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Sunday, January 18, 2009

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Weren't some of those later Baer films two-reel Columbia comedy shorts? Those fast shooting schedules Jules White imposed might have been right up Baer's alley!

9:16 PM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

Baer, unfortunately,was done a real injustice by Cinderella Man. Not only was his mean, bullying, characterization in that film the total opposite of the real Baer's easygoing, almost goofy personality, but they removed the Star of David that Baer had on his trunks during the Braddock fight, a practice he had begun when he fought Max Schmeling.

Baer was a hoot. During the weigh-in for the Carnera fight, he plucked hairs from the Ambling Alp's chest, saying, "he loves me, he loves me not," as he did so.
When he returned to his corner during the Joe Louis fight, Dempsey, his second, said something to the effect, "don't worry, he hasn't laid a glove on you." Baer responded, "Well, keep an eye on the ref, because someone in there is beating the hell out of me!"

When you get a chance, you might look into the grosses of theatres that showed fights in closed-circuit telecasts. Fights were still being shown this way as late as Ali-Foreman, which my brother saw at the Uptown in D.C. And it wasn't just heavyweight fights that got the closed-circuit treatment in the 50's and early 60's.

I'm glad to see someone else realizes what a blowhard Hawks was.

1:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I'd hesitate to call Hawks a blowhard, just that a lot of his recollections were, shall we say, embroidered ... which, along with all the great films he made, makes him that much more fascinating to me.

Never saw closed circuit boxing in a theatre, but certainly remember the many bouts that were run around Winston-Salem and Charlotte back in the sixties. I always wondered what the picture quality would be like.

As to Max Baer in comedies, I'd love to see more, but what are chances Sony would ever release them?

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A happy Inauguration Day to you!(Although I would've thought that an ad for "Gabriel Over The White House" would have been your choice!)Forgive my intrusion here yet again (I really think I've taken-up more than enough space of late), but the masthead you have placed here for "What! No Beer?", was, if you'll pardon the pun, really an "eye-opener!" The Keaton biographies that I have read were not exaggerating the situation that existed for Buster out-at Culver City at that time. According to the sources, he was issued, very hesitantly, a one-year contract in late '32, which virtually stripped-him of any special "standing" he had held at the studio. He was no longer in for a profit-participation, nor for any kind of "star" billing in the accepted-sense, and the studio reserved the right to "co-star" him as they saw fit. And obviously, that's exactly what they did. The re-newed contract didn't run three-months before Buster was let-go. Apparently, in the meantime, "What! No Beer?" opened to "smash" business at the Capitol Theatre that spring and was held-over. A contrite Mayer sent word back through Sedgwick that Keaton would be welcome back at the studio, but presumably only on "their terms". Keaton said(later)that he told Sedgwick to tell Mayer that both "He and Thalberg could go to hell", and that, for all intents and purposes really marked the end of Keaton's career in movies on any kind of starring basis. Retribution,and re-discovery lay ahead, as we know, but it was still a long-way off in 1933.

Quickly, in closing, in regard to your masthead of the other day, "I Found Stella Parrish" I contacted my dear friend, Sybil Jason, whose listed among the cast in the ad, to get in touch with you, John. She would very-much like to see it, I gather, and I told her you would probably be more than willing to email her a copy. If I can be of any help beyond that, please let me know. (You should do a "post" about her by the way!)

If I'm wrong about any of the above-mentioned Keaton data, I hope the "experts" will write-in and correct me. However, that's the story, as I've been given to understamd it.
Again, best regards. (And a successful-run to our New Leader!) R.J.

7:51 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, I've run into a number of "What, No Beer" ads recently, and all emphasized Durante over Keaton (by image emphasis if not actual billing). I think this was the moment of Durante's peak as a novelty (relative)newcomer. He probably seemed like the funniest thing in the world during those months when he peaked, and yet Durante was out at Metro as well within another year.

I did hear from Sybil Jason, and I'll be e-mailing her today. Thanks for referring her to me. I'll be glad to send her a high-res scan of that Kay Francis ad.

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


First of all, so glad to know that you and Sybil connected. She and my grandfather worked together on "The Captain's Kid" at Warner's, and she's known me since I was a baby. She is also a treasure-trove of memories, and like Karloff, Harpo, and myself, a Nov.23rd Sag! She in fact told me about a b'day she and Mr. Pratt shared on the lot one year! So, the lady is well-worth cultivating in the memory dept. She'd have lots to tell you, I'm sure!

Quickly, in regards to the Keaton-Durante ad, it's all very well to read something in a book, on a page, where it has a certain "abstraction", but when I saw the ad itself yesterday, it was, to me -- I'm not joking -- chilling! "They weren't playing around ", I thought. At the time that "What!" was in production, they say, Mayer had just "had it" with Buster, and took advantage of Thalberg being in Europe, recovering from a mild heart-attack, to get rid of him.(These guys really could be ruthless, couldn't they? On the project I'm currently involved with, on William Eythe, it was much the same story, only in a different encasement, that he encountered with Zanuck. Similarly, Bill never "came back" as a major player either!)
Durante was "out of Metro" at least temporarily, because aside from the fact that "Hollywood Party" was apparently a "big loser" at the box-office, which was not his fault, he was basically a Broadway performer, and went back to N.Y. to "score" in such shows as "Jumbo" and "Red, Hot and Blue". Durante was one of the "Beverly Hills crowd" I was talking about in the earlier post, who absolutely doted on his little daughter, and was one of the sweetest, nicest people you'd ever want to meet, and a great entertainer, but as one-half of a "team" with Buster Keaton? Not so sure about that! But then, that was how Metro saw it! (The "deuce", to borrow your term, of it is, I happen to like "What!" alot, and find it to be by far the most-watchable of the Keaton MGM talkies!)

As ever, R.J.

12:47 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, I may get out the laser discs of the Keaton MGM talkies and renew acquaintance with some. I enjoy these for much the same reasons that I do "The Big Store." None are without interest. A post featuring various ads for the group might be a possibility.

1:27 PM  
Blogger G. D. Wilson said...

My only comment on the boxing film genre is,if you haven't seen Bogart's final film, THE HARDER THEY FALL, you are missing a gem. The final scene plays a bit corny and unrealistic today, but for the most part I feel it is must viewing, especially for Bogie fans.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

When my mother and her friend were driving through California in the '30s, one of their tires got a flat. A moment later, Max Baer drove by in his limo. He hopped out, changed their tire and drove away, wishing them a good day. Sounds like a nice guy to me.

10:14 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

You know, it's comments like this that make doing G.P.S. worthwhile. Thanks, East Side.

11:14 AM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

Speaking of Durante, if you really want a shocker, get a copy of his debut in "Roadhouse Nights." This is the only film I've ever encountered when a character the audience is supposed to regard favorably uses the "n-word." Incidentally, one of Durante's biggest fans was Brando, who made a rare public appearance to pay his respects at Durante's funeral service in Beverly Hills.

The reference to the laserdisc set of Keaton's MGM Talkies made me feel good. Every once in a while the missus glares at my walls of bookcases filled with thousands of laserdiscs, and says to me, "What were you thinking?" Yet MGM/UA and others put out a lot of stuff, like the Keaton set, silent dramas, and their collections of short subjects, that haven't made it to DVD and probably never will.

As far as quality of closed-circuit boxing matches on theatre screens, my principal recollection is of the Ali-Patterson fight, where the (IIRC, black and white) image was nowhere as sharp as we're now accustomed to, but on a theatre screen it was sufficient to follow two guys in a ring.

4:39 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

onlyanirishboy, those laser discs are unique and many indeed unlikely to show up on DVD. I'm thinking especially of the Vitaphone sets and those wonderful "Dawn Of Sound" boxes, which are chock-full of rare footage. Where else can we see surviving footage from things like "Chasing Rainbows"?

6:02 AM  
Blogger Ray Davis said...

Thank you for this excellent and much-needed introduction to what I consider the best of all boxing pictures -- its pre-Code get-the-job-done feel and authentic performances beat the later macho self-pity fests all hollow.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Classic Maiden said...

I rather liked 'The Prizefighter and The Lady'.

9:02 AM  
Blogger swac said...

Funny, I was just looking at Durante and Keaton...paired as caricatures in the Flip the Frog cartoon Soda Squirt (also famous for a gay caricature that turns into Dr. Jekyll).

For pre-code boxing pictures I recommend Tod Browning's Iron Man, which came between Dracula and Freaks, with Lew Ayers and Jean Harlow. I got the chance to see this on the big screen at Cinefest in Syracuse, a glowing 35mm print from the original uncut negative at the Library of Congress, and it was a stunner, especially in the scene where Harlow pushes Ayers onto the bed after he's been through an especially brutal fight, and says "I'll make you feel awwwwww better!" in her baby-talk voice. Just before the fade out, the camera peers right down the dress of a bra-less Harlow, and you could sense this palpable frisson going through the audience. Can't remember the last time I experienced that at a movie theatre.

In post-code cut form, I understand that Iron Man is nothing special, but this new restoration is worth seeking out.

8:21 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Tom, I saw "Iron Man" once, but it was a Code-cut 16mm print. What you saw sounds fantastic!

Are you going to Cinefest this year? I'll be there ... giving a program of short subjects and bringing two features, "The Perfect Specimen" and the B/W version of "Doctor X."

8:27 AM  

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