Director: W. S. Van Dyke
The story begins on the SS General Slocum steamship on New York's East River. We meet the two leading characters of the film as young boys: Edward J. "Blackie" Gallagher (Mickey Rooney) and James W. "Jim" Wade (Jimmy Butler). Even as boys it is obvious that Blackie and Jim are going to spend their lives on different sides of the law - Blackie luring other children on nickels, Jim reading books.
As it happened in real life, the steamship caught fire and panic spread aboard. (Before the 9/11 attack, this was New York's single worst tragedy at an estimated 1,021 fatalities. Most women and children died. Read more of the tragedy on Wikipedia.)
Blackie and Jim are rescued, but they both loose their parents in the accident and become orphans.
The story continues with Blackie and Jim having grown up. They have become lifelong friends, but they have now taken different paths in life for real. Blackie (now played by Clark Gable) earns his living on gambling, something that worries his girlfriend Eleanor (the always adorable Myrna Loy). Jim (now William Powell) has become a D.A. vying for the Governorship of New York.
Blackie, Eleanor and Jim decide to meet up one day, but according to his usual manner Blackie is late and never shows up, leaving the night to Eleanor and Jim. Eleanor realizes that she is more drawn to the down-to-earth and steady Jim. Later she breaks up with Blackie and chooses Jim as her bloke instead.
Circumstances lead however to the uncomfortable situation that Jim has to be responsible for the trial of his best friend being accused for murder. Is he going to help Blackie to be acquitted by the Court, or is he going to be so hard on his principles, that he has worked so hard for, that he puts his best friend in jail?
On Loy and Gable's left we see Blackie's side-kick Spuddie played by former athlete Nat Pendleton, also seen as Lieutenant Guild in W. S. Van Dyke's The Thin Man (1934) and Another Thin Man (1939), and as the stupid Goliath in Marx Brothers' At The Circus (1939).
Manhattan Melodrama is a pre-code crime drama that, besides from being a fascinating and exciting film, is notable for several other reasons.
In first hand we have the fact that (quoting IMDb's trivia page):
This is probably the only major film to offer a fairly accurate re-creation of the General Slucum disaster. The popular excursion steamer caught fire in New York's East River on the morning of June 15, 1904, while transporting passengers to a picnic organized by Queens' German Lutheran Church.On second hand, this is the film that, together with Frank Capra's It Happened One Night made Clark Gable to one of Hollywood's most celebrated stars, and the most at MGM.
On the third hand (how many hand's have I got?), this is the first time Myrna Loy and William Powell was paired. They would star together in two more films the same year, 1934, and eleven more in the rest of their careers.
And lastly, Manhattan Melodrama is famous for being the film that the public enemy and bankrobber John Dillinger saw just before he was shot by the police, just outside the Chicago theatre. He is supposed to have said that Myrna Loy was his favourite actress.
The story was blown up in bizarre proportions in the newspapers, something that Myrna Loy later expressed disgust for.
Also, Arthur Caesar won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story.