Not too many years ago, I happened across a Ginger Rogers film I had never seen or even heard of before. Romance in Manhattan turned out to be not only a lovely little movie, but also became one of my favorites. As much as I love the pairing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to introduce others to this lesser known charmer which co-stars Ginger with Francis Lederer.
Karel Novak (Lederer) has worked hard to achieve his dream of immigrating to America. A native of Czechoslovakia, he meets all the legal requirements for entry. However, upon his arrival he learns that one of those requirements has changed and he is to be deported back to his home country.
Karel can’t bear the thought that he must return home. Leaving his belongings and money behind, he escapes into New York City, where he is certain he will find work. However, the only luck Karel has is meeting the kind and compassionate show girl Sylvia Dennis (Rogers). Sylvia is the sole caretaker for her younger brother Frank (Jimmy Butler) and is barely making ends meet herself. But she offers Karel food, a place to sleep and help in finding a job.
As weeks and months pass, Karel becomes a welcome addition to the lives of Sylvia and her brother Frank. Karel finds a job as a taxi driver and helps contribute to the household. He also manages to befriend police officer Murphy (J. Farrell McDonald), despite living in fear of discovery and deportation.
Sylvia and Karel begin to fall for each other, but Sylvia prefers to marry a millionaire. She is sick of poverty and seeks security for herself and Frank. This desire becomes even more important when both she and Karel find themselves out of work just as social services threaten to take Frank away from her. Karel however, is convinced that love will find a way and proposes to Sylvia. But their problems are far from over. A shady lawyer reports Karel’s immigrant status and Frank is taken from Sylvia. But with a little help from Officer Murphy, Karel and Sylvia may just have a chance.
In today’s climate, it would be easy to politicize a film like Romance in Manhattan. Especially as it features the story of an immigrant whose dream of America motivates him to break the law when one subjective requirement threatens to obliterate his hope and sacrifice. But in my opinion, this would be a mistake, because you might miss the sweetness of this story and it’s characters.
This film came at a time of transition in Ginger Rogers’ career and is one of five films she made in 1935. Ginger already had numerous credits to her name, but mostly as a supporting or character actress. However, prior to the release of Romance in Manhattan, she was paired with Fred Astaire in two of the nine films in which they would appear together. Her star was just starting to rise. Within the following several years she appeared in six more films with Astaire and also branched out into serious dramatic roles, one of which (Kitty Foyle) won her an Oscar.
Ginger’s portrayal of Sylvia Dennis is one of my favorite’s. Sylvia is practical and realistic, but she has not allowed the challenges of life to harden her or make her cynical. She has retained her innocence but is also wise to the ways of the world. Though Sylvia has little, she doesn’t think twice about sharing it with someone who has even less. And even though she espouses a desire to marry wealth, Sylvia doesn’t really fit the definition of a gold-digger. She is playful yet sincere in her wish, but when it comes down to it, she realizes that love is more valuable. Rogers never overplays her performance as Sylvia, keeping it genuine with an underlying sense of humor. In her capable hands, Sylvia is a believable depiction of an average, quietly heroic, every day American.
As much as I love Ginger Roger’s portrayal of Sylvia though, this is really Francis Lederer’s film. From his first appearance onscreen he draws you in to the heart of Karel Novak. You feel his excitement, disappointment, determination and every emotion in between in his pursuit to become an American. His earnestness, innocence and optimism help you to experience the poignancy of his plight. Here is a man who truly wants to follow the laws of his adopted country, but who also refuses to allow his inability to meet one subjective requirement make all his sacrifice for naught. Even though he begins with nothing and needs every spare penny, Karel willingly contributes to the Dennis household. He also risks the threat of deportation in order to keep Sylvia and Frank together, willing to give up his dream for their sake. I particularly appreciate how his immigrant perspective helps Sylvia to see her native country through new, appreciative eyes.
Romance in Manhattan also benefits from the performances of Jimmy Butler and J Farrell McDonald as Frank and Officer Murphy. I’m not familiar with Butler’s other work, but his portrayal of Sylvia’s brother is quietly convincing. Unlike some child actors, his personality doesn’t overpower the part, but he doesn’t disappear into it either. Butler really makes Frank his own. It is a shame that he died young in combat in WWII. It would have been interesting to see what he might have done as an adult actor.
McDonald was a familiar face to me as he should be. In his career he amassed over 300 credits in small parts (some uncredited). Here he has the chance to shine as a soft-hearted Irish cop who doesn’t let the law crush an otherwise good man. And of course, what 1930’s film would be complete without the presence of Donald Meek? Sadly, he doesn’t appear until the end of the picture. But it’s still a pleasure to see him play a small role as a minister.
Romance in Manhattan celebrates self-sacrifice, compassion, human kindness, understanding and love. It’s focus on these attributes reminds us not only of the best qualities of America but also of mankind.
Unfortunately, this film rarely airs on TCM. But it is available to rent through Amazon, iTunes and Vudu. Or you could always buy the DVD like I did.
This is my contribution to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Blogathon hosted In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Love Letters to Hollywood. Please stop by their websites and look around. Crystal and Michaela are two of my favorite classic film bloggers and their websites are charming and informative. While you are there don’t forget to check out to the other entries honoring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in this blogathon.
(All screen shots are my own.)Related Reviews:
Ginger Rogers in Star of Midnight, Francis Lederer in Voice in the Wind