I grew up among people many times my age. After my parents went splitsville, we moved into my grandmother's house for a while, and then lived on the same street- in two different apartments- for years. While my mother worked, we went to Grandma's after school. My many great-uncles came over for coffee every morning, and we'd go there for dinner with my Uncle Paul every Sunday, and often during the week. This was when meals was a long conversation interrupted with food, and many times the talk veered to movies.
The classics. This was where I first learned about Harvey, where Jimmy Stewart was pals with a giant invisible rabbit, and The Night of the Hunter, with Robert Mitchum's evil preacher chasing two kids through the woods. Where I heard famous scenes reenacted, old gags remembered, and forgotten gems revealed. Some seemed beyond belief, like On Borrowed Time, in which Lionel Barrymore traps the Grim Reaper in a tree in his yard. But the most elusive was Tales of Manhattan (IMDb), an anthology ensemble film that followed a luxurious tuxedo coat that brought misery to some and fortune to others. It's still not on DVD, but gets shown on cable sometimes. I finally tracked it down a week or so ago.
It's amazing that a movie starring Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Henry Fonda, Edward G. Robinson, Charles Laughton, Paul Robeson, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, and W.C. Fields & Phil Silvers in the restored cut, would be unavailable. It seems largely unknown, and it's unfortunate, because while it's a bit on the long side it's an enjoyable film that has something, and someone, for everybody.
The coat begins life as a tailored suit for a famous, headstrong theater actor played by Charles Boyer; he's in love with old flame Rita Hayworth, and shuts down his successful show to chase her, even though she's already married. Thomas Mitchell, the character actor best known as Doc Boone from Stagecoach plays the husband, who seems the fool but has a sly glint to his eye that betrays the card up his sleeve. He's not as tipsy as he looks, and as he insists on showing them his favorite hunting rifle, the suspense ratchets up. But once again, the story is not as it seems. The actor begins giving the performance of his life, as he has a change of heart and wants to make things right for everyone.
Each episode gets lighter in tone, but all of them play games on the viewer. We get a lovely comedy scene when Cesar Romero, home from his bachelor party, gets in trouble when fiance Ginger Rogers finds a love note in his coat. But it's not his coat. Or is it? His pal Henry Fonda tries to cover for him, and we get to see him and Ginger at the top of their games as they have a verbal fencing match. Romero is delightful here, and I wonder if Hugh Laurie got ideas for Bertie Wooster after watching this. This funny skit is available on Youtube in 3 parts: 1 2 3
Next the coat is sold to a second hand shop where a long-suffering wife buys it for her composer husband, Charles Laughton, when by chance he gets to conduct his music before an orchestra. But the coat is too small, and he tears the sleeves, to the audience's uproarious laughter. The maestro watching him perform manages to shame them with simple dignity- he stands up and removes his own coat, so that Laughton may do the same. He's always been a powerfully expressive actor and this chapter, which has the least dialogue, is suited to him.
As the coat drifts down the social ladder it begins imbuing good luck instead of bad. In the film's most touching sequence, it finds Edward G. Robinson, a ruined alcoholic who lives on the street rather than take charity from the shelter. He's punishing himself, and if you've only seen Robinson as the stereotypical criminal he played in Key Largo, there's a whole lot more to his career.
Start with Double Indemnity, but his role here encapsulates his range quite well. His college reunion is being held at the Waldorf Astoria, and the man running the shelter decides to help clean him up so he can go. It becomes a game to him- can he fool his old buddies? The clothes make the man, and soon he is looking like a regal captain of industry. But mere chance makes him show his hand, and the speech he gives is quite touching.
This was post-30's screwball Depression era of My Man Godfrey, but Hollywood still had pathos for the "forgotten man," or as we'd call them, homeless. Robinson's performance captures the dignity of a ruined man paying penance for his mistakes, rather than beg. From there, the coat gets used in a robbery, stuffed with the stolen loot, and dropped from a plane as the crooks escape to Mexico. It falls far from Manhattan, on a poor sharecropper's land in the Deep South.
There it gets found by Paul Robeson and his very religious wife Ethel Waters, who believes it's a gift from God. This section is broadly comical and probably offensive today, but it contains Paul Robeson's last part before he was put on the Hollywood Blacklist for his labor activism and what history revises as "communist sympathies." His great presence helps alleviate the discomfort for modern viewers in seeing the '40s portrayal of a black rural community.
Robeson and his wife begin sharing the money with their neighbors, asking what they've prayed for, and granting the cash to get it. But only if they prayed for it. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson is on hand as the town preacher with his trademark scratchy voice, but with no Jack Benny to mock, he feels more like a caricature; take it as the cameo it is, and it's not offensive. In fact, he's one of the funniest characters in the film.
This was my mother's favorite part as a child- many of her favorite movies involved treatment of race, like To Kill a Mockingbird. It passed to me, and that's one reason I sought this out. Movies like Cabin in the Sky and The Green Pastures- where Rex Ingram gets to play both a black God and a black Satan- have always intrigued me as part of the past. Because the film pulls so many switcheroos on us, we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop- will the criminals land their plane and take the money? Will the police come and say it's stolen? Instead, the tension comes from findest the last member of town they haven't asked, a blind old man who might wish for something so great that they have to give their own wishes up to grant it. They end with singing a spiritual, a bit corny now, but Robeson's voice is worth hearing. Especially since there are few movies other than 1936's Show Boat. After 2 hours, we're satisfied with yet another good story and to learn the final resting place of the coat- as the old man's scarecrow!
But one of the best sequences of the film was cut- W.C. Fields buys the coat from Phil Silvers, to wear as he delivers a lecture for Margarent Dumont's Temperance assocation (they were the folks who got alcohol banned in Prohibition- thus endeth the history lesson). This was supposed to fit in between the Edward G. Robinson story and the Laughton one, but it was so funny that it stole the entire show! He finds what he thinks are wads of cash in the coat, so he eagerly buys it for $15, but Silvers hoodwinked him! At the Temperance Meeting, a disgruntled employee spikes the "cocoanut milk" with booze, and hilarity of course ensues. If you love W.C. Fields, it's a must-see, and thankfully it's on Youtube in 2 parts.
W.C. Fields and Phil Silvers
Tales of Manhattan is worth hunting down, and is of a bygone era when studio stables could produce huge ensemble casts. Nowadays the anthology film is rare; the last one I remember off the top of my head is Four Rooms, and they tend to use different directors as a gimmick. I loved watching this one and seeing one star after another, and the background peppered with character actors like bullfrog Eugene Pallette. I found the story the tailcoat ("Tails of Manhattan," get it?) drifting down the class structure from rich to poor quite clever, and the unexpected endings of some tales kept my interest through the somewhat long movie.
The Temperance Meeting
This sometimes plays on the Fox Movie Channel with the W.C. Fields section restored, so if you're lucky enough to get that on cable, watch it. It's also available online, and since it is unavailable on DVD I don't find it morally questionable to get it this way. I've suggest it many times on Turner Classic Movies' website, but I guess Fox has the rights. It felt great to finally see this lost gem, and brought back fond memories of morning coffee at my grandmother's house, with my Uncle Paul, great-uncles Jimmy and Butchy, and my mother chatting about the old movies they loved. They made me break the color barrier and watch black & white films that so many film "lovers" say they can't watch for some reason. And I'm very thankful to them for all those conversations and coffee cake.