Romance in Manhattan is a little known, but endearing film starring Ginger Rogers and Francis Lederer; a fairy tale romance that still manages to touch on depression era highlights (highlights that are actually still highlights of today): illegal immigration, strikes, unemployment, a single woman raising a child.
Karel Novak (Francis Lederer) is from Czechoslovakia and has come to America to become a farmer. He believes that the entry fee is $50, but it was recently raised to $200 to keep immigrants from coming in and taking jobs from people already struggling to find work. But Karel has worked years to come to America and knows that if they send him back it will be years more before he can return. In desperation, he jumps ship and swims ashore to New York.
Initially full of wonder and excitement about the new country, soon he’s starving, until a chorus girl helps him out. Sylvia Dennis (Ginger Rogers) doesn’t even bat an eye to find a hungry and disheveled man partaking of the chorus’ donuts (probably not an uncommon sight during the time), and instead offers him more as they sit and talk. Like all Ginger Rogers’ characters, Sylvia is street smart, but warm on the inside. He is naive, eager, enthusiastic and extremely grateful to her and the two of them feel drawn to each other almost instantly. When he won’t take any money from her, she lets him sleep on the roof of her apartment and her younger brother gets him a job as a newspaper boy.
But Sylvia is under a bit of pressure herself. She is the sole guardian of her brother Frank (Jimmy Butler), who keeps skipping school so he can work selling papers, and several members of the school are concerned that Sylvia is not able to raise him properly and want to send him to an institute for orphans. When the show she’s in closes, the pressure mounts. Meanwhile, Karel moves up from being a newspaper boy to a taxi driver and what money he is not giving to help Sylvia he is saving so he can pay the entrance fee and become an American citizen.
But even his job evaporates when the taxi drivers go on strike. The school women are concerned that not only is Frank still skipping school, but she has no work and appears to be living with a man and the judge agrees to send Frank to the institute. He says that if Sylvia were to be married, that would be a different thing.
Karel, of course, is desperate to help her, but is powerless because he has no money and is not even a citizen. What he really wants to do is marry Sylvia and so he goes to a lawyer, Halsey J. Pander (Arthur Hohl), who says he can make Karel a citizen, but really plans to turn him in to be deported and collect a reward. Meanwhile, Karel returns to work even though the strike is not yet settled.
And despite all these bleak circumstances the film remains upbeat and optimistic, even though the situation is so bad we need a deus ex machina (a police deus ex machina) to resolved everything.
Francis Lederer and Ginger Rogers are an adorable couple. Lederer began work in German theater and then German silent films (Pandora’s Box) and Romance in Manhattan is one of his earliest films in America. He never became a star and actually seems to have played quite a few villains (and Nazis…though he’s not actually German), but is probably best remembered by classic movie fans as the playboy Jaqcues Picot in Midnight with Claudette Colbert.
Ginger Rogers is clearly not yet the star she would become in the late 1930s and early ’40s. The film largely belongs to Lederer rather than her. She is a bit softer in this one, not quite as sassy as in her later films. But she’s always a joy to watch in anything she made in the 1930s and I have a goal to watch every one of her films in that decade.
I’m always delighted to see Donald Meek in any role and in Romance in Manhattan he plays a much put-upon minister (which feels like I role I’ve seen him in before). J. Farrell MacDonald is the very Irish Officer Murphy, who befriends Karel, though there are a large quantity of very sympathetic policemen around. The wedding at the end is one of the more unusual that you will ever see in a film.
What Romance in Manhattan ultimately is is a fairy tale of urban life, immigrants (Officer Murphy still has his Irish accent) and the depression. Very sweet and enjoyable.