Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Personality Kid (Warner Bros., 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a movie, the next in sequence in the four Warner Bros. “B”’s I’d recorded last month as part of TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to Glenda Farrell: The Personality Kid, a 1934 boxing movie starring Pat O’Brien as Ritzy McCarty, a middleweight boxer whose style is to dance around the ring and wear out his opponents until they make stupid moves and he can knock them out — sort of like Muhammad Ali three decades later. His career is being managed by his wife Joan (Glenda Farrell), who wants him in the fight game only long enough to make $25,000, which she intends to use to buy them a vineyard so they can raise grapes. His fights attract the attention of a couple of crooked promoters, Gavin (Robert Gleckler) and Stephens (Henry O’Neill), who sign him and then set up a series of fights to get him a shot at the championship. He doesn’t realize the fights are fixed — his opponents are being paid to lose — until one day, after beating Biff Sullivan (played by real-life fighter “Mushy” Callahan), he hears Biff in his dressing room telling Gavin and Stephens that he could have beaten Ritzy easily if he’d been allowed to and he ought to get a shot at Hollywood because he’s such a good actor he made the audience believe the fight was on the level when it wasn’t. Ritzy confronts the promoters, who tell him that his wife was in on the deal and agreed to the set-up — and then he confronts Joan and learns that that’s true: she did know the fights were fixed, and she agreed to it because she didn’t have enough confidence in the strength of Ritzy’s punch to believe he could be a legitimate contender.

Sports reporter Rankin (Thomas Jackson) overhears enough of this to break the story, meaning that Ritzy gets suspended by the Boxing Commission, the earnings for his fight against Sullivan are withheld from him, he leaves Joan in disgust for the well-to-do woman Patricia Merrill (Claire Dodd, who must have got awfully tired of these “other woman” villainess roles) who was essentially toying with him while he was on his way up, only to find that she’s no longer interested in him on his way down. Eventually another set of crooked promoters offer Ritzy $100 to participate in a fixed fight to build up their next Great White Hope — and while all this is going on Ritzy also gets an invite to a hotel room where he thinks Patricia is waiting for him, only she’s really shown a good heart after all: the woman actually in the hotel room is Ritzy’s wife Joan (ya remember Joan?) and she’s done this to arrange a reconciliation between Mr. and Mrs. McCarty, especially since the Mrs. is about to bring another McCarty into the world. By this time we can pretty well guess what’s going to happen: Ritzy, aided by his old trainer Shamrock (Clarence Muse, who’s allowed to act in this one with a relative degree of dignity — Charles noted one spot in the movie in which Muse accidentally dropped the high-pitched whine with which Black actors playing stupid-servant stereotypes were obliged to speak and played the telephone scene in which he learns of the birth of the McCartys’ child in a deeper, more resonant voice that sounded like an intelligent man who’d earned a Ph.D. in history), turns around in round five after he learns of the birth of his son, discovers a power punch he didn’t know he had, wins the fight he was supposed to lose, then gets beaten up by the gangsters who fixed it in the first place — but wins back Joan’s love, the audience’s respect and a chance at a comeback in the fight game.

What’s fascinating about The Personality Kid is how much this movie, directed by the unusually talented Alan Crosland (best remembered today as the director of The Jazz Singer) from a story by Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker, scripted by F. Hugh Herbert and Erwin Gelsey, anticipates tropes found in later boxing movies. Not only does the plot line of a disgraced fighter redeeming himself by winning a bout he was supposed to lose reappear in late-1940’s films like Body and Soul and The Set-Up (though The Set-Up was based on a 1920’s poetic novel by Joseph Moncure March and it’s possible someone on the writing committee read it and ripped off this plot device), and the gimmick of the innocent boxer who doesn’t know his route to the championship is being paved with opponents willing to take a dive for pay reappears in the 1956 film The Harder They Fall (Humphrey Bogart’s last movie), but the split-second cuts between close-ups of the two fighters Crosland uses in the film’s two big fight sequences makes The Personality Kid look like a boxing movie from the 1960’s instead of the 1930’s. It’s also noteworthy that Pat O’Brien is reasonably attractive (though far from drop-dead gorgeous) in boxing shorts, and that he’s allowed to show chest hair — which hardly ever happened in 1930’s movies: usually males doing shirtless scenes either didn’t have chest hair naturally or were obliged to shave it if they did. The Personality Kid is several cuts above the norm for a Warners programmer of the period, and Pat O’Brien rises to the challenge of playing an edgier character than usual. It also helps that, like a lot of the football films of the day (notably College Coach — which also starred O’Brien — Saturday’s Heroes and the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, which satirized the real-life college football scandals the other films on that list depicted seriously), The Personality Kid took a surprisingly dark view of the sports world, showing it as a den of corruption that wasn’t to be taken seriously.