Adventure in Manhattan (1936)
Both stars were on the rise in Hollywood: Arthur had been working in movies since the early 1920s, but she really hit her stride in the mid ’30s with The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). In fact, as you can see from this lobby card, the publicity for Adventure in Manhattan emphasized Arthur’s star turn in Mr. Deeds.
She was under contract to Columbia at the time, and they kept her very busy after those hit films. In fact, she would make five films released in 1936! After Mr. Deeds, the studio loaned her to RKO to make The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, and then cast her in Adventure in Manhattan, The Plainsman, and More Than a Secretary.
Meanwhile, Joel McCrea was starring in a variety of films, including screwball comedies such as The Richest Girl in the World (1934), dramas such as Barbary Coast (1935) and These Three (1936), and even a Shirley Temple film, Our Little Girl (1935). Like Arthur, he was on a roll when he made Adventure in Manhattan and would also star in five films in 1936!
Arthur and McCrea had first worked together in The Silver Horde (1930), a drama about the Alaskan salmon fishing industry with plenty of gold-hearted prostitutes and lover’s quarrels. Adventure in Manhattan was a very different movie!
McCrea and Arthur make a good onscreen team, and they got along well behind the scenes, too. As McCrea remembered in an interview with his son years later, “[Arthur] and I got along great. We never had a romance, but we always got along fine. Our director, Eddie Ludwig, would do anything for me, because if I just told Jean it was okay to go ahead and do something, she would do it. He was a little scared of her and I wasn’t.”
Arthur could be temperamental, mostly because she didn’t have the greatest self-confidence, but she trusted McCrea and he was able to buoy her up when she needed it. Plus, their all-American quality and natural acting styles match quite nicely.
McCrea and Arthur would star in a third and final film together, The More the Merrier (1943). It’s a terrific romantic comedy (one of my all-time favorites) that remains timelessly funny and adorable in spite of its dated premise (the plot hinges on premarital, but innocent, cohabitation.)
Adventure in Manhattan hasn’t worn quite so well. In fact, it feels older than its 1936 release date. That sometimes happens with these heist or crime films in the ’30s, partly because the detective or police methods seem ridiculously old-fashioned and unscientific to our CSI-addled ears. But this movie also has a vaguely illogical, topsy-turvy feeling that I associate with early mysteries.
You know the ones when you can’t keep the criminal or his motive straight, or immediately forget the plot once the end credits roll? This movie is a little like that. You can’t expect everything to make total sense, and you have to remember that you’re not watching the movie for the brilliantly constructed plot.
For example, McCrea’s character in this film is able to predict even the tiniest details of a criminal’s future actions, but we have no idea how and the movie doesn’t really try to explain it. So you’re left with this pretty large hole in both the plot and the character, but the movie basically says, “Don’t worry about it!”
I don’t want to prejudice you against this film because it is definitely worth watching, but don’t expect an especially tight narrative. It’s not that filmmakers couldn’t make neatly plotted films–not at all–rather, a perfect heist or surprising but well-explained mystery seems to have been less prized back then. (This same quality resurfaces in some film noirs in the 1940s with their convoluted plots and shifting motives. No one knows who killed the chauffeur!)
Anyway, Columbia assigned writers Sidney Buchman, Harry Sauber and Jack Kirkland to write the screenplay, which was suggested by a short story called “Purple and Fine Linen” by May Edginton. Fun fact: Buchman would go on to contribute to the scripts of Columbia classics such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Talk of the Town (1942), both of which also starred Jean Arthur.
To the film! We open on the robbery of the Koor-Hal ruby (we never learn anything about the stone besides its name, and it doesn’t factor into the story going forward, so let it go). The ensuing newspaper reports swirl across the screen in that terrific 1930s-style info dump.
Cut to a newspaper office where Phil, the frantic, gruff editor, yells at his staff. (Another terrific classic movie trope!) Phil is played by that wonderful character actor Thomas Mitchell. You may recognize him as Doc from Stagecoach (1939) or Scarlett’s father from Gone with the Wind (1939).
He summons crack crime reporter George Melville (Joel McCrea) to his office because he needs a talented reporter to track this story and hopefully uncover the woman in the case. There must be a woman! Plus, some romance and intrigue would really enliven the story.
Fun fact: this was one of Mitchell’s first film roles, but he had worked in the theater for a while. In an interview with his son, McCrea remembered that he was impressed by Mitchell’s acting chops, and Mitchell was impressed by McCrea’s film experience. “[Mitchell] knew I knew the film thing,” McCrea recalled:
He would come around and ask me about different people. He would say, ‘I’m new out here and I don’t know how to gauge my performance for the camera.’ I wanted to make him feel at home. He said, ‘You know, it’s different from the theatre. In film you and Jean are the stars and we are just bit players, while I’ve done things in New York that, if you had auditioned, I’d have gotten instead of you.’ He knew he was a better actor, but he knew that wasn’t the whole answer to what we were doing.
Phil explains to George that all he cares about is circulation, so if George can involve a beautiful woman and a haunted castle in his articles, he would appreciate it.
But George says that he knows who stole the ruby, and there isn’t a woman nor a castle involved. Instead, the culprit is a 45-year-old international crook named Berlea who is crazy, though wonderfully suave and educated. He’s also dead.
But George thinks that Berlea faked his death. Phil is skeptical, but George claims that he can predict Berlea’s next move, so Phil lets him write the story.
Apparently Melville’s take on the case is so important that his wild surmises get headlines for days.
George is certainly not a modest man, and he never entertains a moment of self-doubt. He’s also usually right, but this combination doesn’t win him many friends. He meets some colleagues for a game of pool, but they’re rather fed up with him, especially when he wins. Because of course he is an expert player.
McCrea remembered that his character in this film was a “typical leading man part with the twist that I was supposed to be a terrific billiard player. We had the expert there who went boom, boom, boom and never missed. Then they would cut to me and I would just finish the last shot.” Movie magic!
Anyway, while George schools his fellow reporters on the billiard table, he also explains that Berlea steals art treasures because he loves them, not just for the money. And he confidently predicts that Berlea is going to steal the “Sunburst Diamond” next, and that the butler from the Koor-Hal ruby case is going to be murdered any minute.
His colleagues think George is crazy, and quite annoying, too. But he’s right! George is smug and the reporters are shocked when news breaks that the butler was indeed murdered that evening. Everyone rushes out to get the scoop.
But I wonder if maybe George could alert the authorities when he knows a murder is coming? Seems awfully callous to let the butler die just to prove a point. George isn’t the most likable character early in the film…
Anyway, George strides down the street in search of a story when a woman (Jean Arthur) begs him for some money. He is uncharacteristically moved by her pitiful appeal and reaches for his wallet. But then someone gets run over by a car or something (we’re never quite sure what happens) and George runs off. A moment later he realizes that his wallet is missing…
He sees the beggar get into a taxi and follows her. She goes to a fancy salon and asks for a facial and a shampoo. George waits outside. (But wouldn’t it make more sense to confront her as soon as he can?)
Fortunately, there wasn’t a back door so the newly glamorous woman re-emerges later that evening in an evening dress and curls, all paid for by George.
He grabs her and they are on their way to the police station when she explains her tragic plight. She was married to a very cruel man and understandably ran away with a lover.
But the courts sided with her husband and revoked custody of their young daughter. So the woman hasn’t seen her child in three years despite the fact that every year she begs her ex-husband to let her come by on the kid’s birthday. Also, her lover abandoned her and now she is poor and alone.
But hurray! This year her ex-husband is allowing her to visit her daughter. It’s the child’s fourth birthday, and the woman is desperate to be there. So she stole George’s wallet to buy new clothes and look nice for the occasion. She asks George to give her a few hours of freedom: she is supposed to go by her ex-husband’s house that night.
George says fine, but he is going to stay with her to make sure she is telling the truth. So he takes her to a fancy dinner and basically mocks her the whole time. He doesn’t seem like a particularly kind man. It’s weird to see Jean Arthur being pitiful and exhausted, and McCrea being a jerk.
Here they are filming this scene:
There is a shocking and rather disturbing spoiler coming up, so if you’d rather not know what happens, skip ahead to the SPOILER OVER announcement. It won’t affect your understanding of the bigger plotline about the criminal mastermind.
After dinner, George and the woman head to a fancy mansion in the middle of nowhere. The ex-husband tells his fragile wife that their daughter is waiting for her in the parlor. She rushes in and we hear a horrible scream.
George runs in and finds something really awful. I think I shouted at the screen. It almost made me reconsider writing about this movie because I didn’t want to ruin the shock for people but I also didn’t really want to discuss it. I normally don’t care about spoilers, but this one is a doozy. Ready?
George sees the woman collapsed on the floor in front of a child-sized coffin. (I decided not to provide an image for that disturbing shot.) He helps her out of the room and the ex-husband explains that “it happened quickly.” The child died the day before, and the bastard chose this method of breaking the news. He seems to take pleasure in the mother’s shock and grief. How awful is that? Sadistic. He’s a monster.
George gets the woman out of there and takes her back to his apartment. She begs him to return to the house and get her daughter’s ring. Watch if you dare.
George goes at once, but this time the house is dark and appears deserted. He meets a watchman who says that the owner is out of town, and no one has been there for weeks. George breaks into the house to investigate, but he is cornered by a suave man with a gun. It’s Berlea! He explains that they have lured George to the house because he knows too much and must die.
Then the lights turn on to reveal the woman, the “ex-husband,” and a bunch of George’s reporter “pals” who set up this horrifying scenario as a prank to teach George a lesson! Yikes!
The woman is an actress named Claire Peyton, “Berlea” is Claire’s producer, Blackton Gregory (Reginald Owen, whom Variety called “role-proof…as usual”!), and the other characters are all actors from the troupe. Everyone has a good laugh, and we at least feel better that the tragic story about the child was fake.
Fun fact: as I mentioned, an inspiration for this movie was the story “Purple and Fine Linen” by May Edginton. The story concerns the plight of a woman who was cast out by her cruel husband, lost custody of her child, and was reduced to begging on the street. She steals a man’s wallet, uses the money to spruce herself up, and then goes to see her ex-husband and sick child. Meanwhile, the man she stole the wallet from trails behind her. Sound familiar?
Another fun fact: a 1927 film called Three Hours was based on the story, and both are credited as inspiration for Adventure in Manhattan. But this film only inserts their plots briefly as the prank on George. The novel and the 1927 movie didn’t have anything to do with a heist and a crack reporter.
Things you need to know if you skipped that: the woman is an actress, and George likes her.
As the group leaves the house, gunshots echo from the mansion next door. Everyone rushes over and learns that a valuable painting was just stolen. The crime has all the trademarks of the Koor-Hal ruby gang and Berlea.
Naturally, George sort of aw-shucks admits that he knew it was going to happen, but he didn’t tell anyone. WHAT?!
George is almost a Sherlock Holmes-style detective in that he can figure things out that baffle everyone else. But unlike Holmes, or even Nick Charles from The Thin Man series, we never see George find clues or do any kind of leg work. He just seems to magically “think through” stuff without going anywhere or talking to anyone. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. But let it go!
Besides, the movie is about to tell the audience who Berlea is. Any guesses?
It’s the producer, Blackton Gregory! We see him admiring the stolen painting in his office as he and the gang discuss the next heist. It involves the theater where Claire’s play is about to open…
Meanwhile, George begins courting Claire. He asks her to lunch at the Ritz, but instead he takes her to his apartment. Then he admits that he only has bread and baked beans. To make things worse, she has to fix their paltry lunch! He’s not as cute as he thinks he is. In fact, we wonder why Claire stays.
But at least they are able to engage in that repartee and cute chemistry that makes them such an enjoyable screen duo. Here they are filming the scene with director Edward Ludwig:
They’re about to eat when Gregory unexpectedly joins them. He says he is interested to learn more about George and his predictions, but he’s really curious to find out how much George knows about his criminal gang.
We learn that George is an art connoisseur, which is why he understands Berlea so well and can predict what he is going to steal. Sure.
I thought early on that George was Berlea, which at least would explain how he knows what the gang is going to do. I was a little disappointed when it turned out to be Gregory.
Anyway, once Gregory leaves, George boasts to Claire that the Sunburst Diamond is Berlea’s next target. It’s kept in a bank vault, but George is positive that the gang will steal it on Saturday night. He bets her a kiss that he is right, but she laughs him off and goes back to the theater to rehearse. Her play is opening Saturday night, too…weird.
Claire tells Gregory about George’s brash prediction and he agrees that it sounds farfetched. But then he calls his henchman and tells them to postpone the diamond heist! And he postpones the opening of the play, too…
So George was right! But now he’s not, though he doesn’t know that Berlea’s plans have changed. But the audience does!
George is so certain of his (erroneous) prediction that he alerts the authorities, and they believe him. Phil lets him write the story in advance and has it ready to go for the first edition. On Saturday night, the area around the bank (which coincidentally is next door to Claire’s theater!) is crawling with FBI and police. George and Claire wait for news in the park. But the robbers never show.
George and Claire finally give up and go to a bar where they get some doughnuts and coffee. (For more on that traditional snack, read this History Through Hollywood.) George’s reporter pals arrive and mock him for being wrong. So Claire kisses him in the alley to make him feel better. But it doesn’t go well.
Onions, apparently! It’s a rare moment of screwball humor in this otherwise dramatic film.
Things don’t improve for George. Phil is furious and fires him. For the first time ever, George is a little shaken. He’s never been wrong before!
The next day, Claire and Gregory find George sitting on the theater stage putting dirt in his pockets and saying odd things. His mind seems to have snapped. Claire and Gregory eventually make arrangements for George to spend some time at Gregory’s country house. They hope the quiet will help George regain his sanity. Claire doesn’t know that Gregory has sent two of his minions to kill George!
Soon after sending George away, Claire and Gregory’s play finally opens! Which means the robbery is about to happen, too. The play is a rather grim WWI drama, but Claire does her best.
Fortunately, they had cake! The original caption for this behind-the-scenes photo read: “No, it’s not a birthday party. But it was a hot day on the set of Columbia’s ‘Adventure in Manhattan,’ and Star Jean Arthur ordered an ice-cream cake as a pleasant surprise for the cast and crew. Beside Miss Arthur is Director Edward Ludwig (with hat). Joel McCrea plays opposite Miss Arthur, but he didn’t have to work that day.”
Anyway, during the play there is an absurdly long combat scene with lots of fake gunshots, explosions, and general commotion. Gregory’s men take advantage of the noise to blow the vault door, steal the Sunburst diamond, and skedaddle through a tunnel leading from the bank to the theater. But Claire notices her suave producer descending into a hole in the floor and gets suspicious.
She rushes to the police station and begs them to check on George. Meanwhile, Gregory postpones his escape and returns to his apartment when he realizes that his henchman failed to bring the painting they’d stolen.
But George is there, waiting for him!
He was faking the insanity the whole time! He just wanted to fool Berlea into going through with the diamond heist!
While the police take Gregory/Berlea into custody, Claire searches for George. She goes to his newspaper office where Phil shows her the article George wrote that very day predicting the heist and the capture of Berlea.
Claire is both furious and elated. She gets on the phone with George and Phil in a funny group conversation. Phil is desperately trying to get George to dictate an update about Berlea’s arrest, but Claire is just as desperately trying to convince George, and herself, that she doesn’t love him. And George is having a wonderful time being right, both about Berlea and about Claire being in love with him!
The End! It was, indeed, an adventure in Manhattan.
This film had a short production schedule between June 15-July 25, 1936. It premiered in October to mixed reviews.
Frank Nugent at The New York Times wrote, rather presciently, “[Adventure in Manhattan] is a lightweight and moderately diverting mystery tale which hurdles its absurdities with the greatest of ease and will be forgotten almost as soon as it fades from the screen.”
He continues: “Only one line is memorable. It is spoken by the city editor of The Daily Gazette as he hires a criminologist to write some special stories. ‘I want to be surprised,’ he says. ‘My readers want to be surprised. The columns of this paper are wide open to any fool who can make an ass of himself entertainingly.’
That is what is known as carte blanche and it absolves every one but the script writers of blame for what happens thereafter…”
Nugget concludes, “Part of it is entertaining and amusing, but more of it is skittish, far-fetched and unreasonable. And what it does with newspaper procedure, with the libel laws and police procedure is more than we dare to recall.”
This isn’t a “classic” classic, but fortunately it didn’t hurt any of the stars’ careers. Thomas Mitchell went on to several memorable roles in iconic movies, including Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Arthur continued her rise to stardom in classics like Easy Living (1937), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
McCrea’s career continued with starring roles opposite some of the top female stars of the time like Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers. A few years later, he hit my favorite stage of his career, the Alfred Hitchcock/Preston Sturges era. McCrea starred in Foreign Correspondent (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and a few other comedies before turning exclusively to his first love, westerns, in 1946.
As I mentioned, this was the second film that paired Arthur with McCrea, and they would make one more movie together a few years later, The More the Merrier (1943). It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more Arthur/McCrea films because they’re great together.
That’s a wrap on Adventure in Manhattan! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, pinterest, and Facebook, and you can buy this movie here. Thank you to Peter McCrea for allowing me to use his father’s interviews! And thank you for reading!