Manhattan Melodrama

After hearing about this movie for most of my life because it was the last thing John Dillinger saw (on July 22, 1934 at the Biograph Theater — a movie house that was still in operation when I moved to Chicago in 1987), I finally caught up with it on TCM and am surprised what a good picture it is. However idealized the two leading characters are — a good-natured gangster (Clark Gable at his very best) and a principled lawyer (William Powell), childhood pals, both of them loved by a good-natured and principled woman (Myrna Loy) — the diverse changes rung on our sympathies remain complex and nuanced throughout. I hope Dillinger liked it too. The continuing ambivalence of the Chicago public towards him can be measured by the fact that a restaurant located next to the Biograph was named after him.

There are many other reasons for liking this movie. I put off seeing it for so long because it was directed by W.S. Van Dyke (or “One-Take Woody” as he was known at MGM), which led me to ignore the fact that the screenplay was cowritten by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which I suspect helps to account for its overall intelligence. In one of his earliest appearances, Mickey Rooney plays the Gable character as a boy, and this first pairing of William Powell and Myra Loy was followed by thirteen more features in which they costarred, including all the Thin Man pictures. The movie was a huge hit, and in this case, the public was right. [5/30/2022]

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