Taking place in New York City, it's centered around the lives of two orphans raised as step-brothers, one of whom, Blackie Gallagher (Gable), grows up to be a gangster. The other, Jim Wade (Powell), becomes the assistant district attorney. Despite being on opposite sides of the law, they still care for each other. However, a Love Triangle and criminal happenings begin to put a strain on their relationship.
So, essentially, Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
This film is notable for being the first pairing of Powell and Loy, who made fourteen films together for MGM. It also features Mickey Rooney, several years before the Andy Hardy films made him a superstar, playing Blackie as a boy. Mostly though, it's remembered because it was the movie John Dillinger had just seen before he came out of the theater and was gunned down by the FBI. Myrna Loy would later express distaste for how MGM exploited the publicity surrounding Dillinger's murder, and producer William Randolph Hearst had his name taken off the credits. Scenes from this film are included in Michael Mann's film about Dillinger, Public Enemies.
Tropes appearing in this film:
- Action Prologue: Contemporary reviews stated that the opening General Slocum fire could have stood as the climax for most films of the time.
- Alliterative Title: Manhattan Melodrama.
- Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: Blackie certainly enjoys himself.
- Dirty Cop: They're happy to take bribes. Jim is determined to clear out all the crooked cops and lawyers that are taking money from Blackie.
- Downer Ending: Blackie is executed.
- Dumb Blonde: Annabelle, the comic relief gangster's moll.
- Establishing Character Moment: Young Blackie is tricking dumb kids out of their money, while young Jim has his nose in a book.
- Face Death with Dignity: The prison guards take Blackie's arms in order to frog-march him to the electric chair, but Blackie shakes them off and walks down the hall on his own.
- Gallows Humor: Blackie kills time at his murder trial by doodling sketches of himself getting electrocuted.
- The Greatest History Never Told: That ship that catches fire in the opening scene? That actually happened. The General Slocum caught fire and sank in the East River on June 15, 1904. One thousand people were killed in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history.
- Historical Domain Character: Leon Trotsky, of all people, makes a brief appearance speaking to a labor rally early in the movie. Truth in Television as Trotsky did spend time in New York before the Russian Revolution.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Jim Wade. Just thinking about showing favoritism by commuting Blackie's sentence is enough to make Jim resign the office of governor.
- Love Triangle: Eleanor (Loy) is Blackie's girlfriend, but she eventually goes with Jim after Blackie refuses to leave the gangster life.
- Man on Fire: One jumps off the ferry boat as it burns.
- Melodrama: Exactly What It Says on the Tin, indeed. The film starts getting pretty corny in the third act, when Blackie gets convicted of murder and Eleanor begs Jim to save him.
- A Minor Kidroduction: The film opens with Blackie and Jim, childhood friends, aboard the General Slocum with their families. Both are orphaned by the disaster.
- New Year Has Come: Blackie sees in the New Year by killing Manny Arnold, while Jim and Eleanor bond at a New Year's party.
- Split Screen: Used to show adolescent Blackie playing dice while adolescent Jim is studying law books.