Steve Wilson

I was thinking about John Dillinger the other day while watching a 1934 William Powell-Myrna Loy film by the name of “Manhattan Melodrama.” It also starred Clark Gable, but for some of us cinephiles the Powell-Loy combination is one of the best pairings in American film history, so Mr. Gable gets third billing.

The Powell-Loy duo was a perfect match for “The Thin Man” series of six films, the titles coming from the well-known mystery novel “The Thin Man,” written by Dashiell Hammett. For many of us who have seen these movies, no other actors of the time could portray the martini-drinking, wisecracking couple Nick Charles and wife Nora as did Powell and Loy. The third star also appearing in all six films was their Scottish Terrier, Asta. I suggest one read the book before viewing the film because … but I digress.

Before I can tell you why I was thinking of John Dillinger, one of the more notorious and well-known gangsters of the Depression era, I first have to tell you about Mt. Ayr, Iowa, and a man named Elmer Schlapia. Mt. Ayr is my mother’s hometown and one of my vivid memories is when I was 12 years old sitting around a Conoco gas station (owned by my grandfather and run by my uncle) and listening to the locals tell stories.

One day while I was at the station with my dad this old fellow named Elmer Schlapia told about the time he was in the posse who shot up the Barrow Gang in a forest clearing outside Dexter, Iowa. (The 1933 ambush by over 100 posse members resulted in the arrest of mortally wounded Buck Barrow and wife Blanche; Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker, both wounded, and W.D. Jones escaped.)

I recalled my mother once mentioned that the notorious Bonnie and Clyde had once passed through Mt. Ayr and naturally old Elmer’s story piqued my interest, so I walked three blocks to the town library and looked for viewable articles from the Mt. Ayr Record News, which revealed that the gang of five had camped near the town over a period of five days and purchased food, bandages and hydrogen peroxide, clothing and other sundry goods in a little community called Caledonia, just south of Mt. Ayr about a mile and a half. (In a recent movie named “The Highwaymen,” based on former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Manny Gault’s multiple state search and ultimate killing of the pair in Louisiana, Mt. Ayr is mentioned twice.)

While the library was bereft of Barrow information, there was a book about Dillinger; I was, like most of my generation, familiar with names like Dillinger and Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Al “Scarface” Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelley and others. We saw the movies that often glorified these men as Robin Hoods or victims of society or some other such nonsense when in fact they were all men who pretty much just wanted to take without working.

I took most of the afternoon of a sunny Midwest day and read all about John Dillinger. In the years since, I have read more than a few books and watched many documentaries about the outlaws and gangsters in our collective history as a nation so now have some knowledge of who they were. And while John Dillinger was just as dangerous and just as merciless as any bank robber of that era, he also has the most compelling story if for no other reason that his brazen acts of lawlessness over a relatively short period of time.

Born in Indiana in 1903, John Dillinger was 21 years old when sentenced to 10 years in prison for a $50 robbery. When he was released in June of 1933, after nine years of instruction from fellow prisoners, he turned to a life of crime and with various members formed a gang that robbed 12 banks in 12 months; two robberies took place after Dillinger’s escape from jail in Indiana and two shootouts with federal and local lawmen. The reign of robberies and murders ended with Dillinger’s death in 1934 at age 31 years. His entire career lasted only 13 months; in comparison the James-Younger gang of 70 years earlier were active for 16 years.

So, you ask, what does a notorious gangster have to do with a movie? Well, it is this: “Manhattan Melodrama” is the story of two young boys from the East Side of New York City, one a rascal and the other a bookworm, who are left orphaned after a boat sinking accident. To make money, one boy shoots dice, the other shines shoes and reads law books; one grows up to be a professional gambler, the other the district attorney, but they remain close buddies. The story then has the district attorney fight for, and get, a first-degree murder conviction against his life-long pal; an act which propels him to the governor’s seat.

A poignant scene near the end of the movie takes place a few minutes before the execution when the governor offers a commutation to a life sentence instead of the electric chair and has his old friend refuse the offer. In not wanting to spend a lifetime behind bars, the bad man says, “If I can’t live the way I want, at least let me die how I want.” I wonder if John Dillinger was thinking about those words as he exited Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934, minutes before waiting police shot him dead.

If you are wondering why the departure from my normal writings about people and events here in the Valley, my only answer is that at the present time the national tone is a discordant one, and I found it easier to just pass on some random thoughts about a movie I watched.

Take care. Peace.

Previous articleSouth Monterey County cities plan Fourth of July events
Next articleGrant helps incarcerated students complete degrees through Hartnell College
King City and Greenfield columnist Steve Wilson may be reached at [email protected].


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here