Howard Hawks Blog-A-Thon --- The Prizefighter and The Lady
Ed Howard is hosting a two-week Early Howard Hawks Blog-A-Thon at Only The Cinema, which I recommend to Greenbriar readers (Flickhead designed his banner for the event). I’d meant for months to write up The Prizefighter and The Lady, so here was my incentive. Not that Prizefighter’s much of a Hawks property. It’s stretching a point to say he contributed anything beyond (maybe) a skeletal story, some preparation, and a few days’ work before being fired/replaced/rerouted, depending on who you read, to another MGM project. Hawks was too undisciplined and independent minded to take orders from so rigid an outfit as Metro. He gambled a lot and threw money away, which I guess is what drew him to the doomed enterprise that was filmmaking for Mayer (and Thalberg, Hawks’ brother-in-law). Family ties aside, you were expected to stay busy there, which meant pitching in on shows stalled or talents idle. Participants who lived long enough claimed credit for everything good that MGM released. The Prizefighter and The Lady is among the latter. You’d never think to look at such a one-off novelty of a comedy/romance/sport subject lest you followed boxers and their so-called sweet science (I never did), but this one's a gem I’d recommend to TCM followers and Hawks ultra-completists. In its way, Prizefighter’s as freaky as Freaks. There’s banged-up old wrestlers and boxer vets in for cameos. Search me as to who they are (were), as most belonged in movies about like the dog on my back porch, with the remarkable (and I do mean that) exception of one Max Baer, a screen idol that might have been had Demitrius met his gladiators a few decades sooner. In fact, The Prizefighter and The Lady is a depression’s own precursor to strongman pics we liked in the sixties, with glove matches pretty near the real stuff. Metro indeed tried fooling customers with a trailer implying sure enough ring battling between challenger Baer and actual at the time heavyweight champ Primo Carnera (here’s that man mountain posing with Jean Harlow in the ring). Both are shown training in footage (not her, them) unique to the preview, and we’re led to expect a deciding event to come in the feature, even if it’s altogether fictional and the fight a staged one. Well, Baer’s character was less one of imagination. "Steve Morgan" reflects clearly the offscreen Max, just a big likeable lug of a reprobate and serial philanderer, a sort presumably taken to heart in 1933, perhaps even tolerable to women his character so mistreats, but one distinctly off-putting to sensitivity trained modern viewers. Hawks said he spent a few days teaching Baer to act. Either he was a remarkable tutor or the clay was near molded to begin with, for Baer does indeed have the "It" publicity credited to him and a likeable way for the camera (and yes, that's him visiting with Kim Novak during the Vertigo shoot!).
People knew then if not now that Prizefighter was praiseworthy. Maybe not prize-worthy in a Eugene O’Neill sense, but agreeable and not insulting to reviewers’ intelligence. MGM surrounded Baer with the best they had, no step down for personnel working off a yarn seasoned by ace Frances Marion (she’d say later they mangled it, but what writer’s ever satisfied?). A Walter Huston wasn't slumming here --- how many of such calibre lent thespic support to athletes having a first go at play-acting? Marion’s story rated an Academy Award nomination, which may explain others dropping in for years to claim shadow authorship. Even Hawks, that inveterate credit jumper, said later that he (and Josef Von Sternberg!) cooked it all up as a lark and had forgotten the whole matter short of MGM dusting off their piece and running with it. Todd McCarthy’s excellent Howard Hawks bio says that Hawks did write something pretty similar for Norma Shearer back in the twenties. You could go dizzy navigating all the hands in stew that finally saw projection light in November 1933. First Prizefighter was to be Clark Gable (with the ladies alternatively Shearer, Joan Crawford, then Jean Harlow). Hawks came and went during the Harlow flirtation (and according to David Stenn, theirs ripened into a one-night affair --- well, you had to work fast in such harried days). Hawks said years later he’d done two or three good opening scenes and then (W.S.) Van Dyke stepped in and shot the rest. I’ll bet HH regretted stepping off once he saw how well the finished picture turned out. That had happened just previous with Red Dust, a success for close friend Victor Fleming that left Hawks pea green wishing he’d directed it. How many really good properties showed up in those days? A Red Dust, even a Prizefighter and The Lady, were rare and to be coveted, particularly by careerists like Hawks who understood well the translation such quality had to prestige and autonomy he sought.
Hawks realized that Metro’s machinery could function as well with or without him. That ongoing affront to his ego (he had one alright --- but earned it) got Hawks in Dutch with bosses expecting him to take plant orders and expedite same. The aged lion in retirement tried mitigating company man tenures by speaking (fabricating) of those occasions when he straightened out front officers who overstepped bounds, but who really believes Hawks grabbed up Louis Mayer by lapels in his own office and showed the boss what for? Many aspects of Prizefighter bear evidence of content ideally suited to Hawks’ freewheel talent. Max Baer singing and dancing with showgirls? It might have been a musical highlight like those Hawks staged to lighten shows to come, but he could scarcely have done better than Van Dyke in what proves a (if not the) major delight of The Prizefighter and The Lady. Production numbers are often best when unexpected. This one comes clear out of left field and reveals Baer as a trouper of promise. There was talk of movies to come, but he didn’t like acting half so much as nightclubs and beating guy’s brains out. The screen talent was one he’d call up but sporadically from here on. There were dems-and-dose lamebrain comedies where he’d be driving hacks or dodging brickbats (tossed by interchanging femmes called Myrtle, Sadie, or some such) and sparring good naturedly with dumb ox Maxie Rosenbloom. Then there was welcome happenstance of character work such as The Harder They Fall, wherein he put across chillingly a relish for destroying men in the ring. If boxing engaged me more, there’d be lots here about Prizefighter's climactic rounds with Carnera, which I understood gave Baer enough tips as to enable his defeating the champ in real life the following year, but my expertise ends with that tidbit as passed along by Myrna Loy in an autobio wherein she credits the film as something worthwhile beyond its novelty for pugilists. Nice that she lived long enough for fans (and writing assistants) to reacquaint her with oldies dismissed or otherwise forgotten. The Prizefighter and The Lady was on TCM last week and I noted the dread Code seal before credits rolled. But wait, didn’t I say it was released November 1933, before enforcement took hold? Turns out it was submitted and passed by the PCA on August 26, 1935, perhaps for a reissue (to cash in on Baer’s less than a year status as Heavyweight Champion Of The World?). Anyway, I’m starting to wonder if what’s left to us now is Code-cut. Such things bedevil me. At least it doesn’t appear cut, as do so many others (Viva Villa, Manhattan Melodrama, The Merry Widow).
So just how hot was boxing on screens? Very so as perusal of theatre ads suggest. You could draw ‘em like flies to ring action, first in newsreels, and later on closed circuit. Here’s a sobering footnote to those who figured Buster Keaton’s The Navigator brought some of his biggest audiences. Maybe so, but should we also (if not primarily) credit Jack Dempsey’s personal appearance (as shown in this ad) for the entire week of Loew’s New York first-run? Note the boxer’s position in the ad. Keaton’s nearly an afterthought. Exhibitors realized fighting rang bells for patrons on the fence as to attendance. Precious boxing footage often tipped scales between profit and loss. Consider a not untypical October 1927 in St. Louis. The Tunney-Dempsey fight pictures proved the most popular drawing cards of the week. They were shown at the St. Louis, Orpheum, and Grand Opera House and have been held over for an extra week, reported The Motion Picture News. Dempsey-Tunney was packing them in Kansas City and San Francisco as well. SRO business was reported in Minneapolis when the match played in support of Harry Langdon’s Three’s A Crowd, which in reality was a tail wagging the dog. It would, in fact, be the boxing reels held over for a second week, not Langdon. There was a kind of outlaw allure about pugilism in those days. It was but recently forbidden in many markets where it now played to capacity houses, and personalities like Dempsey were news, more so than most film stars. He was definitely an advantage to Metro’s promotion of The Prizefighter and The Lady by virtue of appearing as referee for the climactic fight, his participation lending authenticity to what otherwise would seem another staged Hollywood dust-up. The age-old dilemma of appeal (or lack of) to both sexes made marketing difficult. Men were assured enough, but some women demurred with regards a stomach for canvas poundings, and Baer’s caveman stuff may have proved a jinx as well. For whatever reason, The Prizefighter and The Lady lost money. Its negative cost of $682,000 was not recovered with only $432,000 in domestic rentals. Foreign rentals of $501,000 would not make up that shortfall, and the picture ended $105,000 down. Did audiences smell a rat in the frankly misleading trailer? They had to know that whatever fighting Baer and Carnera did on screen was phony. Maybe that was a turn-off. It needn’t bother us now, of course. We can enjoy the artifice without expectation of any real contest being settled.