Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #36: "Palooka" (1934)

"And there's where Lupe Velez bought the toilet she drowned in! - John Waters on The Simpsons

The flick: Palooka (An Edward Small/United Artists Picture, 1934) [buy the set]

Current IMDb score: 5.8

Director: Benjamin Stoloff (maker of "B" Westerns and comedy shorts; directed Soup to Nuts, a 1930 film featuring the film debut of the Three Stooges before Curly joined the act)

Lupe Velez
Actors of note:
  • Jimmy Durante ("The Great Schnozzola"; famed musical comedian of radio, film, and vaudeville known for his oversized nose, rumpled hat, gravelly voice, and numerous catchphrases; Smiler Grogan in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the narrator of TV's Frosty the Snowman)
  • Lupe Velez ("The Mexican Spitfire" of '30s and '40s "B" comedies; married for five years to Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller; committed suicide at 36 and inspired a nasty urban legend)
  • Thelma Todd (The Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers and Monkey Business; died mysteriously at the age of 29 the year after this movie came out)
  • Fred "Snowflake" Toones (Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington;  Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, much more; mainly a shoe shiner or bootblack in "B" Westerns)
  • Mary Carlisle (Grand Hotel)
  • Marjorie Rambeau (Man of a Thousand Faces)
  • Robert Armstrong (King Kong)
  • Tom Dugan (The Best Years of Our Lives, To Be or Not to Be)
  • William Cagney (lookalike brother of James Cagney; did a little acting in the '30s and producing in the '40s and '50s, including Yankee Doodle Dandy)

A Joe Palooka comic
The gist of it: New York, circa 1914. Boxer Pete Palooka (Armstrong) becomes champ but can't keep away from cheap blondes like Trixie (Todd), so his wife, Broadway singer Mayme Palooka (Rambeau), leaves him and takes their little son, Joey, with her. Twenty years later, Mayme lives on a farm with a now-grown Joe Palooka (Erwin), a dim but likable lug who's dating sweet country girl Anne (Carlisle). Pete, who never actually divorced Mayme, travels around the world on his ship and sends postcards* to the farm occasionally.

One day, purely by accident, Joe meets boxing manager Knobby Walsh (Durante) and impresses him by knocking out a professional fighter with one punch. Knobby signs the novice to a contract and promises to turn him into a champ. Knowing his mother is bitterly against the fight game (and with good reason), Joe tells Mayme that Knobby's in the "leather business." The country boy then goes to New York City to follow in his old man's footsteps. Joe's hopeless as a boxer and immediately loses his first match, but his lack of skill lands him a second fight against the obnoxious champ, Al McSwatt (Cagney), whose manager is looking for bums that his man can slaughter. But McSwatt doesn't take the fight seriously and arrives drunk with his mistress, nightclub singer Nina (Velez). Joe manages to beat the inebriated McSwatt for the championship, becomes a highly-paid celebrity overnight, and very quickly acquires a swelled head, while scoring Nina as his new girlfriend.

Knowing Joe's no boxer, Knobby pays a series of fighters to take dives against him. But McSwatt tricks him into a rematch, which puts Knobby in a tricky situation. Both of Joe's parents arrive in NYC -- Mom to try to talk him out of it, Dad to train him for the fight. It all builds to an action-packed climax at Madison Square Garden.
* The postcard we see in this film has an uncensored picture of topless native girls on it. The censors were apparently fine with this. I guess it's an example of what Roger Ebert called "the National Geographic exception."

Jimmy Durante's famous profile.
My take: I was looking forward to Palooka for a number of reasons. First, it was based on a comic strip, Ham Fisher's phenomenally successful Joe Palooka, which lasted from 1930 to 1984. Fisher himself only lasted until 1955, when failing health caused him to take an intentional overdose of medication and die. He'd been through a bizarre and bitter feud with fellow cartoonist Al Capp, whose Lil' Abner also became the basis for a movie in this series!

Just as Skippy is mostly remembered for inspiring a brand of peanut butter and Buster Brown a line of shoes, Joe Palooka's lasting contribution to our culture was making the word "palooka" a synonym for "boxer" or, more generally, any big, dumb bruiser. Hitman John Travolta uses it to express his utter contempt for washed-up fighter Bruce Willis in the bar scene from Pulp Fiction. In his heyday, Joe appeared in newspapers and comic books, plus a number of feature films and a radio show, while inspiring all kinds of merchandise from board games to watches.

I was curious to see what the fuss was all about. It's a little hard to tell from this film, which is very similar plot wise to The Milky Way, the Harold Lloyd flick I reviewed just five days ago. Even more enticing than the franchise was the cast. I already knew amiable lunkhead Stuart Erwin, who's passable if not too exciting as the title character, from Heading for Heaven, but I was much more intrigued by the presence of Jimmy Durante and Lupe Velez, two performers whose outsized personalities are actually much more famous than the films they made.

A bundle of energy, Durante is the engine driving this movie. Imagine his character, Knobby, as a sort of deranged, joke-cracking version of Burgess Meredith from the Rocky series. He doesn't show up for the first few minutes of this film, and the opening suffers for it. I mentioned being disappointed by the workaday nature of the crooks in The Nut Farm. Well, this film finally offered me the desperate, shameless, half-genius, half-lunatic kind of conman I wanted in the form of Knobby Walsh, a manager so unethical he makes Don King* look like a choirboy yet who has such a zest for life that we can't possibly dislike him. (Though one scene in which he high-pressures Nina may make contemporary viewers uncomfortable. The expression "no means no" hadn't been invented yet.)

If I mention Durante's name, you probably think of the song "Inka Dinka Doo." Well, he performs his signature ditty in one gratuitous but entertaining scene that has him break a store window while in a drunken stupor and serenade a mannequin. If that's not enough "Inka Dinka Doo" for you, the song plays as an instrumental in the background at least three more times. If you want one of Durante's other catchphrases -- "Hot cha cha cha cha!" -- you'll have to wait until the very end. I'll warn you, though, that the context for that line in this movie is particularly disturbing and might cause you nightmares. (Hint: then- 41-year-old Durante, who looks 60 at least, is dressed as a baby when he says it.)

Much more aesthetically pleasing is Ms. Lupe Velez, a very sexy Mexican-American actress whose film career has possibly been overshadowed by a lurid story about her that avant-garde-filmmaker-turned-gossip-monger Kenneth Anger included his infamous and frequently-banned book Hollywood Babylon (1965). Fans of that book and of old-school Hollywood scandal in general will also be intrigued by the presence of Thelma Todd in this film. Thelma's death -- possibly murder, possibly suicide -- is one of those stories perfect for speculative basic-cable documentaries.
*Oddly, Al McSwatt's loss to Joe Palooka was echoed in real life by Mike Tyson's unexpected defeat at the hands of flash-in-the-pan Buster Douglas.

Is it funny: For a long stretch in the middle, yes! And that's mostly thanks to Durante, though Lupe Velez gets in a few good lines and Marjorie Rambeau is fun as Joe's mother, a broad who's been around the block a few times and who brooks no nonsense. The big Velez-Rambeau confrontation is a highlight of Palooka. As I mentioned earlier, the movie gets off to kind of a sluggish start but is given a jolt by the addition of Knobby Walsh.

Joe Palooka himself is kind of an empty vessel. It's sort of fun to watch him become an arrogant and free-spending jerk (the scene in which he poses for ads is another high point), but a better actor than Erwin might have gotten a bit more comedic mileage out of this. The climactic fight between Al McSwatt and Joe Palooka starts as comedy, but then becomes action/suspense and ends as drama. The movie's tone is downbeat for quite a bit, and it has the effect of letting the air out of the tires right when the humor should be building. When the film tries to shift back into "comedy mode" for the last few minutes, it all falls a little flat. I suppose that's appropriate, since our titular pugilist spends a fair amount of time falling flat himself.

My grade: B

P.S. - Yes, I'm still looking for racial stereotypes in these films. Louise Beavers plays yet another domestic, this time on Ma Palooka's farm. Her role is not terribly demeaning, though, and again Beavers' talent and humanity shine through the cliched part. At one point, though, she says that the only rooster she wants to see is "a black one strutting down Lenox Avenue." (Evidently, she worked for Mayme back in the New York days.)

Fred Toones, billed only as "Snowflake," has a good amount of screen time as some kind of assistant to Knobby or Joe, but I don't think he speaks a solitary word. In the opening credits, Beavers and Toones share the screen when their names appear, but they don't have any scenes together in the movie.

It's debatable whether Lupe Velez's character constitutes a negative Mexican stereotype. She seems to have made a career of her ethnicity and definitely exaggerates the accent for comic effect. The movie treats her as kind of a slut, the "bad girl" to Mary Carlisle's blonde-haired "good girl." For balance, though, the movie also has a blonde slut character. Progress!