Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

19 03 2014

I come to Manhattan Melodrama as a continuing effort to familiarize myself with director George Cukor. His work on this film is apparently minor, he was called in to shot some scenes after the film’s original director, W.S. Van Dyke, had already moved on to work on The Thin Man. This puts me in a tough position because anything I want to extrapolate here as an overall part of Cukor’s cinematic vision is compromised as I don’t know what is his exactly. If there’s something to continue from Girls About Town (1931, and just reviewed yesterday) it’s that Cukor’s character find themselves in unique relationships. One might argue that such novelty is necessary and not particularly remarkable for a dramatic film, but once again, I find something negotiating the expectations of heterosexual relationships. It’s far more subtle (and probably unintentional) in comparison to the aforementioned Girls About Town but it fascinates me just as much.


Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (William Powell)  are friends who lose their parents in the PS General Slucum disaster. Orphaned, the two are taken in by Father Joe who raises them until they are adults. Years later, Blackie is an infamous New York City gangster and Jim is now the district attorney.  Blackie suggests Eleanor (Myrna Loy), his girlfriend, go out with Wade for an evening. When she returns, she begs Blackie for a more secure life, one that isn’t dependent on his risky lifestyle. He declines, and she leaves. Months later, she’s now involved with Wade, who is running for governor of the state of New York. The two plan to wed, but Blackie’s presence in both of their lives makes things complicated. The public begins to grow suspicious of Wade’s relationship with a noted gangster.


I’m usually not good for addressing why certain actors are so impressive to me, and I’m not about to have a moment of clarity in describing what makes Myrna Loy so wonderful in this film. Despite my description of the plot above, she actually is a huge part of the story yet a quick synopsis makes her seem like a background character. She leaves Blackie, sure, but this dramatic turn does not feel unearned or sappy. She still loves him, sure and she always will, but she leaves him to pursue her own interests. It’s a hard dynamic to explain but even with Wade and Blackie as intentionally opposing representations of law, one doesn’t get the impression that a binary is in play. I think this is because Loy plays things so casually, I mean she has her teary-eyed moments but there is something in her that grounds the drama. For a film that actually is about life or death, it tries everything in its power to recreate a feeling that is the opposite and for the most part, it is remarkably successful.


Loy’s casual performance also brings the film’s most intriguing element: its love triangle. Sure, the love triangle has become a trite angle for dozens of forgettable art films, but Cukor (and Van Dyke) almost benefit from the fact that their trio’s sexuality can’t be too pronounced. It’s not that some bisexual subtext can be read from the three’s relationship (though it’s completely possible) it’s instead that despite the narrative’s dramatic pull, there is something amiable in the way all three communicate to each other. Even in the film’s final twenty minutes, which includes Wade arguing to a jury to put Black to death, there is something remarkably pleasant going on. It seems that the film intends for something dramatic to be happening, but not that the audience feel that typical tension. A perfect encapsulation of this is the film’s final scene, which poignantly reunites Wade and Blackie with Father Joe. Blackie is to be put to death, which is obviously terrible and sad but Gable, as Blackie, temporarily deflects these feelings. He makes jokes about his upcoming demise. Wade offers him a way out, but he explains that he’d rather die when he wants to then not live the way he wants to. The ending is sad, but not tragic. As the title suggests, yes, something of a melodrama but it is never close to schmaltzy.