Tales of Manhattan

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Tales of Manhattan
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Julien Duvivier
Produced by Boris Morros
Sam Spiegel
Written by Ben Hecht
Alan Campbell
Ferenc Molnár
Samuel Hoffenstein
Donald Ogden Stewart
Lamar Trotti
László Görög
László Vadnay
Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Starring Charles Boyer
Rita Hayworth
Ginger Rogers
Henry Fonda
Charles Laughton
Edward G. Robinson
Ethel Waters
Paul Robeson
W. C. Fields
Music by Sol Kaplan
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Edited by Robert Bischoff
Gene Fowler Jr.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
August 5, 1942
Running time
118 minutes
127 minutes (restored version)
Country United States
Language English
Box office $2.6 million (US rentals)[1]

Tales of Manhattan is a 1942 American anthology film directed by Julien Duvivier. Thirteen writers, including Ben Hecht, Alan Campbell, Ferenc Molnár, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Donald Ogden Stewart, worked on the six stories in this film.


Based on the Mexican writer Francisco Rojas González's novel, Historia de un frac ("Story of a Tailcoat"), the stories follow a black formal tailcoat as it goes from owner to owner, in five otherwise unconnected stories.

The first is a love triangle between Charles Boyer, Thomas Mitchell, and Rita Hayworth. Boyer plays an actor who gives his finest performance when he's shot while wearing the jacket.

The second tale is a comic story featuring Ginger Rogers who finds a romantic love letter in her future husband's jacket. Her boyfriend (Cesar Romero) enlists his best man (Henry Fonda) to help bail him out. Things don't go as expected when Rogers falls in love with Fonda and dumps her boyfriend.

The third tale stars Charles Laughton as Charles Smith, a poor but brilliant musician, composer and conductor whose one big chance at fame and recognition is in jeopardy. While he attempts to conduct, the small jacket rips and the audience erupts with laughter. In a poignant moment, the orchestra's Maestro (Victor Francen) empathizes with Smith, removes his own tailcoat, and begs him to continue; the "gentlemen" in the audience remove their own tailcoats in a show of solidarity.

The fourth story stars Edward G. Robinson as an alcoholic derelict who takes a last shot at life by borrowing the tailcoat to attend his 25th college reunion. The lawyer tries to convince his former classmates that he is successful, but one of his classmates (George Sanders) knew Robinson was disbarred for unethical behaviour as a lawyer. When one of the guests loses his wallet the group hold a mock trial where Robinson ultimately decides to admit that he is a derelict. The next morning his classmates come to his mission where he is offered a good job, and is back on the road to respectability.

A fifth story involves a thief (J. Carrol Naish) stealing the coat from a second-hand store and then committing a robbery at an illegal casino where no one is admitted unless wearing evening dress. When he attempts to escape by plane in an open cockpit, the jacket catches fire from sparks from the engine; the panicked thief removes his burning jacket and throws it out of the plane, with the money still in the pockets. A poor African-American couple (Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters) in a deep South shanty community finds the jacket along with over $40,000. They take it to their minister (Eddie Anderson) who gives out the "money from heaven" to people so that they can buy what they prayed for. After distributing the cash, Luke (Robeson) asks loner Christopher (George Reed) what he's prayed for. He says he prayed for a scarecrow for the fields. They take the now practically shredded jacket and make a scarecrow out of it. The sequence features musical numbers by Paul Robeson and the Hall Johnson choir.


Deleted sixth story[edit]

A sixth story starred W. C. Fields, with Phil Silvers and Margaret Dumont. A conman (Fields) buys the jacket, thinking that it is stuffed with money from its former owner, who, according to a crooked clothing store salesman (Silvers), was "a millionaire." The conman wears the jacket to a lecture he is to give on abstinence from alcohol at the home of a wealthy woman (Dumont), where the coconut milk served as an alcohol alternative has been spiked with booze by her husband - turning the lecture into a drunken party.

This story would have been fifth in the sequence and was cut when the film was released to reduce running time. It was the easiest tale to cut without losing continuity, and, ironically, it was by far the funniest. Some sources indicate the "running time" was a convenient excuse; others among the cast were not too crazy about the Fields sequence stealing more than its fair share of thunder.

This sequence was discovered in the Fox vaults in the mid-1990s seemingly intact and used in Kevin Burns' Hidden Hollywood II: More Treasures from the 20th Century Fox Vaults, a 1997 television documentary spotlighting cut sequences from the studio's films.[3] It was later included as a supplement on the VHS release of the Tales of Manhattan. The Fox Movie Channel runs the film in its entirety, with all six stories intact and in their intended sequence.

The restored cut sequence as it appears in these releases is apparently incomplete as it does not reveal why Fields is in Dumont's limousine at the beginning, nor how the tailcoat gets back to Silvers' store in the ending (in order for it to be stolen by the thief in the last story).

Controversy surrounding fifth story upon 1942 release[edit]

The story starring Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters, which featured what were considered black stereotypes even in 1942, came under severe criticism from both Edward G. Robinson, and especially, Robeson, a champion of good film roles for blacks. After a career of only 12 movies and refusing lucrative film offers for over three years, Tales of Manhattan was Robeson's final attempt to work within Hollywood, yet Robeson was deeply disappointed with the film. He initially thought that he and his associates could use the depiction of the plight of the rural black poor - shown in the film as investing the bulk of their windfall in communal land and tools - to demonstrate a share-and-share-alike way of life. Although he attempted to change some of the film's content during production, in the end he found it "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".[4] To Robeson, it was a matter of human dignity, and outweighed his duty to propagandise for communal ownership (this had been inserted into the storyline for Robeson by screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, like Robeson a member of the Communist Party, USA).

Some reviewers and black entertainers (including Clarence Muse), noted that the film exposed blacks’ living conditions under the sharecropping system, but Robeson was so dissatisfied that he attempted to buy up all the prints and take the film out of distribution. Following its release, he held a press conference, announcing that he would no longer act in Hollywood films because of the demeaning roles available to black actors. Robeson also said he'd gladly picket the film along with others who had found the film offensive.[4]


  1. ^ "101 Pix Gross in Millions" Variety 6 Jan 1943 p 58
  2. ^ Deschner, Donald (1966). The Films of W.C. Fields. New York: Cadillac Publishing by arrangement with The Citadel Press. p. 162.  Introduction by Arthur Knight
  3. ^ Hidden Hollywood II: More Treasures from the 20th Century Fox Vaults Directed by Kevin Burns. 1997, Twentieth Century-Fox.
  4. ^ a b Duberman, Martin. (1989). "The Discovery of Africa". Paul Robeson. pp. 259–261. ISBN 978-1-56584-288-5. 

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