Saturday, November 8, 2008

Child of Manhattan

Adorable Nancy Carroll as Madelaine McGonegle in Child of Manhattan.

After a long week-end in New york, I was attracted by the title of this movie. Child of Manhattan (1933) is a pre-code drama starring Nancy Carrol and John Boles as the richest man in New York, Paul Venderkill, falling in love with a taxi dancer. Nancy Carol works at Loveland a dime a dance "ballroom" on 29th street and 6th avenue in Chelsea. Vanderkill's family is building a huge set of apartments in the neighborhood (in 1930 the Settlement housing in Chelsea was the largest in the cities' history). He's gone to check out the dance hall to ease the conscience of his aunt to make sure the place is respectable. He meets Madelaine McGonegle who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. When she finds out his name, she laughs and says "that's a phone exchange, not a name," not realizing that the phone exchange is named after his family.

Child of Manhattan is a curious movie, part melodrama, part comedy and romance. It mixes the low comedy of immigrants with funny accents brushing up against old money in a way that mirrors the history of the city after which its named. The child in Child of Manhattan is a love child who dies shortly after birth, but it could as easily refer to the whole relationship between rich and poor that movie explores. When Vanderkill takes his new girlfriend to buy her clothes, she balks at the prices and the looseness of the gowns. Her taste run to tight and cheap, available she informs him from shops in the garment district for $4.98 and up.

Vanderkill, though he loves Madelaine does not consider marrying her and she takes that fact as a given and doesn't seem to want to or expect to push for a wedding. When her mother finds out that she is being kept by Vanderkill she throws her out of the house. (Watch for a very young Betty Grable, who plays Madelaine's little sister.) This pre-code arrangement works fine until Madelaine gets pregnant and Vanderkill decides to do the honorable thing by her.

Child of Manhattan has an undercurrent of social satire that I didn't expect from this relatively straight-forward melodrama. This is surely owing to its source material, a play by Preston Sturges, which was a success on Broadway the previous year. Jessie Ralph plays "Aunt Minnie" a sort of agony aunt to all the firls at Loveland, who dispenses common sense, in between taking belts of the hard stuff from a flask in her garter. Ralph played the role played the role on Broadway as well and this performance marks the first talkie in a long career as a character actress in Hollywood. Aunt Minnie, apart from making amusing mistakes with English "you could knock me over with a fender," is one of three older females who influence the story. The second is Mrs. McGonagle who paradoxically kicks her daughter out of the house for being a tramp but smacks her unsympathitic bum of a son for implying that his sister is a tramp. Speaking of Madelaine's brother, there is a scene where he asks her for money, whining that he's unemployed and that there are "better men than me out of work." Madelaine snaps back "there are better men than you in prison." The third older female is the aunt requests Vanderkill to go to Loveland in the first place to salve her conscience. It's telling that her first instinct is to shut the place down until Vanderkill reminds her how much they collect in rent from the operation. the presence or absence of money infuses everything in the movie, and though it was written and produced early in the Depression, it has an awareness that greed and generosity are to be found in all classes in equal amounts.


Rosezilla said...

This movie totally has elements from your visit: Paul, Greenpoint, and ribauld dance halls...

Thanks for the tea!

Jennythenipper said...

If only the movie would have had booze soaked cherries, it would have been a true classic.