Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

W.S. Van Dyke | 1hr 33min

Back in the days of early Hollywood when it wasn’t uncommon for films to wear their genres as titles like The Broadway Melody, audiences knew exactly what they could expect by just a few, short words. It is a little surprising then to discover that Manhattan Melodrama packs an even greater punch than its uninspired name suggests, adding its own voice to the age-old ‘nature vs nurture’ debate by formally contrasting a pair of old friends who grew up as surrogate brothers, and yet find themselves following opposing paths leading them into conflict as adults. Not only is this the second film that W.S. van Dyke directed in 1932, with The Thin Man backing up his admirable filmography, but this is also the same year that Clark Gable made his breakthrough in It Happened One Night. While his performance here doesn’t quite touch the heights he reaches in Frank Capra’s romantic comedy, his brotherly chemistry with William Powell is substantial, building between them a sweet relationship that transcends any law that might drive them apart.

The sinking of the passenger steamboat PS General Slocum in 1904 marks the point at which young boys Blackie and Jim lose their biological families and start a new one with each other, connecting over the shared tragedy marking their childhoods. It also displays van Dyke’s greatest piece of direction in the film, a truly Eisensteinian sequence like Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa Steps scene that builds a tragic disaster from the colliding fragments of a dextrously edited montage. Beyond the utter panic present in the busy staging and frenzied pacing, this montage still carefully tracks various figures within the chaos – the man who has fallen beneath the feet of a trampling crowd, the trapped child banging on a window, the choking passengers toppling over the side of the ship, and most importantly, the two boys making their own escape to shore.

Van Dyke following in the footsteps of Eisenstein in his editing of this historical disaster, adopting the Soviet montage barely ten years after its innovation.
Manhattan Melodrama also features some dynamic camera movements, keeping up with the horses here at the race track.

Though they grow up side-by-side in New York, their shared history is one of the only things they have in common. Through their years as teenagers, van Dyke returns to his inventive montage editing, but this time a split screen accompanies them as the studious Jim works hard towards a law degree, and the mischievous Blackie gambles his way to owning a successful yet illegal casino. As they become adults, another similarity soon emerges as well – Gable and Powell bear a striking resemblance to each other with their slicked-back hair, smart suits, and pencil moustaches, looking like a pair of twins. When Myrna Loy finally enters the scene as Eleanor, the stage is finally set for a love triangle that will see her romantic interest switch from one to the other, perhaps seeing them as flip sides of a single person.

An inspired split screen montage showing the diverging paths of the two surrogate brothers as they grow up.

By crafting such robust formal connections between his characters, van Dyke draws out rich, internal conflicts that bring their very principles into question. Blackie’s murder of a man who has threatened Jim during his run for New York governor might have come from a place of love, but it is a foolish act that presses his friend to doubt the legitimacy of his own election, as well as to consider unethically commuting Blackie’s sentence. As one sits in prison awaiting his execution and the other is sworn into office, Manhattan Melodrama keeps on drawing these poignant comparisons that have sent them to either end of the social ladder, composing elegant frames that trap Blackie behind prison bars and wired windows.

Gable is often framed behind bars throughout the final act of the film, but in this composition as the friends say their farewells we see them both trapped by their separate fates.

It is only when both men stop trying to cover for each other’s mistakes and accept the natural consequences of their actions that they ultimately find any closure in their relationship, as van Dyke lets them part ways towards their independent futures with a poignant farewell. Tragedy thus marks the beginning and end of Blackie and Jim’s fraternal love, touchingly binding them together as star-crossed soulmates, and, yes, even delivering on the teary melodrama promised in the film’s self-conscious title.

A poignant frame as Blackie walks towards his execution, tying off his storyline.

Manhattan Melodrama is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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