If you ever need proof that the ‘30s and ‘40s were the highpoint of the romantic comedy genre, take a look at the little gems that even came out of the decades without much fanfare, case and point Romance in Manhattan (1934). While directed by Stephen Roberts (whose best film is the very different The Story of Temple Drake (1933)), this RKO programmer has the look and feel of a George Stevens or a Frank Capra production. These kinds of comedies, although dealing with the depression, have both glimpses of reality mixed with heartwarming and charming romance and comedy that make it authentic while also being Hollywood glamorous. In the ‘30s, unfortunate situations, such as poverty, often lead to hilarity and good times in films, making them able to resonate with modern audiences as well as those during the economic crisis of the early-to-mid 1930s.
Francis Lederer was incredibly gifted with lighthearted comedies, but his best-known work comes from more dramatic films or supporting roles (like Pandora’s Box (1928)) and his delightful romances are often underrated due to limited release. This, along with other films like The Gay Deception (1935) and My American Wife (1936), show that Lederer was perfect in comedy baubles of entertainment. In fact, major stardom for Lederer did seem inevitable, producer Irving Thalberg wanted to put him in some quality productions, but that fell through with Thalberg’s sudden death. It’s this film that makes us the most upset that those plans didn’t pan out. Ginger Rogers is his leading lady and gets to display pathos as well as that snappy gal personality we love so much, but she’s mainly taking a backseat to Lederer’s scene-stealing warmth.
The plot is just as topical as ever, with the adorable Lederer wanting to immigrate to America and getting as far as Ellis Island, but he can’t go to America due to him not having $200. He only has $50 as he believed that was what he needed and wasn’t informed on the changing law. Instead of being deported back to Czechoslovakia (Lederer was actually Czech in real-life too), he decides to runaway to America by swimming to Manhattan. In the process, he loses his money and possessions, but finds the help of nice chorus girl Ginger Rogers, who gets him a job working with her younger brother as a newspaper boy. Rogers also allows him to live in the same apartment building as she and her brother, by having him sleep on the roof (a la Hands Across the Table (1935)). It doesn’t take long for Lederer and Rogers to fall in love despite the immigration authorities seeking him and the child protection agency wanting her to send her brother to an orphanage since she’s his only guardian and thought too young to be responsible for him.
Of course, everything works out for the couple in the end as there proves to be friends and understanding people who help them out at the police station where they wind up, but the film also shows that there’s also people who take advantage of their situation. Arthur Hohl plays one of his usual villain roles as a crooked attorney who forgets client-lawyer confidentiality and reports Lederer to the police for a reward while J. Farrell MacDonald is the police officer friends with Lederer and Rogers who is willing to help. Sidney Toler, before being Charlie Chan, also plays a kind officer willing to help the couple and gets several laughs in the process. All and all, Romance in Manhattan is a picture that will make the audience feel better after watching it without being too cutesy and unrealistic, as it does have its share of reality cemented in the fantastical romantic comedy world it’s in due to the financial situations and tangles with authorities. It’s little treasures like these that manage to be favorites of ours as we can watch them over and over again, because they make us smile. This is a prime example of that kind of ‘30s comedy that will please.
When a romantic comedy such as Romance in Manhattan (1935) can hit all the necessary plot points and still hold a strong sense of light humor, charm, and romantic elements all under ninety minutes, it helps make me lose my patience when many romantic comedies of more recent years clock in at two hours. Not only that, but they don’t have the same level of heart a movie like this has. It is a movie that critic Leonard Maltin compares to a Frank Capra film and this is very clear as its heart makes the viewer feel warm and fuzzy after seeing it. This is probably why I personally have seen this movie a few times. It always manages to make me feel good after watching it much like a Frank Capra film. While Capra movies can condescendingly be referred to as “Capra-corn” for wearing their big hearts on their sleeves, it doesn’t mean Capra and movies that follow in his footsteps aren’t well-executed and they certainly never feel like they emotionally manipulate their viewers. Capra movies and a film like Romance in Manhattan are just good at what they do.
Romance in Manhattan has the great premise of having a Czech immigrant named Karel (Francis Lederer) coming to America with the $50.00 necessary to become a citizen. While at the border, he gets turned away as the price was raised to $200.00 recently. Understandably, this upsets Karel as he worked and slaved just for $50.00 and went on a long boat journey thinking he would make it to America only to have the rug pulled from under him. Before he can be deported, Karel jumps ship and enters America illegally. While in New York City, a hungry Karel finds help in chorus girl Sylvia (Ginger Rogers). Sylvia not only offers Karel food but shelter as well as she lets him sleep on the roof of her apartment building. Karel sells newspapers with the help of Sylvia’s younger brother (Jimmy Butler) but then becomes a cab driver. While Karel goes through the workplace woes of the Great Depression in America, he and Sylvia also fall in love with one another although the characters are rather shy about admitting it at first as they try to remain platonic friends. Karel’s immigration status which his new friends are unaware of leads to problems. They all also deal with money issues and custody problems regarding Sylvia’s brother. All of it ends in an uplifting manner like many classic rom-coms.
The supporting actors are well-cast including Arthur Hohl as a slimy lawyer, J. Farrell MacDonald as a friendly cop who befriends Lederer’s Karel, and Sidney Toler as a frustrated police sergeant. Rogers and Butler are also perfect in their roles. While the whole cast is tops, the one who comes off the best is Lederer. Lederer himself was a Czech immigrant who was a big star in Europe before coming to America where sadly he never became a star (Irving Thalberg was going to try to make him one before he passed away) although he was a leading man often. Lederer is one of those actors that is so charming he should have been a bigger star in America and nowhere is that clearer than in Romance in Manhattan. His appeal is impossible not to notice from his very first scenes as an excited potential new citizen. Since Lederer got started in silent movies, he is able to display a quiet fear of being deported as well as 1930’s Hollywood-style lighthearted acting chops. He also has great chemistry with Rogers onscreen (I know she also complimented him in real-life as an actor and said she believed he deserved to be a big star). Outside of the cast, the film is directed by Stephen Roberts who would die a year later at the age of 40 due to a heart-attack (but his resume includes other light comedies as well as the hard-hitting The Story of Temple Drake (1933)). Like Lederer, Roberts could have been a bigger name in his respected field had unfortunate circumstances not intervened. The film was written by Jane Murfin whose screen credits include What Price Hollywood? (1932), Alice Adams (1935), and The Women (1939) as well as Edward Kaufman who penned Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934), and The Gay Divorcee (1934). The lovable story was done by Norman Krasna and Don Hartman.
The writing and story have stood the test of time quite well. In fact, the film’s plot about immigration and the worries of an illegal immigrant are sadly as timely as ever. It is impossible not to watch Romance in Manhattan today and not draw modern-day parallels to the plot. It is also tough not to watch the film and think about immigration in the 1930’s and what that must have been like. Keep in mind, Lederer’s Karel is immigrating from Czechoslovakia. The Nazis took over Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. With this history in hindsight, how can we not want Karel to stay in America? The fact that he already worked so hard to make $50.00 was enough to already get him on the audience’s side when he decides to enter the country illegally, so adding the historical context to the events makes him even more easy to root for. I know immigration and especially illegal immigration is a touchy topic today, but it was a touchy subject then too. This agreeable movie wasn’t afraid to deal with it head-on and make a light-hearted film out of it. It shows that even when the law is at stake, it is important to still be human and have a heart. All the good characters in this movie understand that.
Should this movie be recommended to people who are anti-immigration today? Maybe, so that they can watch it and hopefully grow a heart regarding this subject. Still, this movie’s main point isn’t about trying to turn people already against the idea of immigrants around to the idea of accepting them whether they got here legally or not. It is just a cute, fun, and enjoyable movie about a likable character that unfairly gets the tables turned against him. We want him to become a citizen and we want him to end up with his pretty American friend that helps him when he’s down. It is a movie that shows a little heart goes a long way and having a positive impact on someone else can always lead to good things in the long haul. Lederer and Rogers are both perfectly charismatic and are ideally cast in this romantic comedy. It is short, sweet, and makes you feel like a million after watching it. I definitely recommend it.