Tonight: Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy in the crime drama Manhattan Melodrama.
When Gable made this movie in 1934, he was the king of MGM. He had just finished Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night at Columbia, which won him an Oscar and critical acclaim for everyone involved.
Manhattan Melodrama was produced by David O. Selznick, Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law, and directed by W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke.
Van Dyke had been an assistant director on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), and began a long, distinguished career as a director the following year.
He directed Trader Horn (1931) and the first Tarzan film with Johnny Weissmuller in 1932.
David O. Selznick had just produced King Kong at RKO in 1933.
Mayer brought him to MGM to counteract the growing influence that Irving Thalberg, the “Boy Wonder” was having at the studio as the head of production.
Selznick didn’t disappoint.
His first film for MGM was the sophisticated, highly acclaimed Dinner At Eight.
For Manhattan Melodrama, Selznick paired William Powell with Gable and Loy—a choice that Louis B. Mayer was not pleased about.
Selznick brought Powell to MGM from Warner Bros. over Mayer’s objection.
By 1934, in fact, Powell’s career was in trouble.
It was Selznick who saw the potential in Powell and secured his long term services for MGM.
In a defensive memo composed, but never sent, to Nicholas Schenck—the ultimate head of Loews, the parent company of MGM, Selznick enumerated his previous successes and said of Manhattan Melodrama: “Cost very low indeed! Enormous money maker. Brought Bill Powell to the company over everyone’s protest, including your own.”
It was Selznick who also brought Mickey Rooney to MGM for this same picture. He had seen the youngster playing ping-pong at a party at the Ambassador Hotel, where everyone was captivated by Rooney’s energy and personality.
Mayer objected to Rooney, just as he and Schenk had objected to Powell.
Mayer thought that Rooney was a “has been” at the age of 13 and said so.
Mayer was definitely not interested in giving Rooney a long term contract at MGM.
By the end of the decade, Mickey Rooney was MGM’s, and Hollywood’s, biggest star.
It was Selznick who had Joseph L. Mankiewicz write special parts for Gable and Powell as boys, so he could use Rooney as a boyhood Gable, and show Mayer he was worth signing to a contract.
The two boyhood pals—growing up on opposite sides of the law—became a cliché that was used over and over again in films thereafter.
This was William Powell’s first film with Myrna Loy.
Years later she said, “From the very first scene we did together, we felt that particular magic that was there between us.
“There was this feeling of rhythm, of complete understanding, and an instinct of how each of us could bring out the best in the other.”
In the 1940s, Powell said, “She seemed to have an instinctive understanding of my moods and my technique. She made them mesh with her own.
“We also shared a similar sense of humor. Myrna was a real pro; all her moves were thought out. It was an asset to my career to work with her.”
Director Van Dyke was so impressed by their screen chemistry that he cast them in his next film as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man.
It made them superstars.
Manhattan Melodrama was shot in less than a month—between March 17 and April 9th, my birthday.
(Woody Van Dyke was known as “one shot Woody”—the fastest director in Hollywood.)
The film was released a month later, on May 4, 1934, at a cost of just $355,000. Earning a net profit of $415,000.
It won an Oscar Best Original Screenplay.
The Cotton Club number in the picture is actually sung by Shirley Ross, later paired with Bob Hope in “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” singing “Thanks for the Memories.”
The Rodgers and Hart number was originally written for Jean Harlow for a misbegotten film titled Hollywood Party but never used.
In its first version, it was called “Prayer.”
It appears here with new lyrics, titled The Bad In Every Man.
Hart changed the lyrics a third time—after this film was completed—and it became the classic, Blue Moon.
This is a gangster picture, but with a difference.
Gable plays a gangster, but a heroic one.
The most famous gangster of 1934 was John Dillinger—Public Enemy Number One—and a man of heroic proportions himself.
He was hanging out in Chicago at the time.
He was lured out of his hideout by this movie, then showing at the Biograph Theater.
The FBI was tipped off by the notorious Woman in Red, and the Feds were waiting for him when he came out of the movie.
He was shot down in the alley next to the theater when he exited.
Think about that when you’re watching this picture.