Tales of Manhattan (1942)

Tales of Manhattan (1942), directed by Julien Duvivier.

A quirky anthology film about the odyssey of a cursed dinner jacket. It was cursed by the tailor who made it: he didn't like the lapels.

Intelligent script and lovely photography throughout.

The title is a pun: the tales of a tail-coat. Get it?

The original owner is suave actor Charles Boyer, off to the country to steal Rita Hayworth (hot damn) from drunken, jolly but possibly homicidal husband Thomas Mitchell.

Each of the three characters is just magnetic, but Mitchell deserves more appreciation than he gets. Often comic but with much darker depths at his command.


The coat (now with a little hole in it) passes on to harried butlers Roland Young and Eugene Pallette. It serves as a prop in a bedroom farce between lothario Cesar Romero, his fiancée Ginger Rogers and best man Henry Fonda. Ginger becomes eagerly fascinated with Fonda -- playing the same sort of shy, diffident character as from The Lady Eve (1941) -- when she mistakes him for a great lover.


The coat passes on to a second-hand shop where Elsa Lanchester grabs it for (real life) husband Charles Laughton, a poor musician who has a chance to conduct the orchestra. Funny and sad: the coat doesn't fit him very well.


Now with rips and given to charity, the coat finds its way to the poor part of town. Mission workers fix it up for skid-row bum Edward G. Robinson, a former lawyer disgraced by scandal. He needs it to attend a class reunion.

Robinson is -- as always -- superb, and George Sanders provides his patented condescending nastiness as the poor man's nemesis.

James Gleason is great in the unusual role of the warm-hearted Mission chief. Usually he gets the comical fight-manager or bartender parts, but he could do other things.


Finally, the coat is stolen by stick-up men to serve as a disguise for a big heist. Escaping by plane they catch fire and the coat (with money!) is dropped on a shanty town of black sharecroppers. Singers Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters take the loot to their preacher who -- quite sensibly -- figures this is the answer to prayers and distributes it equitably to the whole town.

Eddie Anderson is best known for his gravelly voice and as sidekick "Rochester" to Jack Benny on the radio. I first noticed in Topper Returns (1941) that he had great comic sensibility and was witty in his performances. I love watching him.

Robeson objected to this segment after the film's release, and gave up on Hollywood entirely afterward. The wikipedia quotes him as saying the segment was:


... very offensive to my people. It makes the Negro childlike and innocent and is in the old plantation hallelujah shouter tradition... the same old story, the negro singing his way to glory.

You can see his point in the stereotypes used. It is possible to be kindly meant, sentimental and offensively patronizing at the same time. Still, I enjoy the tale: it's funny and heartfelt.


A sixth tale with W.C. Fields, Phil Silvers and Margaret Dumont was not included on my DVD. It was cut from the original release but still exists and is part of broadcast versions.

Sol Kaplan score, lovely inventive cinematography by Joseph Walker.

Available on a barely adequate Fox DVD-R. This is a good restoration candidate.