Sunday, December 12, 2010

'Fly from Evil'

Dillinger died for this?

I finally got around to watching Manhattan Melodrama, an old movie I had recorded several weeks ago.

The 1934 film stars Clark Gable and William Powell as lifelong friends who wind up on opposite sides of the law--something that seems to happen a lot in old movies.

Myrna Loy plays the love interest and this is the first time she and Powell were paired up. The two would go on to make the "Thin Man" series, eventually starring in 14 movies together.

The film is hardly a classic. The plot is creaky and contrived, even allowing for the passage of time, but it’s got so many great people in it that you really don’t care.

But the reason that I really wanted to see this movie was because this was the last film that the infamous bank robber John Dillinger saw before being gunned down by FBI agents as he left the Biograph Theater in Chicago.

FBI agents had staked out the theater, but they didn’t want to move in on Dillinger until the film was over. My first reaction upon seeing it was that they should have nailed him before he saw this thing. But that's a little harsh.

Manhattan Melodrama opens with the young heroes Blackie and Jim, (portrayed by Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Butler) on board the General Slocum, which caught fire on June 15, 1904.

An estimated 1,021 were killed that day, making this the New York area's worst disaster in terms of loss of life until September 11.

The ship had been chartered by St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Little Germany district in the lower East Side of Manhattan.

I once took a historical walking tour of that area and our guide told us how the husbands of the victims had come home from work that day to learn they had lost their wives and children. The German neighborhood pretty much disappeared after the fire as people moved away in an attempt to escape all that grief.

Blackie and Jim are orphaned in the fire, but they are adopted by kindly Mr. Rosen, who lost his son in the blaze as well.

This relationship, however, doesn’t last very long, as Mr. Rosen is trampled by a police wagon during a riot and the hard-lucked duo is orphaned once again. No one attempts to adopt the boys this time, perhaps fearing a grisly death. When they called this thing a melodrama, they weren’t kidding.

It’s intriguing to note that Mickey Rooney went on to have a long career in the movie business, but Jimmy Butler, who played the younger version of William Powell, was killed in World War II. He was 23 years old.

The boys grow up and Blackie becomes a racketeer while Jim becomes the district attorney and eventually the governor. Throughout the film we see shots of a clock tower bearing the words “Observe the time, young man, and fly from evil.” Blackie never gets the message. And neither did Dillinger.

The two buddies meet again for the first time in years as they are going to see Jack Dempsey fight Louis Firpo.

The fight took place in the Polo Grounds on September 14, 1923 and Firpo knocked Dempsey through the ropes toward the end of the first round, inspiring the George Bellows painting. Dempsey came back in the second round to knock Firpo out.

Gable and Powell don’t actually see the fight, however, since they spend so much time catching up that the fight ends before they take their seats.

Blackie ultimately winds up on death row, thanks to Jim’s superior courtroom skills. Both men suffer great losses and by the end of the film—spoiler alert—Blackie walks the last mile while Jim tries to put his life back together.

Dillinger unknowingly walked his last mile, too, as he left the Biograph. Outside Melvin Purvis and a team of FBI agents were waiting for him and the "Woman in Red," a madam who had tipped off the police in the vain hope of avoiding deportation back to her native Romania.

When Purvis saw Dillinger leaving the theater, he signaled to the other agents by lighting his cigar. Dillinger ran into an alley, where he was shot to death and people were supposedly dipping their hankerchiefs in his spilled blood.

Dillinger has been portrayed countless times in the movies, but my favorite version of his story was Michael Man’s Public Enemies with Johnny Depp portraying Dillinger.

I never bothered seeing this film in the theater and it took me a long time to rent it because I didn't think there was much anyone could do with the gangster genre in general and the Dillinger story in particular. How many blazing tommy gun battles can we stand?

However, I called that one wrong. Public Enemies was a blast in ever sense of the word.

One of the final scenes of the picture has Johnny Depp sitting in the Biograph watching Manhattan Melodrama.


Ron said...

Excellent movie review, Rob!

Fascinating how you wove this review with so much history.

Now you've got me curious to watch this film. And you're right...great cast!

It was so interesting to read how this was John Dillingers last film he watched before being gunned down.

Can you believe I've never seen "Public Enemies?" Johnny Depp is one of my favorite actors, so I have to put this movie on my list.

Thanks for sharing!

Rob K said...

Hey, Ron--yes, it's cool to see how fantasy and reality keep bumping into each other. And do check out Public Enemies--it's a great flick.