Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Manhattan Melodrama (1934) at the Egyptian Theatre

It was a dark and stormy day here in Southern California, but I slogged across the rainy freeways in order to spend a most enjoyable afternoon celebrating Myrna Loy at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre.

Today's movie was MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, a pre-Code in which Loy costarred with William Powell and Clark Gable. This was the first of 14 films teaming Loy and Powell.

I was pleased to have the new biography of Loy signed by author Emily Leider, who gave a slideshow talk on Loy preceding the film. The talk focused on Loy's early years, including her discovery at the Egyptian Theatre. (How nifty is that?! Rudolph Valentino watched her dancing in the very location where we were sitting.) The talk was cohosted by the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, and in keeping with that theme, the second half of the talk focused on some of the sets and costumes in Loy's films.

I thought the hour-long talk could have used a sprightlier pace and omitted some extraneous information about other personalities, but on the whole I found it enjoyable, with some very interesting photographs, and it made an excellent lead-in to the film.

A future talk by Leider, scheduled for the Lasky-DeMille Barn on December 14th, will focus more on Loy's work with William Powell; it will include a screening of one of my very favorite Powell-Loy films, LIBELED LADY (1936). That event sounds like a wonderful opportunity, particularly for anyone who wasn't able to be at the Egyptian today.

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was a staple of the film library shown on KTTV Ch. 11 in Los Angeles when I was growing up, and I don't think I'd seen the film in its entirety since I watched it on that station as a teenager. I found this 90-minute film very engrossing, and it was certainly aptly titled.

The movie was released just as the pre-Code era was coming to an end, and this is apparent in various ways, including some bits of racy dialogue and disturbing shots during the fire sequence which opens the movie. The first ten minutes or so of the film depict the tragedies which befall two young boys from the East Side, Blackie (Mickey Rooney) and Jim (Jimmy Butler).

Blackie and Jim grow up and are then played by Clark Gable and William Powell; only in the movies could Mickey Rooney turn into Clark Gable! Blackie owns a gambling operation and works on the shady side of the law, while Jim is a District Attorney on the way to being governor of New York.

Myrna Loy plays Eleanor, the beautiful woman in their lives. Eleanor is Blackie's mistress, but when she begins to yearn for a more settled life and marriage, not to mention more respect, her affections switch to Jim. Blackie, meanwhile, slides deeper and deeper into a life of crime.

I found the childhood section of the film alternating between being excessively violent and excessively hokey, but from the point the characters become adults, the film is quite absorbing. Arthur Caesar won the Oscar for Best Original Story, and the literate script was by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Oliver H.P. Garrett.

The film is buoyed by the trio of lead performances, as all three actors exude star power. Gable has the showiest part, and near the conclusion perhaps the best line in the movie, but I left the film especially impressed by Powell's performance. It's a difficult part, as his character is more emotionally restrained and dignified, yet Powell manages to convey the deep-seated emotions percolating underneath his reserved exterior. Loy is glamour personified, and it's a very likeable performance. She does an excellent job portraying Eleanor's shifts in attitude, in a fairly limited amount of time.

The supporting cast includes Leo Carrillo, Nat Pendleton, Isabel Jewell, Samuel S. Hinds, Muriel Evans, and Frank Conroy.

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who also directed Powell and Loy in THE THIN MAN (1934). According to IMDb, George Cukor also did uncredited work on the movie. The black and white cinematography was by James Wong Howe.

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was the movie, incidentally, that John Dillinger saw just before he was gunned down in July 1934.

In 1942 MGM remade the film as a "B" movie, NORTHWEST RANGERS, transplanting the plot to a Western setting. I reviewed it earlier this year. James Craig and William Lundigan played a gambler and a Mountie, respectively, in rough reworkings of the Gable and Powell roles; the leading lady was Patricia Dane.

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA is available on DVD in the five-film Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection. The DVD can be rented from Netflix. It also had a release on VHS. (August 2017 Update: MANHATTAN MELODRAMA has now been reissued on DVD by the Warner Archive.)

The film can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is here.

As a side note, today's screening at the Egyptian was digital. In recent years we've seen first-run films completely converting to digital, but apparently this is now becoming an issue regarding revival house screenings, and 35mm prints may be harder to come by in future years.

Previous Egyptian Theatre posts: Tonight's Movie: Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: Bend of the River (1952) at the Egyptian Theatre; Dick Van Dyke Show 50th Anniversary at the Egyptian Theatre; A Visit to the 13th Noir City Film Festival (2011); Tonight's Movie: An American in Paris (1951) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: West Side Story (1961) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: The Ten Commandments (1956) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: Cleopatra (1934) at the Egyptian Theatre; A Visit to the Noir City Film Festival (2010).


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

The pace of the movie, particularly the early years of the boys, leaves me breathless. Poor little tykes!

A really engrossing picture that I would love to see on the big screen. The more classic films I see in the the theatre, the more I feel short-changed by my television set. What did you think of the digital presentation?

5:02 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I have a vivid memory of watching this when I must have been about 11 or 12, sprawled on the living room rug one Saturday. I can watch it today and still associate it with my childhood. Your experience at the Egyptian sounds fun.

4:43 AM  
Blogger UneCinephile said...

you are so outrageously lucky to have gone to this talk,i think i definitely need to move out to california now haha. i would have died sitting in the same place that Myrna Loy was discovered more than 80 years ago. i still need The Only Good Girl in Hollywood i feel so left out!! the talk sounds like it was so interesting.

Manhattan Melodrama is a very good film i would have loved to have seen it in a theater like you did.

thank you so much for the details of the presentation and film.

9:29 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Did an entry this week on film vs. digital, and how the New Beverly Cinema is holding strong for the "reel" thing:

8:11 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vince, thank you very much indeed for that link! I will plan to share it in my next link roundup, as well.

I fell behind on answering comments this week due to a heavy work schedule. Caftan Woman, I had mixed feelings about the digital presentation. At first there was a short of shadow around a couple of the edges, which later disappeared. The print was good but seemed a bit dark at times. I wondered if I was just being sensitive, but I felt the film was missing the shimmering glow of a film like Gable's HOLD YOUR MAN (1933), which I saw at UCLA last summer. The gorgeous black and white look of that print made a big impression.

Jacqueline, love your memory of watching it at a young age -- fun to know we each watched this one many moons ago!

Movie Freak, it was a wonderful afternoon, and I'm so glad you enjoyed my post. Thanks for letting me know!

Best wishes,

8:33 AM  

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