|Released by United Artists | Directed By Benjamin Stoloff
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- The rather disgusting “National Geographic”/”it’s okay to show black women’s breasts if they’re uncivilized and don’t know any better” syndrome strikes in this movie, which means that, yes, it features a brief topless scene. Here’s a postcard proudly displayed in the film:
- “They give you a pain in the… neck.”
- “Will you stop oui oui-ing all over the place?” (Oui pronounced as ‘wee’ here)
- A fey French butler tries to kiss Knobby.
- “You’re his father.” “So I always understood!”
- Mayme tells Nina that she’s ready to call her something, “worse than a tramp.”
- Lupe Velez is put in a dress that is definitely taped on a few strategic spots. When Knobby is hitting on her later, he lists her finer features, finishing with, “You’ve got THOSE!”
Palooka: Taking It On the Chin
I was obsessed with comic strips growing up. I would often rip the newspaper out of my father’s hands so that I could pour over “Calvin & Hobbes” or “Foxtrot”. I even tried my hand at drawing comics several times in my own life, from newspapers that I made myself up to college and even a few online dalliances that are better left forgotten.
That’s why I was surprised when I read about the background of Palooka, as it’s a movie that’s based on a comic strip that ran from the early 1930s until 1980. Mind you, it ended its run before I was born, but we don’t take that sort of thing as an excuse around here. The strip “Joe Palooka” was an integral part of American culture in the 1930s and 40s, a story of a boxer who was simply too nice of a guy not to make good that caught the imagination of a nation. He had fans from the White House to the biggest movie stars of the time.
And today… well, have you ever heard of him?
“Joe Palooka” had its fair share of film adaptations, but the first and, in regards to this site’s mission statement, foremost is 1934’s Palooka. This version was reworked from the comic to become a vehicle for comic Jimmy Durante as Joe’s boxing promoter, Knobby Walsh. They also found a spot here for Lupe Velez, who was often Durante’s comic foil in several early-30s comedies like Strictly Dynamite and Hollywood Party.
Longtime followers of the site (I love both of you, by the way) will know that Jimmy Durante is an acquired taste that I’ve never acquired, a motormouth whose main comedic schtick are long, endless series of malaprops (AKA switching words with similar sounding ones to make a joke). He was in disasters like Speak Easily and Meet the Baron. Durante is, near-universally, a joy killer.
… which is why it shocks me to admit that Durante isn’t the worst part of Palooka. He makes maybe two malaprop jokes the entire time (!!). The movie’s still got a ton of problems, but Durante’s manic performance (and his shoehorned in songs and catchphrase) aren’t actually behind the tidal wave of mediocrity for once.
No, the problem with Palooka comes from the film’s depressing running time (90 minutes! Why would you make a movie that long?) and the fact that the movie has trouble being either original or consistent.
Joe Palooka is a farmer in the boonies when he encounters Knobby Walsh, a boxing promoter, and the boxing champ, Al McSwatt (Cagney– more on that in a sec). Palooka knocks McSwatt low with one punch, and Knobby immediately takes him to the big leagues, much to the consternation of his mother Mayme and girlfriend Anna.
Palooka manages to take McSwatt on again in a match for the championship title after McSwatt shows up to the fight hammered. That was the idea of Nina, a gold digger who dances the hootchie coochie down at the club– with an emphasis on the coochie. As soon as Swatt’s on the mat, she’s on Palooka, and her new con is on. Knobby does his best to waylay her without much avail. She locks him in the bathroom and declares, “That’s where he belongs!”
Well, professional boxing turns out to be a fix, and Knobby bribes every other fighter to lose to Palooka in order to keep a good thing going. McSwatt is still aching from his loss, though, and tricks Palooka into a new bout for the championship title. Luckily, Joe’s father, another former champ, arrives back from Fiji to help with the training. Can Joe, awakened to the ways he was being gypped, snap out of it and legitimately make champion this time around?
Stuart Erwin plays Joe with a nice smile and a mixed amount of limited intelligence and down home charm, but clearly buckles under Durante’s uncontrollable energy. Since the script seems to be in on it with Durante, Erwin has little chance to make his uninteresting character into much of anything. A major crux of the film, the family drama of the Palookas, is as uninteresting as it is time consuming– so quite a damned bit.
Worse still, Joe’s romantic interest Anna has to be one of the more useless female characters in any movie, one who isn’t even allowed to get more than mildly frustrated that her boyfriend betrayed her (quite publicly) and still goes back to him without protest as soon as the opportunity arises.
One of the more notable things about the movie is William Cagney as McSwatt. The brother of James Cagney is eerily identical, though there are definitely a number of mannerisms missing from the proceedings. But seeing the nasty little smile cross William’s face when getting ready for a bout and there’s no doubt whose lineage he came from. It’s a nice coup for the filmmakers, too, making the film’s villain a man who looks like one of the country’s biggest stars.
The other supporting actors– Robert Armstrong, Marjorie Rambeau, Louise Beavers, and even Thelma Todd for about two seconds– are all fine. The script is a nonstarter for them, though.
It’s all about Durante! He sings his “Rinka Do” number. He cavorts here and there. He and Velez have one of those fights where they try to see who can win in a scenery chewing contest. He has one moment that sees him utilizing a great deal of makeup to create a visual gag that’s supposed to be funny but instead morphs into something ‘unspeakable evil’-level horrifying. I’ve seen it before, and, by god, I’m sure I’ll see it again.
But Durante isn’t the problem this time, as both he and Velez get to leave the third act to an interminable boxing scene whose outcome really, truly doesn’t matter. Palooka is just an affable mess.
Back to the funny pages and “Joe Palooka”, which shares many character names and the fact that Joe was a boxer and not much else. Even though I haven’t read a panel of the strip, you can kind of see it in the movie’s flat expressions. It feels like a 1930s comic strip, words strategically placed to get to a punchline or cliffhanger in four panels. But there’s no momentum in this method. Palooka is a nice comic strip, but it goes nowhere that 90 years of comic strips haven’t trod all over since.
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Trivia & Links
- Here’s a 1965 Sports Illustrated article about the comic strip “Joe Palooka” and its history, including how the cartoon influenced the strip “Li’l Abner” (with some very funny bickering in between). Some of Joe’s more notable achievements:
Joe Palooka is the most popular sporting hero in the history of the funnies. When he appeared on Coast Guard recruiting posters, enlistments were said to have doubled. The city of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., his home town, named a mountain after him, and the state of Indiana erected a 30-foot limestone statue of Joe on Highway 37 between Indianapolis and Bedford. In the eyes of citizens everywhere Joe Palooka is the American dream come true. He is strong but modest, manly but virtuous, tolerant but principled. He would never think of wrestling cops, much less of drinking. He never mouths off. There is some swearing in the strip—usually expressed by $!$%#—but the worst expletive Joe himself ever utters is a mild “tch tch,” and his cry of triumph is almost always a subdued “tee hee.”
- Cliff at Immortal Ephemera talks about leading man Stuart Erwin and his career. He would get an Academy Award nomination in 1936 for Pigskin Parade (and check out those pictures of a young Judy Garland!) and starred in a self titled sitcom in the early 50s that lasted for several seasons.
- William Cagney, for the curious, had a much more distinguished career as a producer and business manager for his more famous brother; you can read about their adventures in movie making here. This is only one of his six acting credits.
- The NYU Film Notes from 1971 (when the comic was still running!) calls it a “time waster, no more, no less.”
- TCMDB doesn’t have an article, but it has some notes about the film’s origins, including the fact that Erwin was forced into the part contractually despite his protests that the film was “all Durante.”
Awards, Accolades & Availability
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