“Tales of Manhattan” - Julien Duvivier (1942)

Tales of Manhattan (1942) is a classic Hollywood “omnibus film” (aka “anthology film”) that features a vast range of famous movie stars and whose episodes were scripted by seventeen writers (including an uncredited Buster Keaton). Although the original narrative idea of the film was based on Mexican writer Francisco Rojas González's novel, Historia de un Frac (Story of a Tailcoat, 1930) and it was directed by Frenchman Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) while working in the US during World War II, it was nevertheless very much a Hollywood studio concoction. And it is amazing to see so many big-time Hollywood stars in one film.  The list of them includes Charles Boyer, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Charles Laughton, Edward G. Robinson, Cesar Romero, and George Sanders, plus a number of other familiar screen figures.

Narratives that are made up of a linked string of smaller narratives are always fascinating to me.  In fact one of the greatest of all films, in my opinion, was Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), which comprised a sequence of seven exciting, linked mini-stories..  In each of the mini-stories of that film, the protagonist was trapped in a grave situation, but it ended with him making a miraculous escape and learning one more piece of the puzzle he had to solve.  Tales of Manhattan also consists of a sequence of stories, but many people seem to think that the only linkage between them is that a formal tailcoat passes from one story to the next.  But actually, there is also a thematic linkage connecting the various stories in Tales of Manhattan – that of role-playing and how it affects the lives of people.  And that thematic connection is part of what makes this film a classic.

When Tales of Manhattan was produced, it originally comprised six mini-stories, but the producers decided to drop one of the stories, the fifth one in the original sequence, before the film was released. About twenty years ago, though, that dropped tale was found in the 20th Century Fox vaults, and a restored version of the film was released.  So there are two versions of the film that people have seen.  I originally saw the five-tale version but have since seen the restored six-tale version.  Some people apparently feel that that dropped tale, starring W. C. Fields, was the best and funniest of the lot [1].  However, I think that the dropped tale is very weak and that the producers were absolutely right in cutting it from the original release.

The sequence of episodes in Tales of Manhattan follows some “tails” (a formal men’s dress coat) as they pass through a range of owners generally occupying successively lower rungs on the socioeconomic scale.

1.  Tale #1
The tails are initially delivered to famous stage actor Paul Orman (Charles Boyer), who needs them as a costume for his new play that is about to open.  Orman is warned by the chief tailor from whom he buys the tailcoat that his disgruntled cutter has cursed the tailcoat, vowing that they will bring bad luck to its future owners.  But the super-confidant Orman just laughs off such superstitious nonsense. 

Right away we are introduced to the film’s theme of role-playing, since Orman is a professional role-player on the stage.  In the next scene, we are fooled into believing that Orman has been shot dead, but then we see that this is only the closing scene of Orman’s new play that is premiering. Directly after the performance and still in his tailcoat, Orman rushes off to visit the married woman he is having an affair with, Ethel Halloway (Rita Hayworth).  Orman worries that Ethel is, herself, only role-playing with him, juggling two roles (as lover and loyal spouse) by lying both to him and to her husband, John (Thomas Mitchell).  So he tests her by pretending to jealously end their affair.  But Ethel is a skilled role-player, too, and passes the test. 

Then husband John catches Orman and Ethel together and more role-playing ensues.  This includes a suspenseful buildup to John’s shooting Orman with his hunting rifle.  And again Orman fools us with a great role-playing performance – this time pretending not to have been critically wounded.

Overall, this is a superb episode with excellent performances by all.

2.  Tale #2
The tailcoat then passes to wealthy playboy Harry Wilson (Cesar Romero), who is about to get married.  His fiancé Diane (Ginger Rogers) comes over to his apartment and, while Harry is out of the room, discovers an incriminating love letter from a girl named, “Squirrel” (Marion Martin), that was stashed in his own tailcoat.  When Harry realizes the fix he is in, he desperately summons his best friend,  George (Henry Fonda), to come over and bale him out by having George claim that the tailcoat Diane looked at actually belonged to him.  The newly acquired and supposedly cursed tailcoat plays a role in this ruse. 

Now the introverted and gentlemanly George has to play the role of the masculine lady’s man that Squirrel refers to her in her letter.  This causes Diane to look at George, whom she had previously dismissed as a nerd, in an entirely new light. 

The rest of this episode shows the growing attraction between George and Diane.  The mask afforded by George’s role-playing as Squirrel’s lover (she does show up in this episode) enables him to reveal his true, inner romantic nature.  This tale will appeal to those who want to see Fonda and Rogers romancing, but it is pretty lightweight and mostly played for laughs.  You can  already guess who ends up with whom in the end.

3.  Tale #3
The tailcoat winds up in a pawnshop, and it gets noticed by Elsa Smith (Elsa Lanchester), the wife of a brilliant but impoverished composer Charles Smith (Charles Laughton) [2].  Charles gets his one big chance to conduct his music for the philharmonic orchestra led by demanding director Arturo Bellini (Victor Francen), but he needs a tailcoat for the performance.  So Elsa rushes off to the pawnshop to get the tails she had seen there.

At the concert, Charles struggles to get into the too-small tailcoat and then begins conducting the orchestra.  During the performance, the tailcoat begins to tear apart, and the assembled audience erupts in laughter.  The performance comes to a halt, and Charles is shattered and in tears.  However, Bellini in the audience, stands up, removes his own coat, and entreats Charles to continue the performance.  Charles does so, and soon the rest of the men in the audience are inspired by Bellini’s noble act to remove their own coats, too.  The concert turns out to be a great success, and Charles’s career has been launched.

This episode is brilliant, because it graphically serves to remind us, through the torn tailcoat and Bellini’s humane gesture, that the reason everyone came to the concert was to hear beautiful music, not to observe the artificial conformance to dress standards.  Since the tailcoat is a symbol of social role-playing, its torn status was a reminder that sometimes other things are more important. 

4.  Tale #4
The tailcoat is now donated to a charity mission in a Manhattan slum, in this case Chinatown. There a forwarded letter is delivered to one of the mission’s aid recipients, Larry Browne, a penniless, unemployed drunkard.  The letter is an invitation to Browne’s 25th Ivy League college reunion, which will be held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.  Since formal dress is required, the mission lends Browne the tailcoat, but to save money they outfit him with a dickey to be worn under the coat instead of a dress shirt.

At the posh reunion, Browne is joyously greeted by his old friends, and he fools his successful and wealthy classmates into believing that he, too, has been a big success over the years.  But then Williams (George Sanders), a former classmate and sometime adversary shows up and threatens Browne’s equanimity.  Due to what later turns out to have been a misunderstanding, an inebriated classmate wants to hold a kangaroo court over a lost wallet, and Browne is put on “trial”, with attorney Williams eagerly volunteering to be the “prosecutor”.  They want Browne to allow himself to be searched, which would reveal his cheap dickey.

Faced with exposure, Browne abandons his role-playing and unmasks himself completely by giving a poignant account of his failed life over the past twenty-five years.  His confession is not to having stolen the wallet but worse – having been a failure in the outer world.

But the eloquence and genuineness of Browne’s confession is so moving that it has unexpectedly  favorable consequences for Browne in the end.  This episode is also brilliant and may be the film’s most memorable tale.  It is graced by George Sanders’s brief but customarily atmospheric role as Williams.  Sanders habitually portrayed suave but sinister cads that brought trouble in the films he was in, and his own sardonic autobiography was appropriately entitled, Memoirs of a Professional Cad (1960).

Tale #5 (deleted)
Although the other episodes are all around twenty minutes in length, this deleted episode is only nine minutes long.  It features W. C. Fields as Professor Pufflewhistle, who pretends to run an organization that condemns the use of alcohol.  He is invited to give a fund-raising lecture (for which he buys the tailcoat) by a wealthy woman (Margaret Dumont).  But her exasperated husband spikes with gin the punch bowl of cocoanut milk that is served for refreshments at the event.  Naturally everyone gets ridiculously drunk, and that is about the extent of this episode.  Fields, who was immensely popular in his day, plays his usual self as a ludicrously grandiloquent commentator on everything around him.  At the close we see the shyster professor up to his usual antics, explaining to a bartender that his idea of a finger of whiskey is measured by the length, rather than width, of his finger.

This episode doesn’t contribute much to the overall theme of role-playing, and it doesn’t fit in with the other stories, either.

Tale #6
The tailcoat is finally stolen from a used clothing shop by a thief who then uses it to gain entry to a private casino, where he steals about $50,000.  But in his small two-seater getaway plane  to Mexico, the thief’s coat catches fire, and he frantically throws it out of the plane, with the stolen money still in the coat pocket. The coat lands in a field of southern black sharecroppers, where Luke (Paul Robeson) and Esther (Ethel Waters) see it while working. They interpret the fallen coat and its money as God’s gift, and their religious beliefs stir them to consult Reverend Lazarus (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson [3]) as to what is the proper way to deal with the money.

There are some minstrel show stereotypes here, and Robeson, who was a staunch communist, had misgivings about this tale.  However, Robeson is given the opportunity to make a speech  to the congregation promoting the idea that the bulk of the money is not to go towards fulfilling individual, selfish wishes, but to be used for the common good.  Given our current political landscape, where a significant number of people claim that selfishness and “America First” are the foundation of a successful world, Robeson’s words here are refreshing.  And at the end we do get to hear Robeson’s sonorous voice singing a hymn to God.

The film’s closing shot shows the tailcoat’s last resting place – serving as a scarecrow and playing its final role.

So the tailcoat in Tales of Manhattan is both an instrument and a symbol for role-playing.  Although the coat is allegedly cursed, it usually has the quixotic effect of generating good fortune.  To some of the characters, it is a rabbit’s foot in the way it serves to call attention to role-playing on the part of the people surrounding our principal players and triggering a better outcome.  Role-playing is usually artificial, and the main characters in Episodes 1, 3, and 4 are most benefitted when they are freed from the burdensome confinement of their imposed roles. But not always – George’s role-playing in Episode 2 had the opposite effect, allowing him to find his inner voice and express his love.  All in all, the tailcoat’s social straitjacket paradoxically opened the door for displays of authentic, loving human compassion across a wide spectrum.

Overall, Tales of Manhattan is a four-star film, even though some of the individual episodes do not measure up to that standard.  But when you have so many contributors to a film, including its script, you cannot really expect uniformity.  Although Episodes 2, 5, and 6 are more distracting than pleasing, Episodes 1, 3, and 4 are so good as to make up for any deficiencies elsewhere and render the entire a film as an outstanding achievement.  The acting, story structure, and pacing in these tales are all moving and compelling.

  1.  “Tales of Manhattan”, Wikipedia, (2 March 2017).    
  2. Elsa Lanchester was also the real wife of Charles Laughton.
  3. Eddie Anderson played the character “Rochester” on Jack Benny’s radio show and enjoyed great popularity with American audiences.

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