I’ve been a big fan of the Thin Man films, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, for many years, but I had never seen the first film that paired the two actors, Manhattan Melodrama, released (like The Thin Man) in 1934. Both films were directed by W. S. Van Dyke, who would later direct the first two Thin Man sequels.

Manhattan Melodrama tells the story of two boys, Edward “Blackie” Gallagher (played as a boy by Mickey Rooney and as an adult by Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (played as an adult by William Powell) who grow up together on the Lower East Side and eventually end up on opposite sides of the law. Blackie is a prominent gambler, while Jim becomes a district attorney who runs for governor.

Right from the start, the film delivers what its title promises, recreating the “General Slocum Disaster,” which occurred on June 15, 1904, when the passenger boat General Slocum caught fire and sank, while carrying over 1,300 passengers on a cruise chartered by the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Only 321 people survived.

In the film, two boys, Edward “Blackie” Gallagher (played as a boy by Mickey Rooney and as an adult by Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (played as an adult by William Powell) lose their parents in the disaster. They are adopted by Poppa Rosen, a Jewish man whose son was among the victims. When Rosen invites the boys to come live with him and become “his sons,” Blackie says, “I’m not a Jew and neither is Jim.” To which Rosen replies, “Catholic, Protestant, Jew, what does it matter now,” appropriately enough for a film that was released by “Cosmopolitan Productions,” one of William Randolph Hearst‘s companies. Alas, this reconstructed family unit doesn’t last more than a single scene.

cover_spitz080324.jpgMyrna Loy plays Eleanor Packer, the woman who is drawn to both men, though she turns out to be not a femme fatale but rather a femme morale. As in many melodramas, the heroes are unambiguously good, and most of the villains are pasteboard crooks, but Blackie’s name turns out to be something of a misnomer. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that the career of Jim Wade offers a striking counterpoint to the career of that real-life district attorney-turned-governor Eliot Spitzer.

Manhattan Melodrama became infamous because John Dillinger was shot to death as he left in front of Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934 after seeing a showing of the film. Sensitive to any adverse publicity, Hearst had the “Cosmopolitan Production” credit removed from all prints of the film.

Unbelievably, the film was remade in 1942 with the “Melodrama” kept in and the “Manhattan” left out: retitled Northwest Rangers, the remake was set in the Yukon of all places!

Manhattan Melodrama was released last summer on DVD as part of a 5-disc set called The Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection. The set also includes: Evelyn Prentice (also 1934), Double Wedding (1937), I Love You Again (1940), and Love Crazy (1941). I’m looking forward to watching them all in the coming weeks.