Movie Review: Winner Take All (1932)
It’s 66 minutes long, seems longer, and Cagney isn’t really Cagney in it. He’s dopier, his voice register lower. And his face? Ain’t pretty no more. That’s a key plot point, actually.
He plays Jimmy Kane, a middleweight boxer who begins the film on the outs. He’s been boozing and broading too much, so his manager, Pop Slavin (character actor Guy Kibbee, who made 18(!) movies that year, including five in which he played someone named “Pop”) sends him to recuperate at a ranch/hot springs in San Rosario, New Mexico. Kane doesn’t want to go. He’s a New York guy. But on the first night, he meets Peggy (Marian Nixon), a chirpy single mom, and her saccharine son, Dickie (Dickie Moore, a ’30s child star), and the three become inseparable.
Mother and son are there for Dickie’s health, or something, and they’re about to get the boot unless someone coughs up $600. So Kane, though ordered to rest, fights a contender in Tijuana (then called “Tia Juana”) in a winner-take-all match. He wins, gets the dough, gives it to Peggy, tries to deflect credit. At this point, the boozing-and broading guy is nowhere in sight; he’s a hero. So much so I was wondering if he was being played—if Peggy and Dickie were grifters who bilked good-hearted souls. That might’ve made a better movie.
Instead, the Tia Juana fight demonstrates he’s back in the game, Pop sets up more fights, and he’s a contender and back in New York again.
Got that? For the first 15 minutes, the drama is “Can he get back to boxing?” And he does. So what’s the drama for the rest of the movie?
Well, he falls for a society dame, Joan Gibson (Virginia Bruce).
And that’s it.
At first she’s flirty and then isn’t. One moment she’s interested and then not at all. Half the time she looks at him with disgust. She tells him he might be handsome if not for his busted nose and cauliflower ear, so he gets plastic surgery and winds up looking like how Jimmy Cagney usually looks. But she’s disappointed in this, too. It takes the edge off him, she says—all the more because he becomes a “powder puff” boxer who turns down title fights to dance around with lesser talents to protect his pretty face. Even though it gets him nowhere with the society dame:
Now he lost all the things that made him colorful and different. He’s just ordinary now, like any other man. And one thing I can’t stand is bad grammar spoken through a perfect, Grecian nose.
You know how early Cagney was always slapping around women or pushing a grapefruit in their face? This one deserves it. And she gets away. Well, nearly.
What happens? He finally takes the title fight, hears mid-fight she’s about to board a cruise ship, so he finishes the champ off quickly to get to the ship on time, finds her with another man, decks that guy, kicks her in the can, then runs off the boat laughing like a schoolboy. He runs all the way back into the arms of Peggy—with his new busted nose. “Look out for the schnozzle,” he says, repeating a line he said after the Tia Juana fight; “it’s full a firecrackers.”
Not good. Jimmy is stuck between two women, chirpy and bitchy, and too stupid to realize those are his only choices. There’s nobody to root for here. I don’t even know if I wanted him to win that final fight.
Virginia Bruce (born: Minneapolis, 1909) makes a great villain, though. You really do hate her.
Who do we root for? Pop maybe. Also the trainer, Rosebud, who is played by African-American actor Clarence Muse, and seems a real person rather than stereotype. My father interviewed him once in 1976, when Muse was 87 and visiting the Twin Cities. It’s a good read.
Hey, Kane and Rosebud. In the same movie. Coincidence?
For all that, we still get our racist moments. There’s a recurring bit where society folks are talking lofty world politics and Kane keeps bringing it back to the plebian. They express admiration for Russia’s five-year plan, for example, but Kane thinks they’re talking installment plans, which he thinks is a sucker’s game: “I pay cash for everything.” They also talk the rumblings of the second Sino-Japanese war, and when they mention how the Japanese are real fighters Kane takes umbrage. He calls them “brown babies” and says they have trouble with punches to the gut. “Can’t take it downstairs,” he says.
We get some good bits. Kane takes Joan dancing, she’s wearing a fancy, backless dress and he puts his hand on her upper, naked back—then looks confused. He moves it down. Still skin. Then further. Finally he looks around to see where the clothing starts again: “You had me worried for a minute.”
I also like Pop telling post-surgery Jimmy he’s getting the “high hat.” The Coens knew what they were doing in “Miller’s Crossing.”
But the movie that’s truly prefigured is “Rocky II.” In that Tia Juana fight, both boxers are going at it pretty good. Then they both land a blow and both go down, but it’s Jimmy who claws his way back up before the 10 count to win. Is this where Sylvester Stallone got the idea for the climactic ending of “Rocky II”?
The opening. Cagney's the lead but not by much. He's the main player among the players; he doesn't even get his own title card.
The “Tia Juana” fight, and the double blow that fells both boxers.
Our man wins. “Rocky II” anyone? See video here.
Kane/Cagney leaves for other fights, promising to write the girl and the boy; but he's got a short memory. Nice shot here by Roy Del Ruth.
High society. Despite all looks, it's the woman on the right that's the problem.
Or you could say Cagney is. He gets plastic surgey to please her, then worries about losing his looks.
As a result, pilloried in the press.
Another boo bird.
This series of shots is my favorite part of the movie.
“The high hat.” *FIN*