Most of the editions of this column have centered upon either lost or found or strange or just plain old fashioned re-discovered treasure. However, there are times when the simple act of sitting down to watch something that might be substantial in some way can have its own kick. And kick it did, as this film is also legendary for being the last that criminal John Dillinger saw before being killed for deeds that broke more than their fair share of hidden promises.
Sifting through a holiday box set of ancient celluloid, I came upon a very early 1930s gem, which featured William Powell, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable. The piece was a quick shoot on a very limited budget, and was not supposed to garner the MGM studio too much money. If anything, the work was yet another in a long assembly line of films to feed the hungry masses during the Depression, specifically 1934, when this fine little gem hit the nation’s cinemas. But funny things happen when one is encountered with a good script that inspires the moment, and the moment did indeed happen with this edition of Hidden Flick, Manhattan Melodrama.
Set in Depression-era New York, the film begins with the tale of two wayward boys who, because of a tragic accident, are thrown together into the dangerous early passages of life without any parents, and must learn to grow up fairly quickly, orphaned, finding tragedy once again after a brief bit of domestic tranquility, albeit without the comforts of a traditional family and slowly veering off into two drastically opposing paths.
Directed by the consistently entertaining and highly competent W.S. Van Dyke, or “One-Take Woody,” due to the ease and fluidity of his work, which rarely required much time or re-takes, the script was written by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph Mankiewicz from a story by Arthur Caesar. Ultimately, it is what the actors do with the material that really gives the film its spark, and spark is the key word here for sure.
When artists come together, one never really knows how the results will shape, or if the chemistry even lends itself to a work of resonance. In this case, you had three stars who had not quite super-novaed into the kind of cinematic titans that would open their careers to magnificent depth and variety, which it would for Powell, Loy, and, of course, the iconic Gable.
The real find here is Powell. Already a star, but not one of the types that would ensure a guaranteed hit, he had never shown the kind of performance that made one think of him as an actor that not only held long term promise, but could portray a role for the ages.
But portray one golden role William Powell did, and with the chemistry shown between he and Loy, a surprise perfect match enfolded on the screen, leading to fourteen roles with Loy, including the famous Thin Man series. It is his scenes with Loy and Gable that are of note in Manhattan Melodrama, and, without spoiling all the pathos and fun, the way that Powell’s character keeps a promise with his soul, that shows how one can ride the fence between politics and decency and never quite lose that one thing that keeps us all from falling into the abyss of corruption—stay true, and don’t let the end justify the means by any shape or form or action.
And those are the kinds of movies worth writing about—those little hidden surprises that linger in the memory and soul far longer than one ever thought, nor, quite frankly, ever thought could.