Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Our pugilist protagonist, Kid Mason (Lew Ayres), has an issue keeping it in his boxing shorts. He even knocks a random fan up, and only manages to get away with it when his manager George Regan (Robert Armstrong) has a friend pretend to be a judge and tell her politely that she’s not getting a dime out of him.
- That’s because Kid Mason is already married to Rose (Jean Harlow) and she’s doing all of the gold digging in the family. She also partakes in an extramarital affair of her own.
- Rose is staging a melodramatic between herself and Kid Mason once he makes it as a boxer, and Regan, along for the ride, quizzes the landlady about Rose’s actions. When she instead begins to list the highlights of the building’s accommodations, he gets hung up on her insistence that they have private baths. “Don’t tell me you have baths around here that aren’t private?” “Yes, sir!” “Must be a lot of fun around here Saturday night.”
- It’s still Prohibition, so Regan’s drinking problem is a little more telling of someone who really doesn’t care any more. On the taste of some booze: “Are you sure this came out of the same bathtub?” Remind me to toss this line out next time I’m at the bar.
- Tossed off, but still an amusing little bit of bluntness: “I know a speakeasy that looks just like this joint!” “A what?” “A speakeasy! The place you go when you want to get drunk!”
- At one point, two men show up to try and convince Kid and Regan to throw a match. The conversation is unremarkable except that it happens while the Kid is showering down after a workout. You don’t see anything, but it’s definitely an interesting bit of implied nudity.
He Ain’t No Superhero
I don’t get to use the word ‘pugilist’ often in my reviews, but a prime opportunity has arrived this evening for the long-forgotten boxing picture Iron Man.
Concerning a hothead named Kid Mason, we follow him as he starts off getting creamed for ignoring his manager’s advice and then keep following him until he’s the champion of the world. That leads to some predictable dramatic trappings: the manager who’s given him his lifeblood, George Regan, is abandoned in favor of his vamp of a wife, Rose, and her “really, really good friend” Lewis (John Miljan).
Rose isn’t being completely honest about what she wants out of the Kid, and the Kid, in spite of his own extramarital affairs, is still so gaga for his wife that he can’t see the affair under his nose. Regan, unable to tell his friend what’s really happening, hits the bottle hard, but then turns around to train a new champ who’ll take on his former protege.
Directed by Tod Browning (of Dracula and Freaks) crafts a boxing picture that’s pretty far from the modern outline, creating a slow paced examination of the central trio of the Kid, Regan and Rose, and using the boxing as a background and minor dramatic impetus.
Hell, more activity happens in a thirty second montage than in any of the scenes set in the ring. For the fights, Browning keeps the sport at far more than arm’s length, favoring distant shots with things so vague you can’t tell which fighter is which.
He also bleeds out the blackness surrounding the ring, making it look more intimate in this manner: two men and one frenzied referee desperately trying to mete out some sense of victory amid the small scale but unceasing violence.
The film always dabbles in the disdainful, from the many affairs to throwing matches– “The kid’s always been on the level!”– but never does much anything interesting with it. The only thing that gave me much to ponder during the film was the triangle between the three main characters, and how daringly that seemed to resemble an actual love triangle.
You Are What You Read Into It
“Put on your robe! You wanna get pneumonia?”
Subtext is something I’ve been toying with my last couple of reviews, and, considering Iron Man’s plot, there’s a lot that seems to be happening under the surface.
The line I quoted above is what Regan tells Mason whenever he finds him in the locker room in just his shorts. It’s revealing of Regan’s relationship, one that’s just as much paternalistic as it is professional.
However, the more we see of the relationship, the more it seems obvious that just calling Regan’s feelings paternalistic may be a bit of a misnomer. Since half of the film is about Mason’s unrequited love for the scheming Rose, it’s not much to project when we see Regan mirroring Mason’s actions, only towards the boxer. When Kid Mason finally jilts him, Regan takes it not as a father figure, but as a lover.
There are other little hints, from the intimate way the men are framed, to how the boxing scenes are portrayed with such a careless attitude towards audience enjoyment, but with such a loaded sense of male rivalry occurring in plain, unsuspecting view.
Looking at the filmmakers, you’ll find a pair of men who are hard to get a fix on. Director Browning was apparently incredibly private, and the author of the film’s screenplay, Francis Faragoh, has barely a stump for a Wikipedia page. While both were in long-term marriages, considering the former directed Dracula and the latter wrote Frankenstein, it’s probably not a stretch imagine that there could be something going on under the surface here.
But, hell, reading a homosexual subtext into a boxing picture is pretty much shooting fish in a barrel. If you look at it with early-21st century eyes, it seems blatant. Whether the creative minds behind the film intended that or if our idea of masculine commiseration has changed significantly in eight decades is mystery beyond my sphere of understanding.
It gives you something to ponder during the film’s trudge, which is enough for me this time.
- Cole Abaius for The Film School Rejects covered this movie a couple of years ago, and in his review takes great pains to point out how badly miscast everyone seems (I wouldn’t say that for Armstrong at all, but I digress) and lays it on thick about how it’s not particularly special in any way, but also adds “it still more than deserves to be seen and celebrated.” Not the most convincing argument I’ve read.
- The New York Times review (and I assume this is Mordaunt again, but no name’s attached) praises the film for how it’s “genuinely interesting in its scenes between the young fighter and his wily manager”. They also disparage Harlow, noting that her “virtues as an actress are limited to her blonde beauty”, which is amusing to compare to the praise they dole out for her a year later in Red Dust.