Sunday, October 5, 2008


James Cagney played more than gangsters and dancers during his early years as a contract star at Warner Brothers. In director Roy Del Ruth's "Winner Take All" (*** out of ****) a funny, fast-paced Pre-Code boxing saga, he plays a lovable, thick-headed Bronx pug named 'Knockout' Jim Kane whose manager Pop Slavin (Guy Kibbee of "Babbitt") packs him off to a camp in the middle of the desert to regain his health after too much booze, broads, and beatings. The long shots of the boxing arenas as well as the locomotive are often as striking as are some later wildlife footage.

Essentially, this romantic comedy/boxing epic is featherweight fare with competent performances. In other words, nothing tragic happens. Nobody is in jeopardy, except where money plays a part or sexual misconduct occurs. Remember this is a Pre-Code opus so Virginia Bruce shuffling through her apartment in her undies is pretty erotic for 1932. The Robert ("Dr. Socrates" Lord) & Wilson ("Heroes for Sale") Mizner screenplay contains dialogue that is often witty and memorable for such a largely disposable escapade. Del Ruth stages each scene with finesse for the spartan sets in which they occur. An excellent example of his function but dramatic mise en scene is the deal in the boxing office when Kane makes his comeback.

"Winner Take all" opens in crowded Madison Square Garden. The ring announcer introduces Kane to a jubilant audience. "Before we begin the main event, I'd like to say a few words about a boy who needs no introduction. A boy who has fought his way up to the very top, an old friend, and an old favorite 'Knock out Jimmy Kane. After a dozen tough fights, but his rough fighting has cost him and has to take off to recuperate. He needs financial help so the crowd showers him with money. The next scene his manager and trainer Rosebud (Clarence Muse of "God Is My Co-Pilot") advise him to take it easy for six months while he is recuperating out in the desert.

At the Rosario Ranch and Hot Springs, Kane feels lonely and out of place. The Interne at Rosario Ranch (George 'Gabby' Hayes) explains the schedule; bedtime at 10 PM and breakfast at 7AM. Kane hears coyotes howling his first night in residence and is curious about them. The long shots of the coyote are eye-catching and look like perfect stock footage for a vampire movie. Kane traipses onto the balcony. Peggy Harmon (Marion Nixon) and he chat about coyotes. They become fast friends when Kane remembers her from a night at a New York restaurant. Here, Del Ruth presents a flashback that depicts the incident. During this flashback, we are treated to a cameo of another Warner Brothers tough guy taken from the 1929 film "Queen of the Night Clubs"; indeed, it's George Raft as the conductor. Peggy is at Kane's table and she irritates Kane's blond girlfriend (Charlotte Merriam) who starts a fight.

Eventually, Kane meets Peg's adolescent son Dickie Harmon (Dickie Moore of "Sergeant York") whose is recuperating, too. Things take a turn for the worst for Peggy after she learns that her late husband's insurance policy won't cover the length of time required to stay at the facility to heal her son. She needs $600. Kane sneaks off to Tijuana, Mexico and schedules a fight against Joe Pice (Julian Rivero of "Guys and Dolls") with a $2000 winner take all purse. The fight promoter doesn't trust Kane because 'Knockout' hasn't boxed in a year. He fears that Kane will take a dive for the $600 and demands all or nothing. Kane pummels Pice in the ring. Pice hits the mat moments before Kane in a scene that pre-dates a similar scene in "Rocky 2." The referee hands the decision to Kane, and Kane pays Peggy's bill. Peggy is overwhelmed with gratitude. Predictably, when he learns about Kane's comeback, Pop isn't happy. Dickie's treatment isn't finished by the time that Kane heads back to New York. Before he leaves, Kane promises Peggy that they will get married.

Once he arrives back in the Big Apple, Kane crosses paths with vampy, Park Avenue type Joan Gibson (Virginia Bruce) and forgets Peg. Joan pulls jokes on him to keep him out of her room the first night they date. She asks him to behave like a gentlemen and drops her handkerchief. When he stoops to retrieve it, she slips inside her room and pulls the door shut. Joan likes Kane until he has plastic surgery and complains that he now looks ordinary. Says Joan to a friend, "The fool took me seriously went and had his face done over. Now, he's lost all the things that made him colorful and different. He's just ordinary, now like any other guy." She adds that she cannot tolerate bad grammar spoken through a perfect Grecian face.

Kane's attitude changes after his plastic surgery because he is afraid another pug will break his nose or smash his ear. He dances around fighters and the crowds start booing him. He earns a reputation as a guy who avoids punches. Pop knows what is going on and sends for Peggy. She surprises Kane when she arrives in town. Meanwhile, Kane stomps over to Joan's apartment and learns that she isn't at home. Nevertheless, he ignores the butler and finds her at home. He is righteously upset and kisses her and tells her he is all she needs. Kane's quarrels with both Peggy and Joan intensify and the resolution will keep you laughing. Cagney's performance and his accent are wonderful and the entire cast scores points for perfection. "Winner Take All" is a snappy little boxing number. Don't miss it!

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