Thursday, May 31, 2012

Born to Fight (Conn Pictures, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Born to Fight, an download of a 1936 Conn Pictures production starring Frankie Darro, Kane Richmond and Jack LaRue (all known for their roles in serials, though Darro also got parts in major-studio films — usually as a crooked jockey in horse-racing pictures) in what I assumed from the title was going to be your generic boxing movie — promising young fighter wins bout after bout in a run for the championship, blows his training chasing after booze and broads, loses the big fight but gains a certain measure of self-respect — perhaps modified by Variant A: the succession of fights that led him to his title bout was fixed (though Our Naïve Hero didn’t realize that) so crooked gamblers could make a lot of money betting against him when he finally fought an opponent who wasn’t being paid to take a dive in his favor. The crooked gamblers and fixed fights appear in this one, all right, but not in the way we’d expect: instead the film opens with Tom “Bomber” Brown (Kane Richmond) — his nickname seems a deliberate decision on the part of screenwriters Joseph O’Donnell and Sasha Baranley (billed as Stephen Norris) to reverse the famous nickname of Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber” — winning his eighth fight in a row, only to be confronted in a restaurant by crooked gambler “Smoothy” Morgan (Jack LaRue), whom he punches out; Smoothy survives but is in a coma for several weeks and it’s touch-and-go whether he’s going to live.

So Brown’s manager, “Gloomy Gus” (Monty Collins), tells Brown to forget about his boxing career and hotfoot it out of New York state, not using planes, trains or buses but instead hitchhiking his way across. Brown ends up in a hobo camp, where the hoboes sing an ode to downward mobility (the presence of two songs in this movie, written by Didheart Conn, presumably a relative of producer Maurice Conn, is one of the weirdest aspects of it) and one of them throws dirt in a can of something edible Brown had just given to “Babyface” Madison (Frankie Darro), provoking Babyface to hit him — and though Babyface doesn’t know the first thing about fighting (which, as Brown explains it to us, is never to lead with your right), Brown spots him as a potential “natural” in the ring and decides to manage and train him for the championship (either the lightweight or the featherweight division: the writers are a bit confused about the difference, but then so am I), and he settles in Chicago where Brown — now calling himself “Tom Hayes” — seeks out a gym whose owner he knew in the old days. The owner is now dead and the gym has been inherited by his daughter, Nan Howard (Frances Grant), who doesn’t even like prizefighting and doesn’t want to give Brown/Hayes free time to train his fighter, but eventually Hayes talks her into it, saying he’ll get a job and earn the money — which he does, working 12-hour days at a gas station but swearing everyone involved to secrecy so Babyface won’t know that a lowbrow proletarian job is financing his training.

A corrupt gambler (another one) tries to get Hayes to throw his first fight, but Hayes refuses, Babyface makes mincemeat of his opponent and gets a string of fights that leaves him one match away from a championship bout — only if Babyface gets the championship fight it will be in New York, where Hayes can’t go for fear of being arrested for assaulting Smoothy (ya remember Smoothy?). Meanwhile, Babyface starts slacking off on his training and fires Hayes as his manager, replacing him with the corrupt gambler — and in order to bring his protégé to his senses, Hayes sneaks into the camp of the other fighter, Melford, and finds Melford is being paid to throw the bout. Hayes offers Melford double what the gambler is paying him and coaches him on how to beat Babyface — which he does. Babyface’s crooked manager fires him as a client and he can’t get a fight again until Hayes takes him back and gets him on the comeback trail until he’s once again the principal contender for the championship. Indeed, Hayes’ regimen is so strict that even when he throws a party for Babyface, the only potables he’ll allow to be served are soft drinks, and when Babyface starts training for the big fight Hayes insists on locking the press out of his training camp so nobody will notice Babyface using “Bomber” Brown’s unique three-punch combination. Along the way Fred “Snowflake” Toones, as the token African-American in Hayes’ entourage, gets to talk about fighting Joe Louis and to sing a song, “What Comes Over Me?,” to the movie’s only other Black character, a woman who thinks Snowflake is cruising her but he’s really only sweet-talking (or sweet-singing) her to get to her apple pies.

The ending is yet another intriguing spin on the old boxing-movie clichés: with the odds on the championship fight two-to-one in Babyface’s favor, Smoothy reaches Gloomy Gus and tells him that he’ll drop the charges against Hayes for assaulting him if Babyface loses. Then Smoothy takes out $100,000 in bets against Babyface, and Babyface himself, depressed that his victory will mean his mentor will go to prison for assault, is psychologically unable to fight; instead of either fighting to win or deliberately throwing the match, he simply stumbles through it, taking the champ’s punishment but not landing blows of his own — until Hayes himself comes to his corner between rounds and instructs Babyface to go for the win no matter what it means to his own future. Babyface knocks out the champ in the next round and Smoothy, who can’t afford to cover all the bets he made that Babyface would lose, gets knocked off by the gangsters he made the bets with and, with the complaining witness conveniently dead, the charges against Hayes evaporates and, as he sees Hayes and Nan Howard embracing, Babyface grabs the fight announcer’s microphone and says, “They’re going in for the clinch!,” as a “The End” title gets wiped in to close the film.

Born to Fight ostensibly began life as a short story called “To Him Who Dares” (or “To Him Who Dared” — sources differ) by Peter B. Kyne, who wrote in all the common pulp genres but today is mostly known as an author of Westerns (his most famous story is the oft-filmed “The Three Godfathers”) — though without access to the story ( offers downloads of several of Kyne’s works but not that one) it’s hard to be certain of that because the very next year Conn Pictures made another movie, Anything for a Thrill, and also claimed it was based on “To Him Who Dares,” but it was a film about newsreel cameramen and the plot was completely different. What makes it interesting (quite a bit more interesting than I thought it would be from the title!) is the way writers O’Donnell and Baraney put the usual boxing-movie clichés through a Mixmaster and scrambled them — though the story’s basic debt to The Life of Jimmy Dolan (made by Warners three years earlier with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as the prizefighter on the lam from a charge of murdering a reporter, only in that one the comeback is his own and not a protégé’s; Dolan was remade in 1939 as They Made Me a Criminal with John Garfield superbly cast in the lead and excellent direction by Busby Berkeley even though it was a non-musical and miles from the sort of film he’s famous for!) is pretty obvious — and the makers of Born to Fight were able to bring the story to a “happy” resolution without compromising it.

They also had a surprisingly good director, Charles Hutchison, who shot this film with real visual imagination, including exotic camera wipes to transition from one scene to the next and patterns of eyeballs crossing the screen (much like the title credit of the 1931 Frankenstein) over the montage of down-and-outers’ faces as “Bomber” Brown is on his hitchhiking Wanderjahr across the country (though the heavy-duty depiction of the Depression sometimes makes this seem more like a film from 1933 than 1936). Born to Fight emerges as considerably better than the common run of 1930’s indies; it’s well paced (a lot of 1930’s indies just crept along and wasted potentially good plots on a lack of pace), creatively photographed and quite nicely acted — especially by Frankie Darro and Kane Richmond, both of whom probably relished the rare (for them) opportunity to play characters with some complexity and depth!