Prizefighter and the Lady, The (DVD Review)16 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Myrna Loy, Max Baer, Primo Carnera, Jack Dempsey, Walter Huston, Otto Kruger.
As it had been with my dad, uncles and their Joe Louis fandom before my own formative era, it was a snap following heavyweight boxing when I was a very young kid because one always knew that Rocky Marciano was champ — a constant. Soon thereafter, keeping up on the sport became more of a crazy-quilt endeavor — though perhaps not as much as in the early 1930s, which is one of the things that gives this MGM oddball its almost singular charm.
The studio had enjoyed a super stroke of fortune casting swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in 1932’s Tarzan, the Ape Man — engendering a popular screen series of extended duration that, if it wasn’t exactly a showcase for real acting range, did prove that Weissmuller could probably say “ungawa” with more deadpanned expressiveness than Laurence Olivier. So continuing in this vein with Lady, Metro next cast boxer Max Baer as a you-know-what in this boxing-backdropped romance, and it turned out that Baer could push a noun against a verb with acceptable prowess — just as (to use a handy example) Max Jr. later could on TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
So let’s set this up. According to the American Film Institute Catalog for the 1930s, Lady was shot in September and October, 1933, for a November release (when Primo Carnera had been heavyweight champion for about three months). But before Baer ended up annihilating Carnera for real the following June (11 knockdowns, and Carnera stood almost 6-6), the latter got cast as the reigning champ that challenger Baer must beat in the movie’s climax.
Meanwhile, this Baer hopeful has married a mob-backed chanteuse played by Myrna Loy — seen here about half-a-year before The Thin Man series began contributing to her screen image as “the perfect wife” (which she has to be here as well, given Baer’s philandering). One can understand why women viewers, observing Loy’s rather amazing instant domestication, would ask, “Why does she stay with this jerk?” You got me, which is why this in some ways charming movie only ascends to a certain plateau.
Far more subservient than we usually see him in ‘30s movies, the great Walter Huston plays Baer’s boozy manager on a comeback trail. And for a studio that was never much for exploitation pics, MGM managed to cast Jack Dempsey as a bout promoter who also ends up refereeing the big match — though not before an array of former fighters (including ex-champ Jess Willard) take their pre-bout bows in the ring, just as they used to on the TV fights I watched ravenously in my youth. On one level, the movie is utter nonsense — but in terms of verisimilitude, it has its moments. There’s even one scene, in an office, where Dempsey, Baer and Carnera all spout dialogue while sharing a frame.
Sandwiched between all this is a musical production number of at least five minutes’ duration shared by Baer and some chorines who join him in “roadwork.” Other than the ones Busby Berkeley directed or those perennials featuring Astaire and Rogers, this may be the most jaw-dropping musical “specialty” out of ‘30s Hollywood. But knowing who directed what in this “W.S. Van Dyke Production” is hard to gauge because there’s no directing credit. Van Dyke did a lot of it and apparently Howard Hawks directed some — and who knows if anyone even tried to direct Baer, who was to minor degree, a natural.
The cinematic postscript is fascinating. The real-life Carnera-Baer saga inspired Budd Schulberg to write fictionalized The Harder They Fall — a novel adapted into Humphrey Bogart’s 1956 screen swan song and one in which Baer played “himself” as a sadist fighting a pathetically ill-matched version of Carnera (played movingly by Mike Lane). By many accounts, Baer was a much, much nicer guy than portrayed here — or as portrayed by Craig Bierko in Ron Howard’s underrated Cinderella Man (the biopic of James J. Braddock, who took Baer’s title away).
There’s more. Baer kept on acting, on and off, and appeared on screen with Abbott & Costello and Rowan & Martin. Carnera ended up appearing in Carol Reed’s lovely A Kid for Two Farthings (1955) and with muscleman Steve Reeves in Hercules Unchained. Even Braddock got into the picture, indirectly. His real-life granddaughter is Rosemary DeWitt from TV’s “Mad Men” and Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (as, in fact, Rachel).