Toronto Film Society presented Tales of Manhattan (1942) on Monday, July 27, 2015 in a double bill with So This Is New York as part of the Season 68 Monday Summer Series, Programme 4.
A 20th Century-Fox Picture. Director: Julien Duvivier. Assistant Directors: Robert Stillman and Charles Hall. Screenplay and Original Stories: Ben Hecht, Ferenc Molnar, Donald Ogden Stewart, Samuel Hoffenstein, Alan Campbell, Ladislas Fedor, L. Vadnai, L. Gorog, Lamar Trotti and Henry Blankford. Cinematography: Joseph Walker. Musical Score: Sol Kaplan. Musical Direction: Edward Paul. Orchestrations: Clarence Wheeler, Charles Bradshaw and Hugo Friedhofer. Vocal Arrangements: Hall Johnson. Sound Recording by: W.D. Flick and Roger Heman. Art Direction: Richard Day and Boris Leven. Set Decorations: Thomas Little. Costumes: Irene, Dolly Tree, Bernard Newman, Gwen Wakeling and Oleg Cassini. Makeup: Guy Pearce. Edited: Robert Bishcoff.
Cast: 1) Charles Boyer (Paul Orman), Rita Hayworth (Ethel Halloway), Thomas Mitchell (John Halloway), Eugene Pallette (Luther). 2) Ginger Rogers (Diane), Henry Fonda (George), Cesar Romero (Harry Wilson), Gail Patrick (Ellen), Roland Young (Edgar), Marion Martin (Squirrel). 3) Charles Laughton (Charles Smith), Elsa Lanchester (Elsa Smith), Victor Francen (Arthuro Bandini). 4) Edward G. Robinson (Browne), George Sanders (William), James Gleason (Father Joe), Harry Davenport (Professor), Mae Marsh (Molly). 5) W.C. Fields (Professor Posselthistle), Phil Silvers, Margaret Dumont. 6) Paul Robeson (Luke), Ethel Waters (Esther), Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (Lazarus), J. Carrol Naish (Costello).
I watched Tales of Manhattan (1942), directed by Julien Duvivier, esteemed French director who also worked in Hollywood.
This is one of those films, like its sequel Flesh and Fantasy (1943), or Quartet (1948) and its sequel Trio (1950) that are films of short stories. Little vignettes with a tail coat to tie them all together. The copy that you’ll be watching, I’m pleased to say, contains the restored sequence with W.C. Fields that was not included in the original theatrical release, so credits to that segment are not listed at the start or ending of the film.
Story 1: A classy, expensive dinner jacket has just arrived for matinee idol Paul Orman (Charles Boyer). It’s meant to bring him good luck. The story’s about the love affair Paul’s carrying on with the gorgeous Ethel (Rita Hayworth) who’s married to millionaire John Halloway (Thomas Mitchell). So who or what does she really love?
Story 2: Paul’s chauffeur Luther (Eugene Pallette) lends the evening jacket to Harry Wilson’s (Cesar Romero) butler Edgar (Roland Young) for $10.00. Playboy Harry is engaged to Diane (Ginger Rogers). Before they meet for lunch the very evening they are to be married, Diane is visited by her unhappily married friend Ellen (Gail Patrick) who’s sure that Diane will have no better luck in her marriage to Harry. Ellen has found incriminating evidence in her husband’s dinner jacket. She heads to Harry’s with Diane, daring her to go through Harry’s dinner jacket which they find hanging on a chair. Sure enough there is a badly spelled love letter from someone named “Squirrel” who is thanking her “Passionate Lion” for the mink coat, as well as mentioning a few other unmentionable things. Harry overhears Ellen and Diane reading the letter and rushes to call his good but straight-laced buddy George (Henry Fonda) to bring his dinner jacket and pretend that they had accidently taken each other’s coats the previous evening. After Ellen leaves and while Harry is getting dressed for the day, Diane and George spend some quality time together. That’s when Squirrel (Marion Martin) arrives. Perhaps you can guess the rest, but it’s worth watching just for the roaring!
Story 3: Both Luther and Edgar take the coat to a used men’s clothing store. From there lovely Elsa (Elsa Lanchester) purchases it for her musician husband Charles Smith (Charles Laughton), and my favourite story begins. It’s quite a heartwarming tale about the talented but unknown composer, Charles, who is finally given his first-ever chance to conduct his magnificent symphony. However, during his debut, mayhem occurs until the sensitivity of maestro Arturo Bellini (Victor Francen) puts everything right. After his success, Charles gives the dress coat to a Salvation Army-type of mission.
Story 4: The mission’s run by Joe (James Gleason) and Molly (Mae Marsh), with Elsa telling Molly it’s a “rabbit’s foot”. One of the soup kitchen’s patrons is alcoholic Larry Browne (Edward G. Robinson) who Joe finds sleeping in the gutter when he goes out looking for him. He delivers a letter that has found its way to the Chinatown mission personally addressed to Larry inviting him to his university’s 25th anniversary dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in uptown Manhattan that very night. So, we discover, Larry used to be “a somebody”. Joe convinces him to go and, you guessed it, he wears the dinner jacket. When Larry arrives, the party is well on its way. He abstains from drinking but, to my dismay, he also refuses the dinner! With a room full of successful men, everyone is catching up with what everyone’s been up to and Larry tells them he’s just flown in from China. There’s a touching speech from Professor Lyons (Harry Davenport) which leaves everyone thinking about their life’s good fortune. Lots of goodwill is flowing when Williams (George Sanders) appears and suddenly you can cut the tension between him and Larry with a knife. On top of that, ‘Hen’ Henderson (Donald Douglas) discovers that his wallet, holding $1,000, is missing. Well-into-his-cups Hank Bronson (James Rennie) playfully suggests that they hold court to find the culprit. This is where we find out what happened to Larry and how he came to fall so far. Just as Joe and Molly decide to sell the jacket to the Santelli Brothers used clothes store, hope for Larry arrives in the form of old friends and all we can do is wish Larry the best of luck with the rest of his life.
Story 5: This is the missing segment with Professor Posselthistle (W.C. Fields) wandering into the Santelli Brothers store. Lots of comedy ensues with the proprietor (Phil Silvers) selling the Professor a most ill-fitting dinner coat by having crookedly placed a fat wallet into the inner pocket. The dinner jacket is sold for $15 and the Prof discovers his been hoodwinked with newspaper cut into the shape of cash. Meanwhile Mr. Langehanke (which incidentally is Mary Astor’s real last name—her first was Lucille) discovers that his wife is hosting a meeting for The Uptown Association for the Downfall of Alcohol, with a lecture given by Professor Posselthistle. Mr. Langehanke has a secret bar hidden in the wall and decides to sabotage the meeting in the hopes of ending them forever by adding alcohol to the cocoanut milk that the Professor is giving his talk on. So you can just imagine the state of the audience by the end of the lecture. There’s some funny lines mumbled by our favourite lecturer, one of them being, “The liver. It goes well with bacon,” as he points to a drawing of the human anatomy.
Story 6: The last story has a burglar (J. Carrol Naish) first stealing the tail coat from Santelli’s and then robbing an illegal gambling casino of forty-odd thousand dollars. He takes off in a two-man plane where the jacket catches on fire. Without thinking, he tosses it, money and all, from the plane and it lands in the most desolate, haunted looking field that Luke (Paul Robeson) and Esther (Ethel Waters) are rummaging through. Where in Manhattan this place is, I’ve no idea! It certainly isn’t urban. Being religious and superstitious folk, they believe the money has been sent from the Lord. Being very poor, but good people, they decide to take the money to their preacher, Reverend Lazarus (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson) to ask him to help them divide up the money amongst the village folk. Bossy Esther decides that if someone prayed for rather than wished for something, they get the amount of money they need to purchase their desire. I found this segment irritating. Black people were portrayed as poor, ultra-religious, drinkers, uneducated and simple. After the money is doled out to meet all the town’s folks’ needs, Luke gives a speech that they are going to farm the land and share the profits evenly. Sort of communist-like. Bossy Esther decides that they haven’t asked Brother Christopher (George Reed) what he prayed for. If it was for $43,000, then he gets the money. Luke leads the town’s folk to Christopher’s shelter and we found out he prayed for—the tail coat!
So the tales end with a song sung by the great Paul Robeson as the credits come up. Enjoy the beautiful sets, cinematography and musical score.
The first of the all-star films to be release during World War II, Tales of Manhattan was originally an idea conceived by producer Boris Morros, who then intrigued S.P. Eagle (Sam Spiegel) into joining his project and inducing ten writers to concoct a script of at least six episodes of equal audience appeal which contained roles exciting enough to interest top stars in playing them. At first Morros intended using a different director for each episode, just as Paramount had done in the 1930s with If I Had A Million. But when Charles Boyer became interested in the film, he suggested that Morros use just one director, Julien Duvivier, whose famous French film Un Carnet de Bal (later remade very badly by Alexander Korda as Lydia) had been an episodic but all-star triumph.
The idea of using a dress tailcoat as the gimmick on which each story is hung and is the connecting link between them is said to have come from Alan Campbell (Dorothy Parker’s husband). The first episode filmed starred Charles Laughton and the last one to be written and filmed starred Edward G. Robinson. A sequence filmed which was to immediately precede the finale starred W.C. Fields, but it was deleted after several previews when audience reaction made it apparent that it was not in keeping with the generally dramatic tone of the other sequences. The gambling casino robbery that spins off the last episode was much longer in the version first released on the West Coast, and seven minutes of it was deleted before the film opened in New York at the Radio City Music Hall.
Tales of Manhattan was so commercially successful that Charles Boyer, Edward G. Robinson and Julien Duvivier subsequently got together to produce another all-star feature, Flesh and Fantasy, which Universal released a little over a year later and which also had a complete sequence deleted. But Universal, unlike 20th Century-Fox, did not allow their unused footage to remain dormant. Adding footage to it, it was subsequently released as a B feature (Destiny).
The Films of Rita Hayworth: The Legend & Career of a Love Goddess by Gene Ringgold (1974)
Harry Cohn loaned her (Rita Hayworth) out to do two other pictures. At Paramount she appeared with the Gallic heartthrob Charles Boyer in a segment of Sam Spiegel’s Tales of Manhattan. Boyer may have enjoyed a reputation as a great screen lover, but Rita certainly didn’t respond to him that way. Said Orson Welles: “They went a day over because every time Boyer gave her the ooh, ooh look, she broke up. Broke up! The thing that all the women were panting for struck her as funny. And poor Boyer, a very sweet fellow, didn’t know what he was doing wrong. He would just talk with his French accent, and away she’d go!”
If This Was Happiness by Barbara Leaming (1989)
It is all the more unfortunate, then, that for the most part his films at the time did not please him (Charles Laughton). In Tales of Manhattan, an omnibus about the adventures of a tail coat directed by the autocratic Julien Duvivier, he was at his best, though he did not realize it at the time. He was a composer, reduced to playing the piano in a seedy New York bar, who at last obtains the opportunity to conduct one of his orchestral works when he attracts the attention of a great conductor, brilliantly acted by Victor Francen. When he reaches the podium, he discovers that the tail coat is too tight; it rips across the back. The audience laughs at him. In a splendid gesture, Francen removes his own coat and the male spectators follow suit, until every man in the audience watches, coatless, the embarrassed conductor in his triumph.
Charles’s performance was strong. First seen pounding a bar piano with disgruntled contempt, later he is seen hurriedly and nervously performing for Francen, hastily trying on the coat with the aid of a friendly tailor, then stumbling up to the podium, conducting with great authority and attack, only to dissolve into despair when he believes the audience is laughing at his composition. His recovery when he becomes aware of Francen’s gesture is movingly played, embarrassment changing to gleeful excitement, misery to exaltation. As his wife, Elsa was charming and affectionate, the warmth and sympathy of their relationship mirrored beautifully in her acting of scenes with Charles.
Charles Laughton: An Intimate Biography by Charles Higham (1976)
On January 13, 1942, W.C. filmed a cameo role for Tales of Manhattan:
April 16, 1942
Mr. Darryl F. Zanuck
20th Century Fox Studio
Beverly Hills, California
Dear Mr. Zanuck:
You might have heard or been told about Jimmy Fidler stating on the air last Monday night that W.C. Fields intended to sue 20th Century Fox for not using his episode in Tales of Manhattan. This is a gross misstatement and just a creation of Mr. Fidler’s for something to say.
Mr. Fields wanted me to inform you that he has no quarrel whatsoever with 20th Century Fox, and he thinks it is the best run and equipped studio in the world. He was accorded every consideration and is proud to have worked there, and if 20th Century Fox sees fit to delete his episode from Tale of Manhattan, it is their prerogative. He wants you to know that he never had any intention at any time of suing Fox or any other film company and during his long career in show business, he has never found it necessary to sue anyone. He asked me to inclose (sic) a copy of the letter he is sending Don Gilman, the head of the Blue Network, demanding a retraction of Mr. Fidler’s statement.
With very best wishes, I am,
Nevertheless, in April and May newspapers began spreading the story that W.C.’s last-placed sequence in Tales of Manhattan would probably be dropped, and that W.C. was suing for its reinstatement.
Mr. Arthur Ungar, Editor
The Daily Variety
1708-10 North Vine Street
There was a slight mistake in your august (sic) journal this morning regarding my having insisted upon or having written the script for my sequence in Tales of Manhattan. The script was written by Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow, those two happy and able little scriveners who write the Jack Benny program.
Not long after Tales of Manhattan was completed, rumors arose that W.C,’s scene was so funny that it made the rest of the picture look shabby, and that Fox was considering dropping it from the film.
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The wires have been buzzing excitedly out of Hollywood for several months about a bold and amazing new picture which would break away from standard movie forms. No less than ten writers wrote it, at least that many star players would be in its cast and upward of twenty featured actors and actresses would appear in its incidental roles. It would have no consecutive story—that is, no consecutive character plot—but would follow an episodic pattern in relating a series of yarns. Yesterday it arrived at the Music Hall. “Tales of Manhattan” is its name. And, the hot wires of Hollywood notwithstanding, it is still a rattling surprise.
For “Tales of Manhattan” is one of those rare films—a tricky departure from the norm, which, in spite of its five-ring-circus nature, achieves an impressive effect. Neither profound nor very searching, it nevertheless manages to convey a gentle, detached comprehension of the irony and pity of life, and it constantly grapples one’s interest with its run of assorted incidents. The big surprise is that its actors never dwarf the little fables they play and that the whole film never exposes the rather fragile framework on which it is built.
Or actually “Tales of Manhattan” is essentially an omnibus of short stories—four Gotham tales and an epilogue—which center around a gentleman’s full-dress suit. The suit begins its career, with a note of fatalism attached, on the back of a matinee idol who loves a married woman in vain. In a tense triangular episode with her husband, he discovers her fickleness, but he also gets shot in the bargain—and the suit passes on to other hands.
Next it becomes, by chance, the medium through which a young lady is humorously detached from one affianced gentleman and thrown into the arms of another, and then it passes on, via the old-clothes man, to a down-at-heel pianist who uses it when his big moment comes to conduct a symphony. Then it goes to a bum who wears it to a college class reunion and achieves regeneration thereby. And finally, dropped from an airplane by an escaping bandit, it falls, with pockets full of money, as manna from heaven among some Southern Negroes.
Thus, through a symbol of elegance, is expressed a reflection upon the insignificance of superficialities and the humbleness of mankind. If the various episodes are not consistent with this theme—all of them, that is—and if the concluding incident is strangely remote from those which have gone before, the fault may be charged to the fact that the film was written in parts and the various authors were not wholly aware of the central idea. But this weakness of structure does not prevent the episodes themselves from being intriguing, and the eventual destination of the dress suit a teaser for sustaining suspense.
No indication has been given as to which writers wrote which episodes, so it is impossible to apportion credits. And the exceptional proportions of the cast make it difficult to mention each and every worthy by name. Edward G. Robinson gives a masterful performance as the bum who had seen better days; Ginger Rogers and Henry Fonda are very amusing in the romance-switching episode, and Roland Young, James Gleason and George Sanders stand out in minor roles. Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth and Thomas Mitchell are somewhat heavy in the initial triangle and Charles Laughton overplays the pianist who gets his big chance to rise.
But, altogether, Julien Duvivier has directed the film with surprising evenness and has matched the moods and tempos of the various episodes with delicacy. Much of the credit for this picture must go to him, and a good bit more must go to Borris Morros and S. P. Eagle, who persuaded Twentieth Century-Fox to make it. The venture was obviously risky, but the result is sufficient recompense.
New York Times, by Bosley Crowther, September 25, 1942
Notes written and compiled by Caren Feldman
October 2022 – April 2023