Monday, May 26, 2008

Manhattan Transfer

A remarkable movie that I had never even heard of, until it aired about a month ago on the Fox Movie Channel, is being repeated, as is Fox's wont, at 6:00 AM ET on May 27: Tales of Manhattan. Directed in 1942 by French exile Julien Duvivier, Tales of Manhattan is an anthology movie, telling several stories framed by a formal topcoat, and the several people into whose hands it falls, both figuratively and literally.

As is the case with anthologies, the stories are uneven, with some only good, and others outstanding. The happy side of this, however, is that if you don't like the current story, wait ten minutes, and you'll get another story. A brief synopsis of the seven stories:

1. Charles Boyer is having an affair with Rita Hayworth behind the back of her husband Thomas Mitchell;
2. Henry Fonda helps his friend Cesar Romero by claiming a love letter to Romero is actually for him; Ginger Rogers falls for the ruse and falls for Fonda;
3. Charles Laughton gets the chance to conduct the concerto he wrote;
4. Edward G. Robinson, a disbarred lawyer living at James Gleason's mission, goes to his 25th reunion, where he's discovered by George Sanders;
5. W.C. Fields plays a teetotaler pushing the benefits of coconut milk -- not knowing that Margaret Dumont's husband has spiked it;
6. J. Carroll Naish plays a casino robber;
7. Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters are sharecroppers who share the $41,000 Naish robs with their preacher, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

As you can see, Tales of Manhattan has an all-star cast (and I haven't mentioned a few character actors who show up in the framing stories). Perhaps the best of the stories are two in the middle. Charles Laughton's composer is a struggling one; at the opening of his story he's working as a pianist in a jive joint, playing popular music instead of the serious music he'd like to compose. Indeed, every time the boss turns his back, Laughton tries to play the songs with a more classical-styled arrangement. Watching this, along with the extremely expressive faces that Laughton makes in the bar and later, as his big chance seems to go sour, is a joy.

Edward G. Robinson's story is also excellent; he's a disbarred lawyer who needs the topcoat to be able to go to his reunion, and when he gets there, you can see it's clear that he doesn't want to disappoint his classmates by their finding out the truth about him -- despite the machinations of Sanders, who is wonderfully slimy, eight years before Sanders played the similar schemer Addison DeWitt in All About Eve.

The Naish segment might be the weakest of the bunch, in part because it's too short to have much of a story line, and in part due to the lack of star power. Other reviewers suggest that the Henry Fonda/Ginger Rogers love story is a bit weak, too. It's a straight up comedy, something which Fonda didn't do much of during his career. Usually, when he was in a comedy, he tended to play the foil and let others around him be funny, as in Yours, Mine, and Ours. (Yes, I know he was in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, but that's an exception.) Fonda isn't that bad, but the humor is often forced, and it's a "comedy of lies" (in that a little white lie leads to bigger and bigger cover-ups that are supposed to be the basis of the humor) that generally rubs me the wrong way.

Some may find the final segment uncomfortable, since it does come close to verging on racial stereotyping, much more so than when Anderson and Waters were together in Cabin in the Sky.

One final note: if you look carefully, you'll see that W.C. Fields isn't in the credits. That's because his sequence had been cut from the movie at one point, only to be added back in in the restored version.

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