Tales of Manhattan (1942). 118 minutes. Directed by Julien Duvivier. Starring Charles Boyer (as Paul Orman), Rita Hayworth (as Ethel Halloway), Thomas Mitchell (as John Halloway), Eugene Pallette (as Luther), Ginger Rogers (as Diane), Henry Fonda (as George), Cesar Romero (as Harry Wilson), Charles Laughton (as Charles Smith), Victor Francen (as Arturo Bellini), Elsa Lanchester (as Elsa Smith), Edward G. Robinson (as Avery “Larry” Browne), George Sanders (as Williams), Harry Davenport (as Professor Lyons), Paul Robeson (as Luke), Ethel Waters (as Esther), and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (as Rev. Lazarus).
Tales of Manhattan is a compilation of five stories that follow the transference of a black tailcoat from one person to another in New York City. Over the course of the film, the tailcoat is bought new, sold used with a bullet hole in it to a man on his wedding day, torn apart through the exertions of a conductor who is too large for it, repaired for a charity case, dropped while on fire from an airplane, and transformed into a scarecrow. The movie is based on Francisco Rojas González’s novel Story of a Tailcoat and features an all-star cast—and I truly mean all-star. If you know Golden Age cinema, you will recognize a famous person in nearly every role. Although Tales of Manhattan was adapted by thirteen different writers (including Ben Hecht), and such a large number of contributors to one script is usually the sign of a troubled production, it nevertheless manages to be an interesting picture with a fair amount of ambition. That it successfully joins the short narratives and makes a broad point about the highs and lows that any one person can experience is a testament to the final screenplay and the ability of the actors to communicate the fundamentals of their characters in a short amount of screen time.
The first story features Charles Boyer (who wears the tailcoat fresh from the tailor) and Rita Hayworth as actors and former lovers who reunite in the country under the nose of Hayworth’s gun-loving husband. Boyer is shot by the husband, and while he recovers in the hospital, his servant returns the coat to the tailor, who sells it to Cesar Romero. In the second story, Ginger Rogers prepares to marry Romero. After going through his tailcoat on their wedding day, however, she suspects him of cheating and subsequently finds that she is really in love with Henry Fonda. The tailcoat is passed on to a charity shop and purchased for Charles Laughton. Laughton is a penniless composer who gets his big break and prepares to debut his musical work in front of a concert hall full of people, but the tailcoat is too small and tears as he conducts the orchestra, generating a wall of laughter from the audience. He pulls off the ripped coat, and the men in the audience remove their jackets in solidarity. The tailcoat passes on to a charity mission. Edward G. Robinson is a down-and-out lawyer who wears the mission tailcoat to his class reunion, where his classmates’ questions threaten to reveal him as a fraud. Finally, the tailcoat is sold to a second-hand shop and stolen by a gangster. After a heist, he escapes from New York in a plane and while in flight drops his jacket, which has caught fire and is full of money, near two Southern sharecroppers (Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters) working in the fields. They believe the money is an answer to their prayers but insist on sharing the money with their community, and they turn the tailcoat into a scarecrow.
The tailcoat is a cloying device, possibly even unnecessary, but as it happens, the stories in Tales of Manhattan actually share much in common thematically and would be effective paired together even if the tailcoat element were dropped entirely. For example, so many of the segments seem driven by a kind of nightmare: the Boyer/Hayworth sequence shows obsessive close-ups of hands and characters fumbling with gun triggers with nervous-making focus; the Charles Laughton segment presents an audience full of people laughing derisively and endlessly; and the Edward G. Robinson segment features a mock trial that threatens to out the protagonist’s secrets. The sets in those segments tend to be spacious and wide (I’m thinking of the Boyer/Hayworth story’s extensive private museum of hunting trophies, or Laughton’s enormous concert hall—even Robinson’s party takes place in a long, expansive room), and yet we feel distinctly claustrophobic in those scenes, as if the walls were closing in. It is a fascinating effect.
Tales of Manhattan could also do without the tailcoat theme because it has plenty of star power, and the actors’ curious mingling with each other on screen is more than enough to hold our interests. The movie is a fascinating blend of A- and B-list performers from a variety of Hollywood film traditions. For example, we get to see the smooth Charles Boyer, so often cast as the continental lover in film romances, brought together with Rita Hayworth, known for her mysterious femme fatale roles; and familiar faces such as Harry Davenport, George Sanders, and Eugene Pallette—all three in small roles here, but familiar from movies such as Gone with the Wind (1939), the Falcon mysteries (1941-1942), and My Man Godfrey (1936), respectively. The movie really only needs to let them interact with each other to convince us that we are watching something marvelous. If we focus on them, we forget that the stories are ostensibly about a shared piece of clothing, and that is probably for the best.
The standout segment in Tales of Manhattan is the story involving Edward G. Robinson as Avery “Larry” Browne, a disbarred and down-on-his-luck lawyer. One day he is pulled out from under a pile of newspapers by his mission-worker friend who has come to deliver a piece of mail. It turns out to be an invitation to his class reunion, and the mission pulls together to clean Larry up, dress him in a donated tailcoat, and send him off in style. When Larry arrives at the reunion, he is readily accepted by his formally dressed peers.
Everything seems to be going so well for Larry at the party. We see how delighted he is to be accepted and admired. We also know that he is lying to his classmates every step of the way, telling them that he has just returned from China, for example, when we know he has actually been living in the gutters of New York’s Chinatown. When a classmate finds his wallet has gone missing and a colleague genially suggests that they search their guests for it, Larry reacts forcefully to the suggestion. They stage a playful mock trial, teasing Larry that he does not want to be searched because he has the wallet. For a moment we wonder if he has really stolen it after all. But Larry comes out of his shell and offers an impassioned speech to his friends in which he reveals the truth of his life on skid row. This is the kind of speech Robinson seems made to deliver. It is lawyerly and rational, neatly organized and purposeful—and long, very long. But when Robinson recites it, he helps us to navigate through its twists and turns, pausing at all of the right places and to great effect. He is terrific at playing thinking men, men driven by reason and order; consider his role in Double Indemnity (1944) a few years later.
Ranking as one of the greatest weaknesses of the film is the final segment that takes place in the American South. After the tailcoat (now full of money) drops from an airplane, black farmers Luke and Esther find it and consider it a direct gift from heaven and an answer to their prayers. Before pocketing the many thousands of dollars that they discover in its pockets, however, they agree to ask their preacher, Rev. Lazarus, what to do with their newfound wealth, and he determines that they should allot each member of their rural community as much as they have prayed for. With great trust and straightforward faith, they dispense the money to the community members for their meager wants. As long as they have prayed for it, Luke and Esther’s tailcoat funds will pay for it. Everyone is accounted for except for one last man. Luke and Esther are concerned that what he has prayed for will consume the rest of the tailcoat funds, which they hope to use to pay for a tractor. It turns out, however, that the man has prayed only for a scarecrow. Esther and Luke mount the now tattered tailcoat on a pole in a field to serve as a makeshift scarecrow for the man.
If you have ever seen the troubling The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), you may sense a similar project in this segment. In The Gods Must Be Crazy, a South African bushman reacts worshipfully to a Coke bottle that falls from the sky, and here Luke and Esther are astounded by the flaming coat full of riches that falls from an airplane. Tales of Manhattan relies on the idea that rural black Americans are incredibly naïve, blindly spiritual, and essentially far simpler than any of the white characters we have seen in this movie. At the same time, Luke and Esther are made out to be uncomplicatedly greedy, dispersing funds to the townspeople but with their own desires in mind as they do so. The dialogue is laced with extreme dialect and accompanied by an endless loop of solemn communal singing. The characterizations seem especially lackluster and insulting given what in comparison Edward G. Robinson and Charles Laughton are given to work with in this movie.
The segment is also frustrating because the black leads are the talented Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters, two multi-faceted performers who are exceedingly well known for their musical abilities but are given very little redeeming material to work with here. Paul Robeson quit acting after this film was released, citing his role as Luke as an example of the low-quality parts offered to black actors at the time. But low-quality parts are only one aspect of this segment’s failings: there is also our growing sense while watching it that this final piece is intended to be a sort of comedy, a racial joke that minimizes the dignity of the characters. The episode, insofar as it makes its characters seem cartoonish and not fully human, undermines our sense that the movie is, through the other segments, striving to make a more universal statement about what we as modern people have in common. The result is decidedly unpleasant.
The Robeson/Waters sequence complicates our reading of the film with its racial stereotypes. In the other segments, the movie offers the tailcoat as a way of unifying the narratives, which take place in a multiplicity of places (a country retreat, a penthouse, a concert hall, a mission) and feature a variety of stations in life (the elite actor, the posh socialite, the impoverished composer, the homeless lawyer) as evidence that the characters, disparate though they are, share a great deal in common. Through the tailcoat device, Tales of Manhattan strives to demonstrate that we are united through our experiences of fear, our capacity to be eloquent and generous under pressure, and our ability to withstand personal trials. But as the Robeson/Waters episode demonstrates, the application of this reading has its limits. Because the movie does not stress the equality of the sharecropper characters with the Manhattan characters, it is hard to say that the unifying symbol of the tailcoat is wholly effective.
The real reason to watch the movie remains the curiosity of seeing so many well-known actors of the 1940s involved in the same project. In this sense it reminds me of the 1933 Alice in Wonderland, another movie of vignettes that brought together the famous faces of the 1930s. Although Tales of Manhattan is less well known, it is nevertheless a treat, punctuated with effective moments and studded with stars.