Blackie is convicted and sentenced to death.

Jim wins the election, partly because the public knows that Jim is so honest he prosecuted his childhood friend. Eleanor tries to get him to commute the sentence to life imprisonment, revealing Blackie’s selfless motive for killing Snow, but that only makes things worse. When Jim remains steadfast, Eleanor leaves him. At the last moment, Jim hurries to Sing Sing Prison and meets Blackie, together with Father Joe, who is now the prison’s chaplain. Jim finally offers to commute the death sentence, but Blackie turns him down. Father Joe leads Blackie to the electric chair while saying last rites.

A few days later Jim calls a special joint session of the New York Legislature. He reveals how the murder helped him win the election and how at the end he compromised his principles and was willing to commute his friend’s sentence. He then tenders his resignation. When he leaves, Eleanor is waiting for him. She tells him that she was wrong about him, and they leave together to start a new life.


Filmed relatively quickly and with a modest budget, it was expected to return a profit but not to capture the imagination of the public. The picture’s smash hit success surprised the studio and made major stars of screen veterans Myrna Loy and William Powell in the first of their fourteen screen pairings, and also solidified the success of MGM’s most popular male lead, Clark Gable. The film has a Harlem nightclub scene featuring Shirley Ross singing a song called “The Bad in Every Man.” After the film’s release, the lyrics were rewritten by Lorenz Hart as the retitled “Blue Moon“.


According to MGM records the film earned $735,000 in the US and Canada and $498,000 elsewhere resulting in a profit of $415,000.The crowd at Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934, shortly after John Dillinger was killed there by law enforcement officers.

John Dillinger Died For This Film

Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
3 November 2006
** This review may contain spoilers **

Manhattan Melodrama is a trivial pursuit game all in itself. Consider the number of things it’s known for. 1. The only teaming of Clark Gable and William Powell. 2. The first teaming of William Powell and Myrna Loy. 3. A popular song that didn’t get popular from this film. 4. A famous gangster being shot to death because he wanted to see this. 5. William Powell’s first film under the MGM banner. And I’m sure I might think of a few more later on.

It’s a very dated piece, but made enjoyable because of the skill of its three leads. Two kids, Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Butler who later become Clark Gable and William Powell, are left orphaned as a result of the famous General Slocum disaster in the first years of the 20th century. One works hard, studies hard, and becomes a successful lawyer and prosecutor. The other works hard becoming the kind of man the first one makes a living prosecuting.

Gable’s the gambler and his girl friend is Myrna Loy. Gable is his usual charming self, but with a streak of toughness and nobody crosses him. He runs into Powell at the famous Dempsey-Firpo fight and later Powell runs into Loy. She gets a taste of respectability through him and she likes it. Gable would probably be sore about losing her to anyone, but Powell.09959_still_manhattan_melodrama

Powell rises to become governor of the state and Gable gets to the top of his profession, the death house at Sing Sing. This is where the film truly turns into melodrama. Powell is a person of exacting moral standards a bit too exacting for my taste. I can’t see how today’s audience could accept the course of action he pursues, for just being TEMPTED to commute Gable’s sentence.

Manhattan Melodrama features a song sung by Shirley Ross, The Bad in Every Man. It’s a familiar tune, but didn’t do anything for the film. Composer Richard Rodgers had faith in his melody however and persuaded his partner Lorenz Hart to try another lyric. He did and Connee Boswell recorded it and made Blue Moon a big hit.

Of course the legend of the film is that John Dillinger wanted so much to see the film that he came out of hiding. As soon as it was over he got betrayed by one of the women accompanying him and the FBI gunned him down in the streets of Chicago. Manhattan Melodrama entered into American folklore after that.

I’m not sure today’s audience would feel this film was worth even John Dillinger’s life. If he wanted to see Gable, Powell, and Loy so badly, he should have waited later in the year for It Happened One Night or The Thin Man.


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