Clark Gable

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Manhattan Melodrama

Childhood friends Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable as an adult, Mickey Rooney as a child) and Jim Wade (William Powell as an adult, Jimmy Butler as a child) grow up together facing a great deal of adversity. But even from an early age, it’s pretty obvious that these kids are on completely different paths in life. Blackie and Jim stay close over the years, but their lives head in completely different directions. While Jim studies hard and grows up to be District Attorney, Blackie ends up running his own gambling club.

Even though they’re on different sides of the law, Blackie has the utmost respect for Jim and when Jim is named District Attorney, Blackie wants to go out with him to celebrate. Unfortunately, Blackie can’t make it to the celebration at the last minute, but he sends his girlfriend Eleanor (Myrna Loy) in his place. Eleanor and Jim have a lovely night together and it leaves Eleanor wishing Blackie could be more like Jim. Realizing that Blackie will never change, Eleanor leaves him. A few months pass and Jim runs into Eleanor again at a party. This time, it turns into a real romance and it isn’t long before they’re married. Although Blackie wishes them well, one of his cohorts unwittingly puts Jim in a compromising position that could cost Jim everything he’s worked so hard for.

Manhattan Melodrama is rather notorious for being the movie John Dillinger had seen before being killed while leaving a movie theater. But classic movie fans may best remember it for being the first on-screen pairing of Myrna Loy and William Powell. Of the non-Thin Man movies Myrna Loy and William Powell made together, Manhattan Melodrama may be my favorite. It may not be a comedy like The Thin Man, but Loy and Powell still positively sparkle together and I just adore the scene where their characters meet for the first time when she jumps into his taxi cab. It’s absolutely no wonder they went on to make so many more movies together.

The great thing about Manhattan Melodrama is that Myrna Loy doesn’t get just one of her best co-stars, she gets two of them. As phenomenal as Loy and Powell always were together, Loy and Clark Gable are pretty delightful together,too. All three stars deliver very strong performances. When you take a cast like that, add tight direction from W.S. Van Dyke and a story that delivers on the melodrama, but has enough grit to be anything but ordinary, and you’ve got a really effective yet complex little drama. Usually, I tend to find MGM’s attempts at gangster films to be pretty weak attempts to latch on to the popularity of Warner Brothers’ gangster movies, but Manhattan Melodrama is definitely an exception.

Possessed (1931)

Possessed 1931 Joan Crawford Clark GableMarian Martin (Joan Crawford) is an unrepentant gold digger.  She’s a factory worker from Erie, Pennsylvania, but she would love to be a high society dame.  Her boyfriend Al Manning (Wallace Ford) is a fellow working class guy and is content to stay that way. But Marian knows her only real chance at being a wealthy woman is to marry for money.  On her way home from work one day, she meets the wealthy Wally Stuart (Richard Gallagher) when he passes by on a train.  Wally is drunk at the time and tells Marian to look him up if she’s ever in New York.  When Al finds out that Marian was spending time with another man, he’s livid and his reaction is enough to drive Marian straight to New York.

Marian arrives in New York and goes straight to Wally’s apartment, but he doesn’t remember her.  However, he does give her some advice on meeting rich men.  And as luck would have it, she catches the eye of Wally’s friend Mark Whitney (Clark Gable).  Mark is divorced and doesn’t want to re-marry because he’s afraid of being hurt again.  However, he does turn Marian into a kept woman and they carry on an affair for three years.  He even has her pose as Mrs. Moreland, a rich divorcee, to make their arrangement appear more respectable.

While Marian has been in New York with Mark, Al has been back in Erie starting his own concrete company.  His business is doing well and when he comes to New York on business, he visits Marian and proposes to her, not knowing about her relationship with Mark.  She turns him down, but when he finds out she knows Mark Whitney, he uses her as a connection to get a meeting with Mark.  However, Mark’s attitude toward marriage has changed now that he’s considering running for governor, despite the damage it could do to his campaign.  Not wanting to hurt Mark’s campaign, Marian breaks it off with him to marry Al instead.  But when Al finds out about her affair with Mark, he wants nothing to do with her unless she uses her influence with Mark to help him seal that business deal.  Marian leaves Al, but will Mark take her back?

Joan Crawford and Clark Gable starred in eight movies together and Possessed is one of the best of the bunch.  Not only is their chemistry completely on point, Possessed is a perfect example of why I’m so fond of many movies from the pre-code era.  It’s full of the boundary-pushing material that makes the era so interesting to many people.  The story is very efficiently told;  Possessed clocks in at a whopping 76 minutes and not a minute of it is wasted.  Plain and simple, it’s a very sharp little movie.

The Secret Six (1931)

The Secret Six 1931 PosterLooking to make some fast money, Scorpio (Wallace Beery) meets with gangsters Johnny Franks (Ralph Bellamy) and Mizoski (Paul Hurst) about joining a bootlegging racket.  They work for Newton (Lewis Stone) and he wants to muscle fellow bootlegger Joe Colimo (John Miljan) out of some of his territory.  Of course, Colimo isn’t about to take that sitting down. He gets into a gunfight with Newton’s guys and Colimo’s brother is killed in the crossfire.  When Colimo comes looking to get even, Johnny tries to set Scorpio up to take the fall, but Scorpio figures out what’s going on and turns the tables on Johnny.

With all the excitement, police and newspaper reporters flock to Newton’s headquarters.  Among them are reporters Hank (John Mack Brown) and Carl (Clark Gable), who take a linking to Newton’s associate Anne (Jean Harlow).  Each of them is hoping to get the scoop from Anne.  After the excitement surrounding Johnny and Colimo dies down, Scorpio  continues to prove to be a valuable asset to the gang and even helps get Mizoski elected as Mayor.  Not content with just running a small town, Scorpio sets his sights on taking over the big city, too.  But the big city doesn’t want Scorpio around. A group called The Secret Six is formed to fight his influence and Carl is recruited to help their cause.

The Secret Six is a somewhat unusual MGM movie in that it has none of the gloss generally associated with MGM movies and instead has all of the grit of a Warner Brothers movie.  Indeed, The Secret Six was produced by Irving Thalberg in an attempt to compete with Warner Brothers’ gangster hits like The Public Enemy. Although The Secret Six is an enjoyable movie with a good cast, it lacks the organic quality that Little Caesar and The Public Enemy have.   It’s a movie that tried so hard to follow a trend that it simply could not have that effortless quality of the trendsetter.

My Favorite Pre-Code Journalists

As you will see with this weekend’s Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon (hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings), there are plenty of great movies that feature memorable journalists.  Citizen Kane, His Girl Friday, All the President’s Men, just to name a few.  But for me, my favorite reporters in movies were all from the pre-code era.

Clark Gable It Happened One NightClark Gable as Peter Warne in It Happened One Night

Now Peter Warne is a reporter who will go to any length to get a good story.  And you gotta admit, he put up with a lot of nonsense from Ellie on their trip together.  But when it comes down to it, Peter isn’t a greedy man.  After falling in love with Ellie, he just wants to publish his story so he can have the money to marry her.  And even when it looks like she’s left him to go back to Westley, he still doesn’t care about the huge reward.  All he wants cares about is getting his expenses reimbursed.

Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, DanceJoan Crawford as Bonnie Jordan in Dance, Fools, Dance

Bonnie Jordan may be just a rookie reporter, but she also goes the extra mile for her job.  When one of her fellow reporters is killed while investigating gangster Jake Luva (played by Clark Gable), her editor sends her to find out who is responsible for his death.  So Bonnie takes a job dancing in Jake’s nightclub so she can get close to him.  Of course, she ends up biting more than she can chew and even though she gets her story, she decides being a reporter just isn’t right for her after all.  But you’ve certainly got to give her credit for giving it her all.

Glenda Farrell in Mystery of the Wax MuseumGlenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey in Mystery of the Wax Museum

You can always count on Glenda Farrell to bring plenty of sass to her characters and Mystery of the Wax Museum is no exception.  Not only is Florence sassy, she can dig up stories on slow news days and is smart enough to figure out what’s really happening at the wax museum.  Every newspaper needs a Florence Dempsey type on their staff.

James Cagney in Picture SnatcherJames Cagney as Danny Keane in Picture Snatcher

Gotta love Danny Keane.  After giving up being a gangster, he decides to pursue his lifelong dream of being a newspaper reporter.  He doesn’t work at the best paper in town, but he makes the most of the opportunity.  Danny is clever, resourceful, and not afraid to break the rules, so he excels at getting some hard-to-get pictures for the paper.  Even though he’s not the most ethical journalist, he’s not cold and ruthless, either.  When he goes too far on the job and ends up hurting the girl he’s fallen in love with, he feels just awful about it.

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For more contributions to the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, head on over to Comet Over Hollywood or Lindsay’s Movie Musings.

Cain and Mabel (1936)

Cain and Mabel Poster

When Aloysius K. Reilly (Roscoe Karns) accidentally causes waitress Mabel O’Dare (Marion Davies) to lose her job, Reilly is determined to find her an even better job.  Mabel insists that waiting tables is her only skill, but when Reilly finds out she can dance a little, he tries turning her into a Broadway star.  He finagles his way into meeting producer Jake Sherman and is nearly thrown out of the theater.  But when the star of the show suddenly quits, Jake hires Mabel anyway.

Mabel is hardly a great dancer, so the night before the show opens, she spends the night practicing her routines in a hotel room.  Unfortunately, she happens to be staying in the room above boxer Larry Cain (Clark Gable), who is trying to rest before a big match.  Her dancing keeps him awake and when he tries to tell her to keep it down, he’s met with a rude response.  But when both Larry and Mabel could use a little publicity, Reilly comes up with the idea of staging a romance between the two of them for the press.

Larry and Mabel loathe each other, but they go along with the charade.  However, Larry starts to warm to Mabel when he finds out that she comes from a working class background. He admits that he’d rather be a mechanic than a boxer and Mabel loves the idea of quitting the stage, marrying him, and helping him turn his dream into a reality.  They plan to elope, but when Reilly and the other people working for them find out, they want to put a stop to it.  They feed the story to the newspapers, making Mabel and Larry think the other one sold them out.  They go their separate ways, but when Mabel finds out the truth, she makes a mad dash to save their relationship.

Cain and Mabel is a cute, but not particularly noteworthy movie.  The plot is nonsense, but it’s likeable enough.  Clark Gable is fine in his part, but unfortunately, Marion Davies’ role just doesn’t suit her talents.  Marion was a gifted comedienne but aside from some snappy lines, she doesn’t get to put her comedic skills to good use in Cain in Mabel.  Instead she was put in a couple of musical numbers that really slow down the movie.  But this is hardly the worst movie I’ve seen from either Gable or Davies, so if you’re a big fan of either of them, it’s worth seeing at least once.

Laughing Sinners (1931)

For two years, nightclub dancer Ivy Stevens (Joan Crawford) has been carrying on an affair with traveling salesman Howdy Palmer (Neil Hamilton).  Howdy means the absolute world to Ivy, but what she doesn’t know is that he’s about to leave her to marry another woman.  He knows how heartbroken she would be and can’t bring himself to end things in person, so he leaves a note for her to find as soon as she’s done on stage one night.

Ivy is so devastated that she wants to throw herself off a bridge, but just as she’s about to jump, Salvation Army worker Carl Loomis (Clark Gable) stops her and offers her some reassuring words.  He also invites her to join him at a picnic for disadvantaged children he’ll be working at.  Ivy turns him down at first, but when she reads about Howdy’s wedding in the newspaper, she changes her mind.  That afternoon, she trades her flashy clothing for the more modest Salvation Army uniform.

Time passes and Howdy isn’t happy with his marriage, so when he runs into Ivy one day, he tries to rekindle their relationship.  But by then, Ivy has found happiness with Carl and in her new, more wholesome life, so she turns him down.  Howdy doesn’t want to let her go and continues to pressure her into getting back together with him, and eventually she gives in.  Ivy had thought her past was now firmly behind her, but being with Howdy again has brought out her former self again.  When she starts dancing around the way she used to, she catches the attention of everyone in her hotel, including Carl.  She’s horrified for Carl to see her that way, but ultimately, she realizes the life she could lead with Carl is the one that would bring her the most happiness.

Laughing Sinners has a pretty mediocre story, but if you’re a big fan of either Crawford or Gable, it’s worth seeing just for the sake of seeing them working together for the second time.  Crawford gave a pretty engaging performance and there’s a definite rapport between her and Gable, but he doesn’t seem particularly comfortable playing a Salvation Army worker.  It’s easy to forgive Gable for being awkward, though, since this is another very early movie in his career and it’s not surprising that MGM wanted to see how he’d do as a different type of character.  But really, even if Gable had totally hit it out of the park, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference since the story is so flimsy, it was never going to amount to a great movie. Any other Crawford/Gable pairing is more worth your time.

A Free Soul (1931)

Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) and her father Stephen(Lionel Barrymore) have a very close relationship.  Even though a lot of their family judges Stephen for his alcoholism, Jan stands by him every step of the way. When she and Stephen are invited to a family dinner, Jan’s grandmother asks her to keep an eye on Stephen and make sure he doesn’t drink. But sure enough, he shows up to dinner drunk.  Not only does he come over drunk, he brings gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) along with him.  Stephen is an attorney and had just defended him in court earlier that day.

Even though she’s engaged to Dwight Wintrhop (Leslie Howard), Jan is very attracted to Ace, who she finds much more exciting than Dwight.  They start seeing each other and before long, Ace asks Stephen for permission to marry Jan.  Stephen does not approve of their relationship, but that doesn’t stop Jan from seeing him.  However, when Jan finally can’t take any more of Stephen’s boozing, she makes a deal with him that she’ll leave Ace if he quits drinking. Stephen and Jan take a trip out of town to get their minds off their vices and at first, all is going well for them.  But as soon as they get home again, they’re right back where they started.

When Jan goes to see Ace, he’s angry at her for leaving him and insists they get married right away.  She doesn’t want to marry him and wants to go back to Dwight, but Ace continues to force her into it.  Finally, Dwight is ready to put an end to this once and for all and shoots Ace.  Dwight owns up to it and is willing to take the fall for everything, just to keep Jan’s name out of the whole mess.  But Stephen isn’t willing to let him throw his life away and makes a very dramatic appearance in court to defend him.

A Free Soul isn’t one of my favorites, the story really drags at times.  But it does have some excellent performances and it’s worth seeing for that reason alone.  Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, and Clark Gable all shine in it.  Barrymore won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, Shearer earned a Best Actress nomination, and it was a big breakthrough for Gable, who was pretty new to the film world at the time.  Leslie Howard was also a movie newcomer then, and he’s fine in A Free Soul, but he wasn’t given a chance to do very much in it. Of course, it’s interesting to see Gable and Howard together in a movie as newcomers eight years before they co-starred in Gone With the Wind when they were both at the peaks of their careers.