Now That’s What I Call Quite Good: Child Of Manhattan

child of manhattan indexBased on a play from Preston Sturges though with the script credited to Gertrude Purcell, this 1933 film is billed by IMDB as a romantic drama but it’s just as much a comedy as Sturges’ most well known work until around the 45 minute mark when it suddenly becomes rather upsetting and bleak. All of which makes it quite a fascinating film, especially when it comes to how love and marriage was treated at the time.

Essentially an odd couple movie, the very rich and very posh Paul Vanderkill (John Boles) is asked by his Aunt Sophie (Clara Blandick) to investigate a dance hall owned by the family, as when her carriage was detained outside of it she noticed that there were pictures of “unclothed females plastered all over the front of it” and was naturally horrified, at least until she learns of the rent they pay. Paul promises to go along to make sure it’s a respectable venue, and it is here that he meets Madelaine McGonagle (Nancy Caroll) who is bemused by the language Paul uses, repeating the line “Gee, you’re a funny guy” over and over again.

Despite the differences in class the two hit it off, as Paul pays her to dance with him several times, which sounds creepy but was just how the dance hall worked at that time, with a number of girls present who could be hired by the dance but nothing dodgy was allowed to take place afterwards. As the two chat away he compliments her with lines like “You’re a fascinating little witch”, which once again is an example of how times have changed as I suspect if you used that line on someone these days it’s possibly unlikely they’d fall head over heels in love with you.

Yet that’s what happens with Paul and Madelaine, even though Madelaine’s family is deeply suspicious of the relationship and even hints that Madelaine is prostituting herself to him. But she insists he is on the level with the line “He is a Gentleman. Half the time I couldn’t understand a word he was saying”, and after Paul gives her a thousand dollars out of the kindness of his heart her mother is won over. All of this is light, frothy material with only minor observations about the difference in status between the two, and that continues throughout the first half of the movie, best of all when Paul takes Madelaine clothes shopping

After this things take a turn for the worst though as Madelaine falls pregnant, and she’s deeply upset by this, commenting “I just didn’t know no better” as she thinks Paul believes she got pregnant to trap him. But he’s a decent sort and sticks by her and a wedding takes place, and if there wasn’t so long to go you could be easily fooled in to thinking that this will continue to be a light hearted romp. But then tragedy strikes and the baby dies shortly after she’s given birth, and for a good while the movie strikes a more serious tone as Madelaine runs off to Mexico to divorce Paul as apparently it was easier to get one in South America.

Here she bumps in to Panama Kelley (Buck Jones), an old lover, or someone who wished to be that anyhow, and he proposes to her, and isn’t put off when she tells him “Don’t you see Panama, I’ve been a bad woman”, but all along Paul was madly in love with her and is devastated by her disappearance, and when the “Comedy Mexican” Bustamente (Luis Alberni) turns up with knowledge of Madelaine, the divorce and marriage plans, Paul rushes down to Mexico to stop her and confess his love. But will he arrive in time? Well, I won’t spoil anything for you but it’s not a bleak ending, let’s put it that way.

It’s a very charming film the majority of the time and Nancy Caroll deserves a huge amount of kudos for anchoring it so effectively, the men in the film are more than decent but it’s Caroll who gives it its emotional heft. She’s superb at the fast talking witticisms but even better in the serious moments, and her reaction to the news that the baby didn’t survive is a fantastic piece of acting, far better than that found normally in movies of the time.

The dialogue is also greatly impressive, this was (just) a pre-code film which means there’s a fair amount of sexual innuendo and it deals with subjects that couldn’t be touched upon this explicitly for decades afterwards in an intriguing manner. What it has to say about class, reputation and status is quite astute, and though critics of the play at the time were extremely harsh, declaring it to be “sheer trash,” and “deeply offensive”, it is a fascinating historical document as well as an often very funny but also very affecting work.

★★★3/4

Alex Finch.
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