'Manhattan Melodrama': THR's 1934 Review
On May 4, 1934, MGM unveiled Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, in theaters. The film went on to win an Oscar for original story at the 7th Academy Awards ceremony. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:
Even if Manhattan Melodrama were only half as good as it is, you would have a hit picture in the combination of Gable, Powell and Myrna Loy. But with the sure-fire audience plot contained in the story by Arthur Caesar and screenplay by Garrett and Mankiewicz, plus the powerful direction by W.S. Van Dyke, it has all the elements of a sensational smash hit. Chalk up another for David O. Selznick and MGM.
The story opens with not one, but two spectacular scenes, strong enough to serve as climaxes for ordinary thrillers. The first is a fire aboard a pleasure-cruising Hudson River boat in which young Blackie and Jim lose their parents; the second, a Communistic riot in which the kindly old Russian, who had adopted these East Side kids, is killed as an innocent bystander.
Many films, to make comparisons again, would suffer a letdown after such a breathless beginning. There are no let-downs in Manhattan Melodrama. A bit of montage following the 1904 prologue quickly establishes, via contrast on a split screen, the gambling proclivities of one youth and the studiousness of the other.
When we again meet Blackie, played by Gable, he is a big-time gambler. Jim (Powell) has become a lawyer, preparing his campaign for district attorney. It is obvious that their friendship, which has endured, will be complicated by the separate paths they have taken.
Further complications arise when Myrna Loy, who has been Gable's mistress, leaves him because of his refusal to stop gambling. She later falls in love with Powell and marries him, after confessing her past. Cable is invited to be best man, but fails to put in an appearance for fear that his association with Powell, now district attorney, may injure the latter's chances in the impending election, in which he is running for governor.
A crooked politician threatens to use a shooting of which Gable was guilty, although Powell could not obtain evidence enough for prosecution, against the district attorney. Gable learns of the threat from Myrna and, to protect his friend from the scandal, kills the crook. He is caught, tried and convicted, Powell conducting the case against him. The trial clenches the governorship for Powell; Gable is condemned to the electric chair.
It is within his friend's power to save him by pardon, a situation that could have been met by mock heroics. The solution, however, is worked out as cleverly and convincingly as all the incidents leading up to it. Even a contingency that must suggest itself to thinking spectators is provided for — that of a pardon, a resignation and a joyous sailing of the pals on their yacht for the South Seas. Certainly such a gesture to a happy ending would have destroyed the entire structure of the piece. This is specifically mentioned so that you will not feel any qualms from the knowledge that Gable is electrocuted. Wait until you see how is death his motivated. It is the only possible satisfactory ending.
A brief synopsis, it must be realized, cannot do justice to the plot. Highbrow critics may find fault, overlooking the fact that it is the best of theatre. Audiences will not fail to react emotionally to the intelligent writing of it. Credit, too, Caesar, Garret and Mankiewicz for presenting a story, essentially episodic, as a continuously engrossing narrative.
So unobtrusive is Van Dyke's smoothly paced direction that it is difficult to say what is script and what is direction. Each situation is milked dry, yet never overplayed. That, at least, is direction at its best. The photography of Jimmy Howe is, of course, superb.
The playing of Gable, Powell and Miss Loy rates the highest superlatives. It is a dead heat for first honors. Nat Pendleton takes care of the comedy relief as a dumb gangster, with some neat assistance from Isabel Jewell. Blackie and Jim as boys are splendidly played by Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Butler. There is a memorable bit by George Sidney. Leo Carrillo and others round out a uniformly excellent cast.
Shout Manhattan Melodrama from the housetops. It will make good even the most extravagant promises. — Staff review, originally published on April 16, 1934.