It is usually the case with anthology films that the various segments are directed by a corresponding number of directors. 1942s Tales of Manhattan is different in that regard as the sole director is the esteemed gentleman from France, Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko). The audience will appreciate that M. Duvivier was a deft handler of many moods and genres. A fine suit of tails is the item that ties together all of our stories.
The new suit of tails is taken to the dressing room.
Tailor Robert Greig and butler Eugene Pallette lead the parade.
A set of tails is delivered to the home of actor Paul Orman played by Charles Boyer. Due to some trouble at the tailor's the cutter was discharged, but prior to leaving he placed a curse on the suit. Bad luck will befall all who wear it.
Charles Boyer, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth
The first story concerns a love triangle among Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth and Thomas Mitchell. The on-again, off-again affair of Boyer and Hayworth has been off for the past year since she married Mitchell. On the night of the successful opening of his new show Boyer intends a showdown with the woman of his dreams and the man of his nightmares. A wry little tale and a perfect showcase for the noirish side of cinematographer Joseph Walker (It Happened One Night).
Henry Fonda, Ginger Rogers
Our next story finds the tails in the home of a soon to be married playboy. The valet from our previous story is played by Eugene Pallette. For a small stipend, he is loaning his master's suit to the playboy's valet played by Roland Young to wear on the occasion of his master's wedding. His master is played by Cesar Romero and Romero's fiance, played by Ginger Rogers, finds a love letter in the inside pocket. The playboy's best friend played by Henry Fonda attempts to cover for his pal by claiming the coat and letter as his own. Romantic and comic complications abound. Rogers and Fonda display great chemistry in this story and it is a shame they were never cast together in a full-length feature.
The two valets, hoping to split the funds, take the coat next to a second-hand shop where it is purchased by the wife of an impoverished composer to wear at his concert hall debut. Oh, this story always breaks my heart. Laughton can do that, you know. Tears and laughs both fill this little story. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester are the downtrodden couple dreaming all these years of success.
George Sanders, Don Douglas, Edward G. Robinson
A Chinatown mission is the next home for the tails where kindly James Gleason tries to help down and outer Edward G. Robinson back on his feet. The tails are heading uptown once more to the 25th class reunion of some Ivy League lawyers and businessmen. Will the chance at redemption come true or will it be snatched from his fingertips? George Sanders will have something to say about how things turn out. He knows things about Robinson that would be better kept secret. The grudge runs deep.
J. Carroll Naish
J. Carroll Naish is the next to wear the tails. He steals it from another second-hand joint so he can wear it into a swank gambling joint and rob the fancy patrons of their ill-gotten gain. His flying getaway takes him over rural land and a fire forces him to dump the coat overboard - with the money!
Paul Robeson, Eddie Anderson, Ethel Waters
The money is manna from Heaven according to Ethel Waters character. It is God's answer to the many prayers of this poor community. She is quick to advise her husband played by Paul Robeson that wishing is not the same as praying. Look, I love Ethel Waters as much as the next guy, but she certainly can be a stick in the mud when it comes to that bible (see Cabin in the Sky). Rounding out the cast are Eddie Anderson, Clarence Muse and the Hall Johnson Choir.
Mr. Robeson objected to the stereotypes present in the script and the producers acquiesced to demands for changes. Robeson's character makes a plea for communal farming and sharing, with no rich or poor. On the other hand, Clarence Muse thought the picture was an opportunity to show the poor living conditions under which people suffered. Nonetheless, this film is the last Paul Robeson would make. I lean toward Robeson on this one, but I'm a sucker for the Hall Johnson Choir so it is not a choice as to whether I watch or skip this segment.
A further sequence was excised for time constraints or perhaps jealousy because it is said that W.C. Fields absolutely steals the picture as a temperance lecturer.
TCM is screening Tales of Manhattan on Monday, April 10th at 8:00 pm. Like the short story collection you curl up with on a dark evening, watch the movie and see what speaks to you. Perhaps the Fields bit will be included.