Cleaning Out the DVR #19: Things To Watch When You Have Flumonia!

So I’ve been laid up with the flu/early stage pneumonia/whateverthehellitis for the past few days, which seemed like a  good excuse to clean out the DVR by watching a bunch of random movies:

Bette Davis & Jimmy Cagney in “Jimmy the Gent”

JIMMY THE GENT (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Michael Curtiz ) –  Fast paced James Cagney vehicle has Jimmy as the head of a shady “missing heir” racket, with Bette Davis as his ex-girl, now working for his classy (but grabby!) rival Alan Dinehart. Allen Jenkins returns once again as Cagney’s sidekick, and Alice White is a riot as Jenkins’s ditzy dame. Some funny dialog by Bertram Milhauser in this one, coming in at the tail-end of the Pre-Code era. Cagney’s always worth watching, even in minor fare like this one. Fun Fact: Cagney’s battles with boss Jack Warner over better roles were legendary, and the actor went out and got a Teutonic-style haircut right before shooting began, just to piss the boss off!  

Dwight Frye & George Zucco in “Dead Men Walk”

DEAD MEN WALK (PRC 1943; D: Sam Newfield) – Perennial second stringer George Zucco starred in a series of shockers as PRC’s answer to Monogram’s Bela Lugosi series . Here he plays twins, one a good doctor, the other a vampire risen from the grave to enact his gruesome revenge. Despite the ultra-low budget (PRC made Monogram look like MGM!), it’s a surprisingly effective chiller due to some ingenious camerawork from Newfield. Much of the film’s plot elements are borrowed (some would say stolen) from Universal’s DRACULA , including casting Dwight Frye as the vampire’s loyal servant. Fun Fact: Romantic lead Nedrick Young later won a Best Story Oscar for Stanley Kramer’s 1958 THE DEFIANT ONES, which featured another horror icon, Lon Chaney Jr.

LADIES DAY (RKO 1943; D: Leslie Goodwins) – Broad baseball comedy (no pun intended) about star pitcher Eddie Albert , who is easily distracted by pretty women, falling for movie star Lupe Velez . They get hitched, and the other player’s wives band together to kidnap her and keep them apart so Eddie can concentrate on winning the World Series! Silly but enjoyable farce elevated by a cast of comic pros: Patsy Kelly, Iris Adrian , Joan Barclay, Max Baer Sr, Jerome Cowan , Cliff Clark, and Tom Kennedy (Nedrick Young’s in this one, too… a banner year for the actor!). Maybe not a classic, but a whole lot of fun, especially for baseball buffs like me. Fun Fact: Director Goodwins has a cameo as (what else?) a movie director.

MYSTERY STREET (MGM 1950; D: John Sturges ) – Tight little ‘B’ noir as a Boston bar girl’s (Jan Sterling) skeletal remains are discovered on Cape Cod, and police Lt. Ricardo Montalban tries to piece together the murder puzzle with the help of a Harvard forensics professor (Bruce Bennett) and some good old-fashioned detective work. Early effort from Sturges benefits from excellent John Alton photography and a script co-written by Richard Brooks . Elsa Lanchester is a standout as a blackmailing landlady among a strong cast (Betsy Blair, Walter Burke, Sally Forrest, Marshall Thompson, Willard Waterman). Fun Fact: Filmed in Boston, and many of the neighborhood sights are still recognizable almost 70 years later to those familiar with the Olde Towne.

Victor Buono as “The Strangler”

THE STRANGLER (Allied Artists 1964; D: Burt Topper) – Lurid psychological thriller stars Victor Buono in his best screen performance as a sexually repressed, schizoid psycho-killer with a creepy doll fetish. Ellen Corby plays his domineering, invalid mother. Cheap, tawdry, sensationalistic, and definitely worth watching! Fun Fact: Lots of old horror hands worked behind the scenes on this one: DP Jacques Marquette (ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN ), Art Director Eugene Lourie (director of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO), Editor Robert Eisen (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ), and makeup man Wally Westmore (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS).

HYSTERIA (MGM/Hammer 1965; D: Freddie Francis ) – This Hitchcockian homage gives character actor Robert Webber a rare starring role as an amnesia victim embroiled in a GASLIGHT-like murder plot. Director Francis’s keen eye for composition hide the budget restraints, and producer/writer Jimmy Sangster’s script pulls out all the stops, but I couldn’t help but wonder while watching what The Master of Suspense himself could have done with the material. As it is, a fine but minor piece of British noir with horror undertones. Fun Fact: Australian composer Don Banks’s jazzy score aids in setting the overall mood.

BEN (Cinerama 1972; D: Phil Karlson ) – Sequel to the previous year’s horror hit WILLARD is okay, but nowhere near the original. Crazy Bruce Davison is replaced by lonely little Lee Hartcourt Montgomery, an annoying kid (no wonder he’s lonely!) who befriends Ben and his creepy rat posse. The rodents cause havoc at the grocery (“Rats! Millions of ’em! At the supermarket!”) and a health spa in some too-brief scenes, but on the whole this looks and feels like a TV movie, right down to it’s small screen cast (Meredith Baxter, Joseph Campanella, Kaz Garas, Rosemary Murphy, Arthur O’Connell, Norman Alden). We do get genre vet Kenneth Tobey (THE THING ) in a bit as a city engineer, and the climax will remind you of THEM! , but like most sequels, this one fails to satisfy. Stick with the original. Fun Fact: Montgomery would grow out of his annoying stage and become an 80’s heartthrob in GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN.

And now, here’s Michael Jackson singing the cloying love theme from BEN at the film’s conclusion. Rats – yuchh!:

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Pre Code Confidential #19: Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Paramount 1932)

Marlene Dietrich is TCM’S Star of the Month for May, and “Shanghai Express” airs tonight at 12:00 midnight EST. 

A train ride from Peking to Shanghai is fraught with danger and romance in Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS, a whirlwind of a movie starring that Teutonic whirlwind herself, Marlene Dietrich. This was the fourth of their seven collaborations together, and their biggest hit, nominated for three Oscars and winning for Lee Garmes’s striking black and white cinematography.

The Director and his Muse

Dietrich became a huge sensation as the sultry seductress Lola Lola in Sternberg’s 1930 German film THE BLUE ANGEL, and the pair headed to America to work for Paramount. Marlene became the autocratic director’s muse, as he molded her screen image into a glamorous object of lust and desire. Sternberg’s Expressionistic painting of light and shadows, aided by Dietrich’s innate sexuality, turned the former chorus girl and cabaret singer into the ultimate icon of forbidden lust, an exotic carnal creature that rocked audiences all over the world. Just watch her in SHANGHAI EXPRESS, or any of their films together for that matter: Marlene just oozes sex out of every pore!

Here she plays Shanghai Lily, a notorious “coaster” (read: prostitute) travelling with her equally exotic companion Hui Lei (the amazing Anna May Wong). Also on board is British Captain Doc Henry (Clive Brook), whose heart was broken by Lil when she was known as Madeline, before her life of ill-repute (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”, she purrs). There are others on that train: American gambler Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette ), snooty Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), opium dealer Baum (Gustav von Seffertitz), French Major Lenard (Emile Chautard), pious Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), and the mysterious Eurasian Henry Wong (Warner Oland), who is in reality leader of the revolutionary Army.

The train is stopped by government forces and a high-ranking rebel is taken into custody. In reprisal, Chang wires ahead, and his men overtake the train. All are questioned by the warlord, and Baum, who insulted Chang earlier, is branded with a hot iron for his insolence. Doc, who’s on his way to operate on Shanghai’s Governor General, is taken hostage to facilitate an exchange for Chang’s officer. The lusty Chang sets his sights on Lily, offering to take her to his hideout, but Doc steps in and decks him, causing Chang to release her and drag her friend Hui into his makeshift headquarters (the implication is Chang rapes her).

Not one to suffer an insult gladly, Chang refuses to release Doc when his man is returned, at least not until he has been blinded. Lily sacrifices her freedom by agreeing to go with Chang, bravely telling Doc it’s of her own free will so he’ll depart. Hui creeps her way through Sternberg’s shadow-world and gets her revenge by stabbing Chang to death, allowing Doc to free Lily, still not knowing she did it for his sake. It takes the sanctimonious Carmichael, who observed Lily praying for Doc’s safety earlier, to uncover the truth, and the former lovers start anew in their quest for happiness.

The supporting cast is excellent, especially Pallette and Oland (“You’re in China, where time and life have no value”). Anna May Wong, a star in her own right since the silent era, is a quiet balance to Dietrich’s more flamboyant Lily, and the two fallen angels (Carmichael describes them as “One is yellow, one is white, but both their souls are rotten”) make quite an enticing pair. The only performance I didn’t care for was Clive Brook’s “stiff upper lip” acting as Doc, but that has more to do with me than Brook himself, who was a popular star in the early 30’s. Familiar Face spotters will have to look fast for the uncredited Forrester Harvey and Willie Fung .

Jules Furthman’s  screenplay is loaded with double entendres and pithy lines, which Dietrich delivers in her signature sensuous style. SHANGHAI EXPRESS, with its outlandish look, noirish shadowplay, and erotic subject matter, is a near-perfect film, and a good starting point for those of you unfamiliar with the provocative Pre-Code wonders of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg.

Pre Code Confidential #18: FIVE STAR FINAL (Warner Brothers 1931)

Tabloid journalism has been around far longer than the cable “news” channels of today, with their 24 hour a day barrage of nonstop sleazy scandals and “fake news”. A circulation war between publishers Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) in the 1890’s, filled with sensationalized headlines and mucho muckraking, gave birth to the term “Yellow Journalism”, derived from Richard Outcault’s guttersnipe character The Yellow Kid in his comic strip Hogan’s Alley, which appeared in both papers. This legacy of dirt-digging and gossip-mongering continued through the decades in supermarket rags like The National Enquirer and World Weekly News, leading us to where we are today with the so-called “mainstream media” stretching credibility to the max and bogus Internet click-bait sites abounding. All of which leads me to FIVE STAR FINAL, a Pre-Code drama about headhunting for headlines starring Edward G. Robinson and a colorful supporting cast.

Robinson and director Mervyn LeRoy , fresh off the hit gangster epic LITTLE CAESAR, reunited for this sordid little tale as E.G. plays Randall, managing editor of the fictional New York Gazette, pressured by his publisher to boost sagging sales by jazzing things up with girlie pics and juicy scandals. Rehashing the twenty year old Nancy Voorhees murder case, in which a young secretary shot and killed her boss/lover, Randall assembles his team to dig up everything they can on her life today. Staff floozie Kitty Carmody hunts down her whereabouts; Nancy is now Mrs. Michael Townsend, whose daughter Jenny is about to be wed to wealthy manufacturing heir Phillip Weeks.

Isopod, an ex-divinity student ejected for drinking and lasciviousness, impersonates a reverend and visits the Townsends, learning the couple is afraid all this bad publicity will harm Jenny, who was born out-of-wedlock and isn’t Michael’s child. A drunken Isopod brings the scoop back to Randall and the smear campaign is on! A distraught Nancy ends up committing suicide; when Michael finds the body he follows suit. Kitty and her photographer sneak into the Townsend’s apartment and take a pic of the two bodies on their bathroom floor. The scandal causes the upper crust Weeks’s to demand the wedding be called off, and a hysterical Jenny grabs a gun and confronts Randall, Isopod, and publisher Hinchcliffe in an amazingly tense dramatic scene, concluding with Randall telling Hinchcliffe just what he can do with his bloody paper!

Robinson’s staccato line delivery and perpetual scowl make Randall seem as real a newspaper man as you can get. Reluctant at first to sensationalize his paper, he dives right into the mudpit to deliver the goods. His forlorn face when he learns of the tragedy is unforgettable, and his compulsive hand washing throughout the movie suggests a man who can never get all the filth off of them. The fact that Robinson, who gave brilliant performances in films like DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, SCARLET STREET , KEY LARGO , and so many others, never won an Oscar, only awarded a posthumous statuette two months after his death, is another black eye on the Academy.

A pre-FRANKENSTEIN Boris Karloff plays the unctuous reporter Isopod, a leering slimebag of a man just as creepy as any monster or mad doctor he ever played… maybe creepier! Ona Munson (GONE WITH THE WIND’s Belle Watling) is Kitty, the girl who’s “been around”, George E. Stone (E.G.’s LITTLE CAESAR henchman) is Ziggie, a street hardened “idea man”, and Aline MacMahon makes her film debut as Randall’s secretary Miss Taylor, who’s secretly in love with her boss. Marian Marsh as Jenny is cloying at first, but heats things up when she becomes unhinged at the end. Veterans H.B. Warner and Frances Starr as Michael and Nancy are okay, but Anthony Bushell is rah-ther wooden as Phillip. Familiar Faces include Oscar Apfel, Gladys Lloyd (Mrs. Edward G. Robinson), and the hypnotic Polly Walters as an uncredited switchboard operator.

One innovative scene I found fascinating was a triple-split screen with Nancy frantically trying to call Randall and Hinchcliffe, leading to her death. Le Roy moves his camera to good effect; the film is rarely static, yet LeRoy’s work as director seems to get overlooked in conversations among film buffs today. FIVE STAR FINAL is admittedly creaky in some spots, but overall holds up well, and is as relevant in today’s world as it was 87 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same… and more’s the pity.

Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid

Cecil B. DeMented: MADAM SATAN (MGM 1930)

It’s wild! It’s weird! It’s Cecil B. DeMille’s  MADAM SATAN, a movie I’ve heard about for decades, but never had the chance to catch, until now. It’s got a little something for everybody, from drama to comedy to musical numbers to half-naked women to jazz baby Lillian Roth! Was it worth the wait, Dear Readers? Well… read on!

Better hold on to your seats though, as MADAM SATAN shifts abruptly in tone throughout it’s running time. It’s slow going the first few minutes, starting out as a stiff drawing-room drama. Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is worried about her dissipating  marriage to Bob, who neglects her and stays out all night. Now here comes comedy, with Bob (Reginald Denny ) and his pal Jimmy (Roland Young) trying to sneak in at dawn, two wasted wastrels drunk as the proverbial skunks. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the maid (Elsa Peterson) breaks out into song! No wonder Angela decides to leave Bob, with all this chaos going on!

Angela follows Jimmy to the flat of the saucy Trixie (Lillian Roth), with whom Bob has been dallying. Jimmy tries to cover by saying Trixie’s his new wife, but Angela’s not buying it, and asks to spend the night. Things being what they are, we get a comedy of errors as Jimmy and Trixie are forced to stay in the bedroom together, then Bob comes in, and more chaos ensues! Now things really get weird, as Jimmy throws a masquerade party aboard a zeppelin (yes, I said a zeppelin!), which begins with a dance number that’s a cross between Busby Berkeley and Kenneth Strickfaden!

There’s a contest to decide the Queen of the Ball which Trixie, decked out as a Golden Pheasant, is determined to win, when suddenly, the mysterious Madam Satan shows up, a masked Angela dressed like a demonic superheroine! Angela seduces the unsuspecting Bob away from Trixie, and the two retire to the chart room for a sizzling tete’a’tete, when… Good Lord, a raging storm causes lightning to strike the zeppelin, and we shift yet again to a proto-distaster movie as the panicked revelers have to parachute to safety or face certain doom!

To call this movie bizarre is an understatement, but somehow DeMille manages to make it all work. I’m not really doing it justice trying to describe all that’s going on here; it’s one of those films you have to see for yourself to believe! Since it was made in the Pre-Code Era, there’s a lot of risqué business, though DeMille was told to tone it down a notch or two, especially with the masquerade party costumes. But there are more than enough eye-popping moments to make the viewer think, “How did they get away with THAT in 1930?!?”.

Kay Johnson as Angela/Madam Satan does a fine job walking the tightrope between the two different characters. I watched another film featuring Miss Johnson the same night, the forgotten horror THIRTEEN WOMEN (coming soon to this blog!), sort of a mini-Kay Johnson film festival (Kay was the wife of director John Cromwell , and  mother of actor James Cromwell ). Reginald Denny (Bob) was a silent star who made the successful transition to early talkies, and had a long career as a character actor. 19-year-old Lillian Roth (Trixie) was already a show biz veteran and is a little firecracker; her life story was filmed in 1955 as I’LL CRY TOMORROW starring Susan Hayward. But it’s Roland Young as Jimmy who stole the show for me. Young’s droll sense of humor and way with a line are priceless! He’s fondly remembered by most film buffs as the title character in TOPPER and it’s two sequels.

So, was MADAM SATAN worth the wait? I’d say yes; even though those shifts in tone can be jarring at times, and it’s a bit creaky in places, the movie was  entertaining enough to hold my interest. And it’s certainly historically significant, being DeMille’s only stab at a musical, even though it’s not really a musical, it’s more of a comedy… or drama… or disaster flick… oh, never mind, just watch for yourselves and you figure it out!

Bats in the Belfry: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (MGM 1935)

Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA is a masterpiece of terror, the film that launched the Golden Age of Horror and made Bela Lugosi a star. Four years later, Bela and Browning teamed again for MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, loaded with horrific atmosphere but staked through the heart by two fatal blows – too much comic relief and an ending that’s a trick, rather than a treat, for horror buffs.

Lugosi and his “daughter”, Carroll Borland

The shadow of vampirism is terrorizing a small European village, as Sir Karel Borotyn is found murdered, drained of his blood! Inspector Neumann investigates, not believing in such supernatural hokum and suspecting everyone. Lovely young Irena Borotyn, engaged to handsome young Fedor, stands to inherit her father’s estate, with family friend Baron Otto serving as her guardian. When a peasant is found also drained of blood, the villagers suspect the evil Count Mora and his daughter Luna have risen from the dead to conduct a reign of terror.

The Two Lionels (l-r): Barrymore & Atwill

Occult expert Professor Zelen is called in to consult on the matter, and he concludes the vampires are real, despite Neumann’s protestations. Irena and Fedor are attacked by the undead creatures, and an exhumation of Borotyn’s grave finds his coffin empty. Fearing an infestation, Zelen leads the charge after sunrise to find and destroy Mora and his minions. Zelen then hypnotizes Baron Otto to confront the undead Sir Karol, but we find it’s all been an elaborate ruse to unmask Sir Karol’s real killer – Baron Otto!

The Great Bela Lugosi!

That’s right, the “vampires” have been nothing more than actors hired to smoke out the Baron. We do get a treat in Lugosi enacting the part of Count Mora, silently stalking his prey and skulking about among the cobwebbed, vermin-infested castle. Our favorite Hungarian almost gets the last, delicious word as the film ends on a comic note. But the “comedy relief” from Donald Meek as a local doctor and Leila Bennett as Irena’s maid are a bit too much for my dark taste in horror, and the trick ending spoils what could’ve been a horror classic.

Carroll Borland as Luna

Lionel Barrymore  gets top billing as Professor Zelen, working once again with Browning, as he would a year later in THE DEVIL DOLL. It’s always good to see horror regular Lionel Atwill , playing the first of many roles as an Inspector. Jean Hersholt portrays Baron Otto, and Elizabeth Allen makes a fetching Irena, but Henry Wadsworth is a total twit as Fedor. Carroll Borland, who played onstage opposite Lugosi in DRACULA, creates an iconic vampiress in Luna, and an inspiration for future TV horror “g”hostess Vampira. Miss Borland only appeared in a handful of films, but left an indelible mark on the horror genre with her creepy portrayal of Luna.

The gang’s all here!

James Wong Howe’s  photography is eerie enough, and reminiscent of the best of Universal. But the script by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert is riddled with holes; Endore also wrote the script for THE STORY OF G.I. JOE and the novel The Werewolf of Paris, which was adapted into Hammer’s 1961 CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, so I’ll give him a pass. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is a remake of Browning’s lost 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, but since I (nor anyone currently alive, far as I know) has seen that Lon Chaney frightfest, I can’t compare the two. Perhaps Browning was trying to make up for the stir he caused with 1932’s FREAKS by adding all that extra comedy and false ending; whatever the case, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is definitely a lesser entry in the classic horror canon. Without Lugosi and Borland, it would be even less, but as it stands, it’s worth at least one viewing.

 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: THE IRISH IN US (Warner Brothers 1935)

Faith and begorrah! You can’t get much more Irish than a film featuring Jimmy Cagney , Pat O’Brien , and Frank McHugh all together. THE IRISH IN US is sentimental as an Irish lullaby, formulaic as a limerick, and full of blarney, but saints preserve us it sure is a whole lot of fun! The story concerns three Irish-American brothers, the O’Hara’s, living with their Irish mum in a cramped NYC apartment. There’s sensible, levelheaded cop Pat (O’Brien), dimwitted fireman Michael (McHugh), and ‘black sheep’ Danny (Cagney), who’s a fight promoter.

O’Brien, Cagney, and McHugh

Pat announces his intention to marry pretty Lucille Jackson (19-year-old Olivia de Havilland in an early role), while Danny’s got a new fighter named Carbarn Hammerschlog ( Allen Jenkins , who’s a riot), a punchy pug who “every time he hears a bell ring, he starts sluggin”! Danny and Lucille ‘meet cute’ while he’s out doing roadwork with his charge, not knowing Pat’s invited her over for dinner later to meet the family. Being the red-blooded Irish boyos they are, chaos ensues, especially after Carbarn hears a bell ring outside and “starts sluggin'”!

Cagney’s ready to rumble!

The O’Hara’s attend the annual Fireman’s Ball, but when Pat catches Danny and Lucille kissing in the moonlight, he gets his Irish up and slugs his brother, causing Danny to leave the family home. Lucille confesses to Ma that she loves Danny, not Pat, but the fences still aren’t mended. Middleweight champ Joe Delaney agrees to a charity bout for the Policeman’s Benefit, and Pat suggests palooka Carbarn. The night of the big fight finds Carbarn with a bad toothache, which Michael tries to fix with a bottle of gin, leaving both men swacked! A phone rings in the dressing room as the champ meets Carbarn, and the plug takes a wild swing at Delaney, whom promptly knocks his scheduled opponent out cold. Danny subs for his fighter and takes a pummeling, until Lucille pleads with Pat to help his brother. Pat joins Danny in his corner, and tells him he’s stepping out of the way with Lucille. Danny rallies to win the match, and they all live happily ever after!

A meeting of the “Irish Mafia”: Spencer Tracy, O’Brien, McHugh, and Cagney

The three leads appeared together in HERE COMES THE NAVY, DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR, BOY MEETS GIRL, THE FIGHTING 69TH, and in various combinations for Warners over the years. Cagney, O’Brien, and McHugh were members in good standing of Hollywood’s “Irish Mafia”, a group of actors who’d known each other since their struggling days that met once a week for dinner and cocktails (presumably, LOTS of cocktails!). Besides those three distinguished gentleman, the club included Jenkins, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy, Louis Calhern, James Gleason, Bert Lahr, and Lynne Overman. Later in life, Cagney said, “Those were the finest and dearest men I ever knew. How honored and privileged I was to know them”.

Wonderful Mary Gordon, ‘the ultimate Irish mum’

Mary Gordon (1882-1963) is the ultimate Irish mum as the widowed Mrs. O’Hara. The Scottish born actress is usually seen in smaller roles, but she gets the chance to really shine here. Miss Gordon is best remembered for playing Sherlock Holmes’ landlady Mrs. Hudson in all those great Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce mysteries. Olivia makes a fine ingénue, and the cast includes former welterweight boxer-turner-actor/stuntman Mushy Callahan as the referee in the big bout. THE IRISH IN US, directed by Lloyd Bacon (42ND STREET, THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS ), was one of many programmers churned out by the Brothers Warner back in the 30’s, a very likeable film with a top-notch cast that’s perfect for your St. Patrick’s Day viewing. Slainte!

That Old, Familiar Song: MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (MGM 1934)

The plot of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA will certainly be familiar to movie lovers: there’s two kids, one rambunctious, the other studious. Rambunctious grows up to be on the shady side of the law, while Studious represents law’n’order. There’s Girl in the Middle, who loves Rambunctious but always winds up with Studious. Rambunctious perpetuates some evil deed, and Studious must now bring his old pal to justice. Girl in the Middle is torn between the two. In the end, justice prevails, and Rambunctious pays for his crimes, but not before making peace with Studious.

Sound familiar? Sure it does, having been rehashed umpteen times in countless westerns, gangster sagas, wartime dramas, and other genres. But MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was the first, even winning an Oscar for Arthur Caesar’s Best Original Story. Too bad Caesar didn’t copyright the idea; he’d have been a very rich man! The film also has that MGM shine going for it, with a stellar cast toplined by Clark Gable , William Powell , and Myrna Loy as Rambunctious, Studious, and Girl in the Middle, respectively. This was the first teaming of Powell and Loy, by the way, the beginning of a beautiful screen relationship that saw them paired in six THIN MAN movies and seven others.

Gable, Loy, & Powell

Gable’s quite the charmer as “rambunctious” Blackie Gallagher, the gangland gambler who’s never played by anyone’s rules but his own. He’s a likeable hoodlum, even though he’s also a stone-cold killer who commits murder not once, but twice during the course of the film. Powell’s “studious” Jim Wade is likeable, too… after all, how can you not like William Powell? He gets to strut his stuff in the courtroom scene that sends Blackie to the electric chair, getting himself elected governor in the process. Myrna Loy as socialite Eleanor Packer is simply divine, as always, and it’s not hard to see what attracts both men to her. The film runs along smoothly, but bogged down towards the end for me when the “melodrama” part kicked in and things got a little too sudsy. Still, I thought it was a great entry in the 30’s gangster cycle.

Nat Pendleton, Muriel Evans, & Isabel Jewell

I also loved the supporting cast, with Nat Pendleton as Blackie’s dimwitted right-hand man Spud and Isabel Jewell as his ditzy girlfriend Annabelle. Leo Carrillo plays Father Joe, who saved the two boys from drowning so they could grow up to be Gable and Powell. Speaking of which, young Mickey Rooney got a big break here playing young Blackie in the early scenes; not long after this picture, he became one of MGM’s top stars. And there are loads of Familiar Faces popping up in smaller roles: Oscar Apfel, Stanley Blystone, Muriel Evans, Donald Haines, Samuel S. Hinds , Leonid Kinskey , Noel Madison, Sam McDaniel, and Edward Van Sloan among them.

Powell says goodbye to old pal Gable

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA is historic on several other levels beside the plot and the first Powell/Loy teaming. It’s the only film to costar Gable and Powell, both of whom were married at one point to Carole Lombard. A scene set in The Cotton Club features Shirley Ross singing a Rogers & Hart composition “The Bad in Every Man”; after the film was released, Hart rewrote the lyrics and the song became the standard “Blue Moon”. And of course, the movie has become a part of American folk-lore as the film Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger watched before he was gunned down by the FBI outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on 7/22/34. I wonder if he liked the film as much as I did?

“Other than that, Mr. Dillinger, how did you enjoy the movie?”