The Free Library of Philadelphia lends DVDs for free, bless their hearts. The downside of this is that the selection is far less extensive and far more random than it is at, say, Chester County Library, where my sister goes, which charges a buck or two for a week’s rental. I actually kind of enjoy the randomness of the collection at my local branch, though. Movies are shelved in rough alphabetical order, by first letter of the first word of the title and no breaking down into genre or suchlike. Thus even if I’m looking for something specific, I’ll walk out with some strange serendipitous find.
The other day I returned Anchorman and Stage Fright (Hitchcock, 1950) and took out Saving Face (lesbian romantic comedy, half in English and half in Mandarin, which has been hovering in the low hundreds on my Netflix queue for over a year) and Manhattan Melodrama, the title of which rang some very vague bells. There was no plot summary on the back of the box, but a picture of stars Myrna Loy and William Powell was on the front.
“Even if it’s not very good, how bad could it be with those two, right?” I said to the librarian who checked me out — who, it turns out, is another aficionado of classic movies, and specifically a Loy-Powell fan, so he enthusiastically agreed.
How bad could it be?
The “melodrama” in the title is a fair description of the plot — this is definitely a movie that is short on nuance. Two young working class boys are adopted by a Jew who lost his son in the same tragic boat fire in which they lost their parents. The Jew dies a few years later in a riot that broke out after he spoke up in favor of the American dream at a Communist rally, but the boys’ bond endures. They end up on opposite sides of the law, as presaged in the scenes set in their childhood: Blackie (Clark Gable) is a charming gangster, and Jim (William Powell) is an ambitious young lawyer. Blackie’s moll, Eleanor (Myrna Loy), loves him but longs for marriage and a family, which Blackie has no interest in.
Eleanor and Jim finally meet, and their mutual attraction is instantaneous, but it’s not until several months after Eleanor walks out on Blackie that they end up together. And it’s not until after Jim and Eleanor are married — and Jim has become district attorney — that Blackie commits a pair of murders and their lifelong friendship is put to the ultimate test.
It’s around this point that I thought “Wait a second, I’ve heard of this movie.” I watched through to the melodramatic end, then hit the Internet to figure out why. It turns out that Manhattan Melodrama is the answer to a whole slew of movie trivia questions. For your convenience (though who knows, some of you may still want to watch the movie), I’ll give provide them for you, in rough order of WTF-ness.
The answer is Manhattan Melodrama
What is the first movie Myrna Loy and William Powell costarred in?
Manhattan Melodrama premiered on May 4, 1934, three weeks before The Thin Man. The pair went on to make a total of 14 films together. (The last was The Senator Was Indiscreet , a starring vehicle for Powell in which Loy had a very brief cameo as his character’s wife.)
What movie had John Dillinger just seen when he was gunned down outside a Chicago theater on July 22, 1934?
I’m guessing this is why the title sounded familiar.
What movie featured the song “Blue Moon” before it was “Blue Moon”?
On Eleanor and Jim’s first “date” (she’s still very much with Blackie at that point, and Jim doesn’t kiss her goodnight at the end of the evening), they go to the Cotton Club, where they pick up a souvenir that will be a plot point later. At the club, the singer fronting the band is played by an actress named Shirley Ross, a blonde from Omaha, who donned a very bad wig and had her skin darkened to sing “The Bad in Every Man” (did I mention the movie’s lack of subtlety?). I recognized the melody, but kept waiting for the lyrics to get to the part I knew — it turns out that Lorenz Hart wrote those lyrics after the release of the film. The song was copyrighted as “Blue Moon” in December 1934.
What was Mickey Rooney’s first film for MGM?
Rooney, born in 1920 (and still alive at this writing), made 78 comedy shorts based on a comic strip between 1927 and 1937. He was billed as Mickey McGuire, the character’s name, in an effort to avoid a copyright lawsuit with the creator of the strip, Toonerville Trolley.
Rooney’s mother wanted to take him on a vaudeville tour in 1932, but Fox sued to prevent him from doing so under the McGuire name. His mother suggested “Looney” as a surname, but Mickey went with “Rooney” instead.
He signed with MGM in 1934. After Manhattan Melodrama, he had supporting roles in several movies before his career took off in 1937. Among the seven films he was in that year were A Family Affair (his first appearance as Andy Hardy) and Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (his first movie with Judy Garland).
And the final trivia tidbit, and clearly the most WTF of them all:
In what movie did Mickey Rooney and Clark Gable play the same character?
Yes, believe it or not, Mickey Rooney played Blackie as a boy. There’s really nothing else to say about that.