“Manhattan Melodrama” was made by MGM in the same year that Gable appeared in Columbia’s “It Happened One Night,” directed by Frank Capra, for which Gable (the King) received his first of three Best Actor nominations and his only Oscar.
Gable heads a charming cast that also includes William Powell and Myrna Loy, forming a romantic triangle.
By today’s standards, the picture is chatty (even verbose), due to an overlong court sequence. But back then, it was one of MGM’s most prestigious productions.
The story begins in 1904, when the excursion steamer “General Slocum” blows up and burns in the East River. Orphaned by the disaster, three young boys are then adopted by a kind Jewish businessman (Harry Green).
Years later, when the adoptive is killed during a rally, the boys are separated once more. They grow up to be assistant district attorney Jim Wade (William Powell), gambler and owner of gambling house Blackie Gallagher
(Clark Gable), and priest Joe Patrick (Leo Carillo).
Despite shared past, the men now represent opposite sides of the law. Their professional competition becomes all the more personal when Jim marries Blackie’s former squeeze, Eleanor (Myrna Loy). Blackie does not object when Eleanor leaves him, because he considers Jim to be a better, worthier man for her.
In the end, Jim’s integrity and professional ethos force him to prosecute his childhood pal, which wins him the nomination and election to the position of the governor.
The reliable MGM supporting cast includes Nat Pendleton as Blackie’s faithful stooge, Isabel Jewell as his girlfriend, Mickey Rooney as the younger Blackie, and blonde singer Shirley Ross, here appearing in blackface in a Harlem nightclub, singing a new Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart tune, “Blue Moon,” which would later gain extra popularity and iconic status.
“Manhattan Melodrama” became more famous and infamous, as the movie that real-life gangster John Dillinger attended on the night he was killed. In fact, clips of “Manhattan Melodrama,” were shown in several later films, including Michael Mann’s
“Public Enemies,” starring Johnnie Depp as Dillinger.
The structure of the tale, an epic saga of kids who are intimate friends but grow up to be rivals and enemies, was used in many pictures, including “Ängels with Dirty Faces” and “Cry of the City.”
Arthur Caesar who wrote the story, won the Oscar, though the actual screenplay was penned by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, before he became a director, best known for writing and directing the 1950 Oscar-winning picture, “Äll About Eve.”
The Hollywood Reporter represented many critics when its critic wrote: “Gable’s back to the type of role he does best, a do-gooder gangster.”
Oscar Nominations: 1
Original Story: Arthur Caesar
Oscar Awards: 1
Running time: 93 Minutes.
Directed By: W.S. Van Dyke , George Cukor
Written By: Oliver H.P. Garrett, Joseph L. Mankiewicz