The stars are out for Manhattan Melodrama, at least three of the biggest from the 1930s, in Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Except the latter two had yet to start their star-making run with director W.S. Van Dyke in The Thin Man until later in the year. This picture would prove to be a boost and a portent of good things to come.
The opening scene captures the bedlam during a fire aboard a riverboat with an alarmingly raw energy. One might even stoop to call it pure melodrama but to the film’s credit, it’s not faulty advertising since right from the beginning it goes for the jugular.
In fact, it continues to stack the tragic setpieces one on top of another. The next is a politically charged riot between capitalist and Soviet sympathizers. That brings with it yet another bitter tragedy already upon us in only a matter of minutes.
Because the aftermath of such events means many kids are left without parents (including Mickey Rooney’s character Blackie) and many parents are left without kids. One man resolves to fill in the hole in his heart. Of course, it doesn’t last for long when he is run over by a horsecart. Two boys are made orphans yet again.
So no time is wasted whatsoever suggesting that this is their story. The stage has been set. Our two divergent heroes head their separate ways while nevertheless remaining lifelong friends.
Blackie’s (Gable) adult life is really an outcropping of his childhood pursuits. Namely, gambling and getting other people’s money. He’s a smart character who has the police paid off and his slightly suspect establishment is running on all cylinders. But he’s hardly a bad fellow, mind you.
That’s what allows Jim (Powell) who has pursued a law degree to still be fast friends with his old chum. What they do for a living never impedes on the affection they have for one another. And for a long time that works fine. Blackie’s girl Eleanor (Loy) tries to coax him away from the life he leads — to something close to a marriage — but that was never quite him.
One evening when she is supposed to hold onto Jim before Blackie gets there so they can all celebrate Jim’s ambitious rise, she finds herself taken with a man who is what Blackie can never be for her. She goes for Jim since he is the man who can make her a happy wife. Again, there’s no ill-will. Blackie only wants the best for his friends.
The ominous sounding tune “The Bad in Every Man” plays quite prominently in this film and many audience members will undoubtedly recognize it under a different name it would have later in life, “Blue Moon.” For now, it’s a nightclub number that adds a palpable atmosphere to the world and especially our impression of the male protagonists.
Blackie proves to be so deeply invested that he does everything in his power to keep his friend on the path of the straight and narrow without any hindrance from a no-good degenerate like himself. He would never jeopardize Jim in his rise from district attorney to governor and so on. In fact, he would even take a hit for him. Because the film ends with Jim tossing Blackie on the funeral pyre. He’s gotten tough on crime and that means not backing down on murder raps — even involving a friend. Little does he know what Blackie has done for him. But his wife knows.
This is, of course, the picture that has the notoriety of being the last one John Dillinger viewed before being shot by Federal Agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. He purportedly came out of hiding just to see Myrna Loy.
The picture itself begs the question if there was more to Dillinger. Did he have a troubled past or someone else on the other side of the train tracks who made good? More likely than anything else he was a little insignificant man and his violence was met with violence in an equal and opposite direction. His death helped sell tickets no doubt. It was probably even made into a couple of movies. But it couldn’t be a movie. Life never is.
In that sense, this film hardly seems authentic or real even when we juxtapose it with reality. It’s a nice thought, Clark Gable going off to the electric chair grinning — no good but at least a man of principle. If you want arguably a similar look with a slightly different outcome Angel With Dirty Faces (1938) provides it. John Dillinger never got around to seeing that picture though. For him, real life happened with real consequences. There was nothing idealized about it.