1932 saw the popularization of the anthology film, with big all-star productions Grand Hotel and If I Had a Million hitting theaters from MGM and Paramount respectively. A decade later, French filmmaker Julien Duvivier arrived in Hollywood and brought the subgenre back, singlehandedly directing two anthologies in a row, beginning with Tales of Manhattan for Fox in 1942.
Five different stories (written by a variety of screenwriters including Ben Hecht and Donald Ogden Stewart) intersect by way of a tailcoat, which changes the luck of each character that comes into possession of it. Charles Boyer is the original owner, who stars in a noirish love triangle as he attempts to steal Rita Hayworth away from her husband (Thomas Mitchell). Next, in the best and funniest tale, Cesar Romero swaps the coat to stop his fiancee (Ginger Rogers) from discovering his adultery, but various machinations lead her to fall in love with his best man (Henry Fonda) instead. The stories get more burdened with sentimentality when Charles Laughton’s composer wears the coat while nervously conducting his music for the first time in front of a large audience, and then with a homeless Edward G. Robinson, who dons it as he attends his 25-year college reunion pretending to still be a success like the rest of his old schoolmates (including a typically malicious George Sanders).
The final unfortunate tale finds the coat hurtling out of the sky and landing in a poor neighborhood—a criminal fleeing in a plane has accidentally dropped it, and with it all the cash he stole. A black married couple (Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters) discover it, and hailing it as a miracle take it to the local minister (radio comedian Eddie “Rochester” Anderson). Robeson was rightly offended by the racist depiction of the black characters in the segment as greedy, simple people. The famed singer and actor had not appeared in a Hollywood production since 1936’s Show Boat, but told The New York Times that, “I thought I would change the picture as we went along, and I did make some headway. But in the end it turned out to be the same old thing—the Negro solving his problem by singing his way to glory. This is very offensive to my people. It makes the Negro child-like and innocent and is in the old plantation tradition. But Hollywood says you can’t make the Negro in any other role because it won’t be box office in the South.”1 As a result, Robeson never appeared in another film for the rest of his career.
Also cut from the film was a sixth tale starring W.C. Fields, where he played a professor dressed in the tailcoat for his lecture on using coconut milk as an alternative to alcohol. The comedy comes from the fact that, unbeknownst to him, the batch of coconut milk at the lecture has been spiked with alcohol, and so the entire room ends the evening flat drunk. Amusing enough, the segment was supposedly cut to shorten the overall runtime, though the tone of it veers so wildly from the other stories that cutting it for purely artistic reasons would have been justifiable. Still, its removal from the released film was unfortunate, as it would be Fields’ final screen performance—aside from several 1944 films where he played himself.
Though none of the stories are especially memorable themselves, Duvivier impressively manages to string them together in a way that feels coherent despite their varying tones and lengths. Yet nothing good in Tales of Manhattan can really overshadow its racist finale and the fact that it deprived us of potential decades more of great screen performances from Robeson, one of the only major black movie stars of the era.
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|1.||^||“ROBESON HITS HOLLYWOOD: Says ‘Old Plantation Tradition’ is ‘Offensive to My People’,” The New York Times, September 23, 1942, 28.|