Tales of Manhattan

TALES OF MANHATTAN, a sleek, star-loaded omnibus treat from 1942, directed by French war exile Julien Duvivier, had a snaky story background, and a bizarre postscript for its nervy producer. One amusing segment was cut out, then reinstated, then cut again, and another that was kept was dogged by controversy, but in the main it delivers enjoyable old school entertainment. The $1,000,000 invested by 20th Century Fox was rewarded with a hit; of the 385 feature films released in ’42, Variety listed this as the 7th most attended.  The hook here has a dress jacket trading hands through a half-dozen separate but interrelated stories. *

A custom-made tailcoat is first sported by a stage actor (Charles Boyer), hoping to convince his former flame (Rita Hayworth) to leave her husband (Thomas Mitchell). The husband puts a bullet hole in the coat—and the actor. Pawned, the garment ends up in a second love triangle, this one a lighter episode entangling Ginger Rogers, Henry Fonda and Cesar Romero. Correct partner picked, the coat is pawned again, now enlisted as a too-tight fit for nervous, fledging orchestra conductor (Charles Laughton) who let’s rip, so to speak, in his debut concert at Carnegie Hall. Donated to charity, the jacket is pressed into service for a drunken, down & out panhandler (Edward G. Robinson) who’s invited to a class reunion where everybody else, including former rival George Sanders, has been a big success. From there the tails are used by conman W.C. Fields to pull a fast one on an audience of suckers. Mission accomplished, the coat then fits a thief (J. Carrol Naish) who has to ditch it (loaded with loot) out of a burning plane. It floats down as a gift from heaven to a community of poor black sharecroppers led by Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson.

Ten screenwriters were credited (as many as 20 had hands in), including Ben Hecht, Donald Ogden Stewart and Lamar Trotti. Making do in Hollywood during the Nazi occupation of France, Julien Duvivier directed a handful of American pictures while exiled, including Flesh and Fantasy, another anthology.

The first segment is smooth as silk, and besides the wattage from Boyer, Rita and Mitchell, character actor Eugene Pallette does maybe his most relaxed turn, as the valet. Rogers sparkles more than the material in the next part; Fonda and Romero are on hand to look good and serve dutifully as foils. Laughton is winning in his episode, and Robinson is even better in his, the most touching segment. The Fields lark—he’s ‘Professor Pufflewhistle’— is funny: it was cut for length. The finish, with the black sharecroppers, was intended to be inclusive, but its ‘Negro’ stereotyping doesn’t go down well today. It didn’t then, either, with the NAACP complaining, and Robeson upset enough that he swore off acting in films. Though the “praise de ‘Lawd’ stuff rankles, the segment does have atmospheric art direction (Boris Leven, production designer) and Rochester’s comedy timing can’t be denied.

Sol Kaplan did the music score, one of his best. In the cast swarm enjoy choice work from Roland Young, Gail Patrick, Elsa Lanchester, James Gleason, Harry Davenport, Phil Silvers, Margaret Dumont, Marion Martin, Marcel Dalio, and Victor Francen. Further down the roster are Morris Ankrum, Clarence Muse, Jerry Bergen, Mae Marsh, Will Wright, Don Beddoe, and Jester Hairston. 118 minutes, 127 with the Fields segment restored.

* The framing idea, a dress coat trading hands in several stories, may have been, at least in part, suggested/stolen from “Historia de un frac” (“History of a Tailcoat”) by Mexican author Francisco Rojas Gonzalez, who sued Fox for plagiarism. They shifted blame onto co-producer Sam Spiegel, who wriggled out of it.

The primary producer, Boris Morros, had worked as a music director on 146 pictures over four years (including Stagecoach). Tales of Manhattan was his showpiece producing credit. His talents were revealed to have extended into other arenas when he published his 1957 memoir “Ten Years A Counterspy”, filmed in 1960 as Man On A String, with Ernest Borgnine playing him. While he’d been blizzarding through all those musical arrangements, Comrade Boris had also been a Soviet spy since 1934. He turned FBI double-agent in 1947.

When Paris was liberated in 1944, Tales Of Manhattan was the first Hollywood picture shown there since the Nazis seized the city four years earlier. Take that, Adolf!  Tables—or coats—turned in another direction when later during the Red-baiting days, the movie was accused of sneaking in “Commie talk” during Robeson’s segment.

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