MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934), which starred Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Although the tale of adoptive brothers ending up on opposite sides of the law is familiar, a strong cast and well-paced script make EAST OF THE RIVER worthwhile on its own terms.
Joe Lorenzo (John Garfield) returns to New York after a three-year stint in San Quentin, which he's kept a secret from his mother (Marjorie Rambeau). Joe can't seem to mend his ways, but his cynical girlfriend Laurie (Brenda Marshall) is gradually transformed by the loving attention of Joe's mama and adopted brother Nick (William Lundigan), who's just graduated from college and is Mama's pride and joy. Relationships are permanently realigned when Joe gets into trouble once more and has to go on the lam.
I found this snappy 74-minute drama quite enjoyable. I liked the entire cast, but found Brenda Marshall particularly noteworthy as Laurie. In one of her better performances, she starts out as Joe's jaded, slang-talking girlfriend who's been around the block a time or two and is wary of his "respectable" family members.
There's a great little scene where Laurie watches as self-centered Joe asks his mother and the waiter (George Tobias) in the family restaurant to do various things for him while the dining room is packed with customers. Disgusted, Laurie tells Joe off, then rolls up her bathrobe sleeves and gets to work washing the restaurant dishes.
Laurie gradually comes to realize she'd rather work hard, earn a living, and lead a respectable life than have Joe's devil-may-care lifestyle. Given the movie's fast pace, Marshall doesn't have much time to make this character transition, and it's to her credit that it's believable.
There's another scene near the end of the film which is worth the price of admission, as Joe's mama painfully reveals that she knows a lot more about Joe than she's been letting on -- and that she'll do absolutely anything to make sure that Nick and Laurie have the happiness Joe might deny them. It's a powerful scene, beautifully acted by Rambeau and Garfield, and once again the changes this quickly forces in Garfield's shocked character seem authentic.
I've always been a William Lundigan fan, and he's completely charming as hardworking Nick. It's a rather interesting bit of movie trivia that he ended up playing the same role twice within two years! In 1942 MGM remade its property MANHATTAN MELODRAMA as a "B" movie, NORTHWEST RANGERS (1942). Lundigan played the good brother, a Mountie, with James Craig as the bad brother and Jack Holt as their adoptive father.
Having seen George Tobias playing a cold-blooded killer in last night's SOUTHSIDE 1-1000 (1950), EAST OF THE RIVER was a peek at his versatility, here playing a good-natured Italian man. Ironically I think his character in EAST OF THE RIVER might have been meant to be older than the character he played a decade later in SOUTHSIDE 1-1000!
EAST OF THE RIVER's cast also includes Moroni Olsen, Jack LaRue, Douglas Fowley, Paul Guilfoyle, Russell Hicks, and Frank Faylen.
The movie was directed by Alfred E. Green and photographed in black and white by Sid Hickox.
EAST OF THE RIVER has not had a release on DVD or VHS. Hopefully it will be out at some future date from the Warner Archive.
It was recently shown on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available on the TCM website.
July 2014 Update: This film is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive; my review is here.