Manhattan Melodrama is a love story. It’s the first Powell and Loy film but this time the focus is on the fraternal love of two men who grew up as brothers, before following different paths as adults. It’s melodramatic and contrived but all its cards are on the table – just look at the title. The contrivances serve to give two great actors, William Powell and Clark Gable, a stage on which to knock our socks off. I think they succeed.
Powell is Jim Wade, an upright and ambitious man who managed to put himself through law school. His best friend is Blackie Gallagher. He’s also ambitious, but more of a wheeler-dealer. As they rise to the top of their respective professions, it becomes apparent that they are very much on opposite sides of the fence, making personal and professional life more and more difficult to mix.
There isn’t really much to this film beyond the acting. The plot is facile and even lazy, gunning for maximum emotional impact. It’s something that can only work with the right script and actors. These are solid all around, with the exception of Nat Pendleton and his girl who play the too-stupid-to-exist lug and bimbo. They’re probably supposed to be comic relief. Luckily they’re not around much as they’re gratingly unfunny. As a Loy fan it pains me to say this but she seems a little out of her depth. Still, she’s decent enough considering her part isn’t a good one. Powell and Clark are every bit as good as would be expected. As usual, William Powell is the epitome of dignified. He perfectly communicates the inner turmoil of a straight man without over-acting. As for Gable, the same talents that would bag him a best actor Oscar for It Happened One Night (released months before Melodrama) are on display here as well.
Manhattan Melodrama is far from flawless but it’s a film that can have you love its flaws. I’ve never had a brother but after watching it I did get thinking about friends close enough to almost qualify. The kind of guys who’d back you up in a tight spot, even in a fight. Tastes vary, of course, but for my money, this is a real guys’ film. Forget explosions and the other nonsense – this is something you would only watch with close friends. It almost demands misty-eyed sacrifices and is a celebration of what it means to be best mates forever. The real crying shame is that Hollywood didn’t pair these two up for anything else!
Aside: Might be an interesting little factoid. Here in Ireland we pronounce “Gallagher” like “gal-ah-her”. The reason is that it isn’t an English language name, but an Irish Gaelic one. When our language was transliterated to use the Roman alphabet we ended up with fewer letters so certain sounds can only achieved by combining two letters. “Gh” can be considered a soft sound, similar to a single “h”.