Ginger Rogers and Francis Lederer find... Romance in Manhattan (1935)

I'm a pretty cynical person. I'm also not an outwardly affectionate or emotional person. It sounds like I'm a robot, but it is what it is. That being said, there is one thing that will always make me a blubbering mess: a classic film. I seriously stunned my parents one time when they walked into the living room just minutes after I finished Sunset. I was still crying and I immediately started recounting the whole movie and they legitimately had to ask "Who are you?" Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Sirk frequently make me sob. Greta Garbo, too -- I mean, how many times has that woman tragically died? It's actually insane how many classic films are able to trigger the waterworks for me.

One such film is Romance in Manhattan. Everybody calls this a comedy, to which I say "Um, what?" Yeah, it's funny, but in addition to that, it's dramatic and sad and goosebump-inducing. I guess you could say it's a dramedy more than anything else. It's also a completely underrated gem, a movie that balances lovely romance and serious issues without causing me to roll my eyes or scoff in disbelief.

Just five days after Ginger Rogers finished filming The Gay Divorcee, she began work on Romance in Manhattan. For her leading man, Francis Lederer, it would be his third American picture. Born in Prague, Lederer became a star in Europe; one of his most well-known roles came in 1929's Pandora's Box with Louise Brooks. With the political climate becoming more dangerous, Lederer came to America, but he never really attained the status of contemporaries like Clark Gable, William Powell, and Fredric March. Today you might know him best from Midnight (1939), which was released the same year that he became a U.S. citizen.

As a Czech man who came to America and sought citizenship, Lederer was the perfect choice for the role of Karel Novak. Immigrating from Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Karel and many others excitedly cheer when their ship comes into New York and they see the Statue of Liberty for the first time. We see a montage of doctors checking him out, and when it comes time for his entry interview, he surprises the official by speaking English. He is waved on to the next official who asks Karel how much money he has. After learning that it
is only $58, the official inquires if he has someone in America or someone back home who can send him money or if he has a job. When Karel answers in the negative on all three counts, he is held for another interview, where it is determined that he must be sent back to Czechoslovakia because he cannot pay the $200 entry fee, a fee that Karel was told would be $50. Angry and heartbroken, Karel doesn't understand why he cannot find a job and slowly pay them over time. It already took his so long to save the $58 he has now. Desperate, he declares that "My
whole life has been about coming to America!" It's devastating to see.

While waiting in his locked room on the steamship that will take him back, Karel notices that the porthole screws can be loosened. He quickly jumps out of the window and is helped out of the East River by a group of dock workers. In the process, his wallet has fallen out of his pocket, something he does not realize until he sits down at a diner for breakfast. It isn't so bad -- he walks around the city in complete
wonder, but his hunger eventually kicks in. Spotting a gang of chorus girls having a coffee break in the alley outside of their theater, Karel waits until they leave and then devours a doughnut as fast as he can. He is caught by Sylvia (Rogers), one of the chorus girls. She kindly invites him to sit down and encourages him to eat more as they chat. When she tries to give him change, he declines it but thanks her anyway. As they leave the alley, a police officer who yelled at Karel earlier comes up to them, revealing himself to be a friend of Sylvia's.

Karel is terrified of him, but soon he realizes that Murph is a good egg. After Murph leaves, Sylvia gets the idea that her brother might be able to help Karel with a job. They walk to her apartment building, but when her landlady sees them, Sylvia pretends they are saying goodnight and Karel is forced to sneak up in a few minutes. In her apartment, Sylvia discovers two social workers sitting with her 11-year-old brother, Frank. He hasn't been to school in the past couple days, something he does often so he can work more and help out Sylvia. Aware that her brother
could be taken from her for this, Sylvia chides him and assures the social workers that "the best thing for us is to be together." As the ladies leave, Karel arrives and is introduced to Frank. Although skeptical of Karel's inexperience, Frank agrees to get him a job selling newspapers.

To further help him out, Sylvia grabs the makings for a bed and leads Karel up to the roof, telling him he can sleep there for as long as he needs. Amazed at the view of New York City, Karel talks about
how incredible life is in America. Sylvia doesn't find it so rosy, explaining how crushing the Great Depression was. This may be true, but, Karel counters, America provides opportunities for everyone. "Do you know how many people want to come to this country of yours? For millions, it is the land of dreams and hopes of achievement and happiness." He then expresses his gratitude to Sylvia and promises to repay her.

We flash forward some time later. Karel has been selling newspapers and he has gained a new friend in Murph, that policeman he used to be scared of. Frank comes to relieve Karel and says he was able to enroll him in night school like he wanted. Life seems to be going great for Karel. While buying a rose for Sylvia, Frank teases that tons of men are after his sister, an idea that clearly upsets Karel. At dinner that night, one of the men who fished Karel out of the river approaches him, but he denies any knowledge of the incident. As he walks away, the
man discloses that he only wanted to return Karel's wallet. Frank believes it's too bad Karel wasn't who that man thought he was -- that $58 could have helped with the $200 that Karel has been trying to save for, mysteriously.

A few weeks later, Karel is now driving the truck that delivers the newspapers. Encountering Murph, he asks him hypothetical questions about his "foreigner friend," who is in the country illegally. Murph advises him to report his friend so he can be
deported. He also says that the people who are knowingly helping this friend could get into trouble too. Well, this is a bummer. Also a bummer? Sylvia's show closes, putting her out of work. Dejected, she comes home only for Karel to burst through the door. He tells her to close her eyes and then he excitedly reveals his new vocation: taxi driver! As he is showing her his license, Sylvia breaks the news about her newfound unemployment. Unperturbed, Karel says that now he and Frank can take care of her.

This becomes hard to do, however, when business starts to decline for Karel. It gets even worse when one day he is cut off by another taxi driver who takes his car key and tells him that the drivers are going on strike. Frustrated, Karel goes home and finds Sylvia washing clothes. When he takes over for her, she remarks that he'll make a wonderful husband for somebody someday -- if she wasn't on the make for a millionaire, she'd take him herself!

 
As they banter back and forth, Karel in the kitchen and Sylvia in her room, Sylvia reveals that the whole reason for her going into show business was so she could meet a rich man. Their breezy conversation hits too close to home when she states "I'm fed up with poverty. I've seen too many girls marry men who are always losing their jobs." Karel's face falls, but in order to keep up with the lightness of their discussion, he says he could always find himself a millionairess. Now it is Sylvia's face that falls. "Why not?" she replies. Unable to endure it any longer, Karel rushes into her room and says "I'll tell you why not! Because the only millionaire you're going to marry is me!" They kiss, but their adorable moment is cut short when Frank comes in asking about the strike. Sylvia is disappointed to hear that Karel is also out of a job, but he tries to stay chipper by suggesting they go out for dinner and a movie.

It doesn't take long for Karel's money to start dwindling, though. One day, Sylvia receives a call from the truant officer -- he just picked up Frank, who was selling newspapers at a polo match instead of being at school. In court, the judge discovers that Sylvia is only 19 instead of 22 as she has been claiming. The judge then asks about the man who has been reported as living with Sylvia. Karel rushes to the bench and explains their situation, insisting that there is nothing unsavory about the arrangement and he is simply repaying a debt. Surprisingly, the judge believes Karel, and he also doesn't think that Sylvia is "indecent," but he still orders Frank to be placed in the Benton Institute, an orphan asylum, the next morning. Citing Sylvia's age, the judge declares that she cannot give her brother a proper upbringing, but once she is married, they can be together again.

Back at the apartment, Frank tries to be brave as he chatters away and packs his suitcase. Sylvia and Karel silently watch until Karel can't stand it anymore and leaves, causing Sylvia to burst into tears. Arriving at Murph's house, Karel asks him what one has to do to get married. Murph's answers make it sound like the easiest thing in the world... until he mentions that Karel would need to bring his naturalization papers with him. A deflated Karel returns to the apartment building, but instead of comforting a waiting Sylvia, he goes to the rooftop to
think. When he puts his hand inside his pocket, he discovers a business card that a lawyer had given him earlier at the courthouse. Maybe all is not lost!

At the office of Halsey J. Pander (seriously), Karel explains the predicament of his "friend." Pander turns him away, though, because Karel only has $6 and the law requires a lawyer's fee to be at least $50 (something tells me that isn't right...). If Karel can return with that much, Pander will help him out. However, as soon as Karel leaves, the shyster calls
an acquaintance and asks how much money he received that time he turned in an illegal alien. The man practically has dollar signs in his eyes. The next day, Karel finds another cabby job and begs Pander to take his case. He agrees to send some paperwork to Karel -- what was his name and address again?

Karel comes home to find Sylvia packing to run away with Frank. He tries to convince her that running is no way to live (he should know), but she doesn't care. Finally, he proposes. "I couldn't accept that
kind of marriage. Not even to keep Frank," she responds. Heartbroken, Karel quietly reflects, "I was so sure you felt as I did." When he sees Sylvia crying, though, he realizes that she does love him and they happily tell Frank that they are going to be married. Believing that Pander is going to make him a U.S. citizen within 24 hours, Karel cryptically tells Sylvia that they can't get married until the next day, but it'll still be done in time to save Frank from the Benton Institute. For now, he must go back to work and when he gets home, they'll celebrate.

That night, Sylvia and Frank are preparing the table for dinner when Frank asks his sister why doughnuts are part of their meal, unaware that it harkens back to when Sylvia and Karel first met. "You wouldn't understand about that, young man!" she says with a laugh. When there is a knock on the door, they expect Karel but find a policeman instead. Frank was supposed to be at the institute by now. Despite Sylvia's insistence that she is going to be married, the officer doesn't budge. Meanwhile, Karel starts to enter the building when he decides to go across the street and get a bottle of wine. In a superb shot, Karel is buying the wine in the foreground while in the background, we can see Frank being taken away.

Karel finds Sylvia crying on the front steps and learns what happened. Sylvia bemoans the fact that they didn't get married right away, forcing Karel to finally admit that he is in the country illegally. He didn't tell her before because he didn't want her and Frank to be considered accomplices. He promises that everything will be alright in the morning, thanks to Mr. Pander. As they start to head upstairs, they hear two men asking the landlady for Karel. Thinking it is the paperwork from Pander, Karel goes up to them, only to discover that they are
policemen who need to take him to the station.

Once there, Karel and Sylvia learn the truth about Pander when he arrives and smugly announces he is turning Karel in. Thankfully, Murph comes upon them. Karel admits he is illegal, but he will gladly return to Czechoslovakia if he could just marry Sylvia first. In a beautiful moment, Sylvia says she'll go to Czechoslovakia if necessary to be with him. Naturally, Pander practically has a conniption fit: "He's not entitled to a break! He's here illegally!" He then demands that the station hold Karel in its custody until he returns in the morning. With the weasel gone, Murph and his fellow officers get an idea... Before long, Pander is pulled over and accused of drunk driving. At the station, they tack on more charges, such as resisting an officer.

More importantly, though, the policemen help make Sylvia and Karel's marriage a reality -- and Karel's citizenship! While a reverend (Donald Meek, who else?) slowly performs the ceremony, Murph is on the phone with immigration, a doctor gives Karel his vaccinations, and an official fills outs their marriage license. Told that Karel needs $200 for his entry fee, Murph hilariously swipes the $231 Pander paid for his fines and informs immigration that Karel has more than enough to be in America. With the ceremony and everything else finished, all of the officers congratulate the newlyweds as the reverend walks out of the station in a daze.

You'll remember that I said at the start of this post that this film doesn't make me scoff in disbelief. After reading about that ending, you're probably wondering how this could be. Part of why I love classic Hollywood so much is its sense of optimism. I can be pessimistic, definitely, but that's what makes these films so vital -- they give me hope. Everything today is so dark and dreary. If Romance in Manhattan had been produced this year, I highly doubt that Karel and Sylvia would have been given their happy ending. But that is a rant for another day.

Karel and Sylvia are absolutely darling, as were the actors portraying them. In her 1991 autobiography My Story, Rogers recalled that Lederer was "handsome, genuine, and very professional." He in turn called her "adorable" and said that making the film was a "marvelous experience." Both actors are incredibly natural, warm, and sincere in this movie. They have lovely chemistry and there is never a point in the narrative where you aren't rooting for them.

It's hard to see why Lederer didn't become a huge success in Hollywood. Ginger herself wrote "I predicted stardom for him. Alas, it didn't come. The studio didn't know how to handle him or how to buy stories for him. His career never took off." MGM bigwig Irving Thalberg had planned on crafting an excellent career for Lederer, but when Thalberg died, those plans (and so many others) died with him. Throughout the '30s, '40s, and '50s, Lederer did films and stage work. When television came, he found another source of revenue; his last TV appearance happened in a 1971 episode of Night Gallery. For the rest of his life, Lederer had a very active political life in Los Angeles. In 2000, he died at 100 years old.

A sweet, simple story, Romance in Manhattan is a gentle reminder that kindness and hope can be found anywhere. Stephen Roberts's direction is marvelous, the script is great, and the performances are perfect. The only thing I hate is that the topic is still timely.















































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This is my contribution to the "No, You're Crying!" Blogathon, a tribute to all of those films that can't help but make us claim "It's just dust in my eye!" Check out the other entries here.

Comments

  1. I expected this to fall much more on the comedy side. Certainly, there are laughs, but it is the sweetness in the romance and the seemingly impossible odds that touch the heart.

    We all need hope and we are so lucky that there are many classic films that give it to us. You wrote a charming piece about a charming movie.

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    1. Thank you! I'm not sure why everyone touts this as a comedy -- even the DVD case does. Some people are liable to be disappointed when they actually see the film, despite it being a fine romantic drama.

      I always say that classic movies made me a better person. This film is just one of many examples.

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  2. This sounds really good! ( And I'm ashamed to admit that I never even HEARD of the title ). I'll try and watch it this month and then I'll let you know how heavy the downpour of tears was. ;-)

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    1. It's a bit of an obscure title, so don't feel bad about not knowing it. I hope you enjoy it! I'd love to hear your thoughts, for sure!

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  3. Great article. I invite you to add it to this week's The Classic Movie Marathon Link Party http://classicmovietreasures.com/classic-movie-marathon-link-party-8/

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  4. I'm another one who hasn't heard of this film. If you like it, Michaela, I know I will, too. I hope to come across it soon!

    Yes, why on earth didn't Francis Lederer become a superstar?

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    1. Thanks, I hope you do, too!

      Isn't it a shame? Sometimes I wonder how things would have changed if Irving Thalberg hadn't died so soon. Some careers wouldn't have been the same, for sure.

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  5. I have never seen this film, it sounds wonderful! It may have a happy ending that wouldn't be in a movie today, but the subject matter is still very timely.

    Thanks so much for reviewing if for the blogathon!

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    1. It's sad that over 80 years later, this film's subject is still timely, but that's the way it is.

      Thanks for hosting this! It was really interesting seeing the other topics!

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