Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Child of Manhattan (Columbia, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran us a 1933 Columbia programmer called Child of Manhattan, a film with some potential but which turned out to be a rather dull soap opera despite its basis in a play by Preston Sturges premiered the year before. Sophie Jones (Clara Blandick, playing someone’s upper-class aunt six years before she was Dorothy Gale’s Aunt Em in The Wizard of Oz), a relative of the Vanderkill family in New York, is shocked, shocked to find that one of the Vanderkill estates has been rented out to a promoter who’s turned it into the dime-a-dance ballroom Loveland. Paul Vanderkill (John Boles), her nephew, volunteers to investigate and while there meets and instantly falls in love with hostess Madeleine McGonigle (Nancy Carroll, top-billed). He offers to buy her expensive presents and set her up in an apartment — after Back Street and Forbidden this sort of role must have been all too familiar to Boles — but won’t actually marry her because he’s a widower and doesn’t want to embarrass the daughter he had with his first wife, who’s about the same age as Madeleine.

She takes him up on it, both out of real love for him and in order to get away from her family from hell, which includes a ferocious mother (Jane Darwell), an unemployed brother (Gary Owen) who mooches from her, and an almost as obnoxious sister (an almost unrecognizable Betty Grable). The inevitable happens and she ends up pregnant, which leads Paul to propose to her and marry her at last, but their baby dies after only a few hours of life and this causes her, for reasons only Preston Sturges and Gertrude Purcell (who adapted his play for the screen) could explain, to break up with him, go to Mexico for a divorce and take up with “Panama Canal” Kelly (cowboy star Charles “Buck” Jones). When her attorney, Carlos Spanoni Bustamante (Luis Alberni, whose usual Italian accent is being passed off as a Mexican one), inserts into the divorce agreement a provision that Paul pay her $100,000 per year in alimony until she gets married again — without her knowledge, since she didn’t want any money from him at all — he naturally writes her off as a gold-digger and she gets so upset she determines to marry Kelly immediately just to get Paul off the hook for all that money — and naturally the news gets to Paul in New York and he comes to Mexico just in time to keep her from marrying Kelly and [re]marry her himself, though not before getting involved in a barroom brawl that inadvertently “outs” him nationwide and links his name with public scandal in the way he’s been trying to avoid all movie.

This could have been a good basis for a movie, and at times Child of Manhattan looks genuinely stylish, but Purcell’s script presents Sturges’ play as 99 44/100ths percent pure soap opera and the director, Eddie Buzzell, doesn’t help either; his best-known credits are for two of the lesser Marx Brothers movies (At the Circus and Go West), which at least energized him. Here, he and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff (later a director himself) get some quite pleasing compositions and an occasional atmospheric shot (though the film’s look is so generic New York and Mexico are visually indistinguishable), but Buzzell proves himself unable to get a credible performance out of Nancy Carroll. Through most of the movie she’s calculatedly winsome (no, that’s not a contradiction in terms), but when she’s got to react to the big moments like the death of her baby she overacts at such a level she’s virtually screaming at the camera, and while from someone like Joan Crawford we expect that sort of thing, it comes as a shock from a nice little 1920’s Kewpie doll like Carroll.

Child of Manhattan isn’t an outright bad movie; it’s just dull, and dull in a flat, conventional way one wouldn’t expect from something with Preston Sturges’ name on it. (According to the American Film Institute Catalog, Neil Hamilton played Paul for the first two weeks of production and then was replaced by Boles — and had Hamilton completed the role, this probably would have been an outright bad movie; Boles, though visibly older, brought a welcome gravitas and substance to an emptily written role.)