A story of principle.
There have been many movies over the years that exemplify this precious sentiment. What there hasn’t been, however, is a film that makes sticking to what you believe in a matter of life or death.
Manhattan Melodrama is a film about convictions, love, and how far one is willing to go to keep them together.
Director W.S Van Dyke tells the story of two boys who grow up together, and how time and different circumstances lead them to live different lives.
Clark Gable and William Powell star as ‘Blackie’ Gallagher and Jim Wade, the two boys whose friendship is thicker than blood. Their friendship goes through countless ups and downs, through several trials and tribulations, but despite those hardships, Wade and ‘Blackie’ were inseparable.
Their misfortunes begin at the beginning of the film when the cruise liner they were traveling on catches fire, leaving everyone to fend for themselves.
This unlucky accident has both of their parents die in the frenzied blaze, leaving both of the boys parentless. As the boys and other survivors swim to safety, they run into a homely man named Poppa Rosen (played by George Sidney.) It’s shown that he also lost a family member, a son, the same age as ‘Blackie’ and Wade.
As the trio grieve together, Rosen offers to become their guardian. With nowhere else to go, the boys jump at the opportunity.
A couple of years pass by and everything seems to be going well for the boys (well, at least for one of them.) Wade is studying to become a district attorney and ‘Blackie’ is dipping his toes into the grimy world of petty crime.
After living comfortably with Rosen for a few years, he’s accidentally trampled to death by a policeman’s horse at a pro-Communism rally.
The movie skips ahead to the year 1920, where Wade has triumphantly become District Attorney and ‘Blackie’ runs an illegal gambling ‘joint’.
Both boys have found success in very, very different lines of work.
The law is the only thing that keeps them separated.
The two boys – now men – run into each other one night at a boxing match. They laugh, and joke around like old pals, prompting ‘Blackie’ to invite Jim out for drinks. Jim declines citing work as his excuse. That doesn’t deter ‘Blackie’ though. If he couldn’t be there he’ll send the next best thing, Eleanor – his
mistress girlfriend (played by Myrna Loy.)
When Eleanor and Jim meet, she’s immediately impressed by the class and charms that oozes out of Wade, the polar opposite of ‘Blackie’s’ brash and coarse demeanor.
Eleanor returns from her impromptu ‘date’ and she realizes that she doesn’t want to live the “gangster” lifestyle anymore and ends her romance with ‘Blackie,’ eventually marrying Jim.
Her decision proves to be the correct one when a couple of days later a man who owed ‘Blackie’ money is mysteriously shot in his hotel room.
The man behind the crime?
Edward J. ‘Blackie’ Gallagher.
But, Wade doesn’t know that.
Run he starts his campaign for governor later that year, his assistant Richard Snow essentially harasses him into looking deeper into the murder case. If Jim doesn’t comply with his wishes, Snow would expose his close friendship to ‘Blackie’ thus ruining his chances of winning the race.
Coincidentally, Eleanor and ‘Blackie’ reunite at a horse track, where Eleanor explains the predicament that Wade has got himself into.
‘Blackie’ being an all-around “bad guy” tells her that she shouldn’t worry and that he’ll “take care of this, himself.”
We all know what this means.
Lo and behold, ‘Blackie’ shoots Wade’s assistant point blank in a restroom during a hockey game in Madison Square Garden. Because, why not?
What ‘Blackie’ thought to be a blind man sitting outside the restroom when he committed the crime turned out to be a concerned citizen who quickly reports the crime to the police.
Jim is now forced to choose between two of the things that he loves the most: his career or persecuting ‘Blackie.’ He wins his gubernatorial race, but his mind can’t shake the obvious conflict of interests.
Ultimately, his conscience takes over, as much as it pains him to do so and against the objections of his wife, he prosecutes ‘Blackie’ for both murders sentencing him to death by electric chair.
He almost retracts his sentencing, however, when Jim visits ‘Blackie’ in prison, he reiterates to him that he’s proud that he stuck to his conscience and didn’t relent in his charges. Agreeing, Wade gives up and lets ‘Blackie’ have a peaceful death.
The movie ends with Jim tendering his resignation from his governor seat, stating that a murder influenced the result of his election, therefore, making it invalid.
When you combine the genius of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and the directorial magic of W.S Van Dyke, you’re bound to get magic on the silver screen.
That’s exactly what makes Manhattan Melodrama a film that deserves more recognition. This movie has it all: excellent writing (absolutely incredible, I can’t stress that enough), outstanding acting, and exceptional directing – the trifecta.
W.S Van Dyke has quickly become one of my favorite directors because of pictures like this. He has the magic touch when it comes to movies where you need to have that delicate balance of drama and comedy (e.g The Thin Man.) Though ‘MMD’ isn’t necessarily a comedy, there were several moments in the film where the witty banter between Powell and Gable flowed organically, like they’ve known each other all their life.
For that, we have Mr. Mankiewicz to thank.
Manhattan Melodrama is a film that will make you reflect on what you truly believe and whether or not you can stand for it when the going gets tough. Not only is the film visually stunning and terrifically written, it also has an underlying message of morality and virtue.
There are not many movies that could do this, but ‘Melodrama’ is one of the few that does it so well.
If you wish to read the rest of the entries in the blogathon, click here.