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.