Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
By Ed Garea
Winner Take All (WB, 1932) -- Director: Roy Del Ruth. Writers: Robert Lord & Wilson Mizner (s/p). Based on a story by Gerald Beaumont. Cast: James Cagney, Marian Nixon, Guy Kibbee, Dickie Moore, Virginia Bruce, Alan Mowbray, Esther Howard, Clarence Muse, John Roche, Clarence Wilson, Ralf Harold, Julian Rivero, Charlotte Merriam, & George “Gabby” Hayes. B&W, 66 minutes.
Winner Take All is a rather ordinary film with an extraordinary performance from its lead, James Cagney, as a feisty lightweight giving a heavyweight performance in a featherweight boxing movie.
The plot is such that the audience will have no trouble figuring out its ultimate destination, but the real interest lies in how the principal characters arrive there. This is where Cagney comes in. He plays Jimmy Kane, a boxer sorely in need of a rest due to his high living away from the ring. The film opens in Madison Square Garden. The ring announcer introduces Kane to the audience, before the main event, telling them that this is “a boy who needs no introduction. A boy who has fought his way up to the top, an old friend and an old favorite . . . “ After a dozen tough fights, it seems that his rough fighting has cost him and he needs time to recuperate. To do this he needs financial help and the announcer asks the audience to help. They do so by tossing money into the ring.
In the next scene, we see that his manager, Pop Slavin (Kibbee) is packing him off to recuperate at a health resort in the middle of the New Mexico desert. We also learn that it wasn’t the work rate that did Jimmy in, but also his hearty after-hours partying. Pop and trainer Rosebud (Muse) see Jimmy off and advise him to take it easy for six months, after which time Pop will get him some solid-paying bouts.
At the health farm, a pre-Gabby George Hayes welcomes Jimmy to the ranch and explains the layout, rules, and menus. On his first night. he hears a coyote. He wanders out to the veranda for a better look and meets young widow Peggy Harmon (Nixon). They chat about coyotes and strike up a friendship when Jimmy remembers her from a night at a New York restaurant. Del Ruth now presents a flashback depicting the incident. Seems Peggy is seated at Jimmy’s table and she irritates Jimmy’s girlfriend (Merriam), who starts a fight with Peggy. Watch closely during the flashback, because we are treated to a cameo of both Texas Guinan and another, future Warner Brothers tough guy George Raft, in archive footage taken from their 1929 film, Queen of the Night Clubs.
Peggy has come to the health ranch because her young son, Dickie (Moore), is ailing and needs a cure. We learn that she hopes to use using the promised proceeds from her late husband’s life insurance policy to pay the $600 bill. Jim becomes instantly attracted to Peggy (of course, we only have 66 minutes), and attached to both her and her son. Then Peggy discovers that the life insurance proceeds she was so desperately counting on will not arrive because her husband failed to pay his premiums. She tells Jim, who decides to take matters into his own hands. He goes to Tijuana and wangles a fight from Ben Isaacs (Wilson), the town’s boxing promoter. Isaacs doesn’t trust Jimmy because he hasn’t fought in so long, and is afraid that he’ll take a dive just to get the $600 loser’s purse (Convenient plotting, isn’t it?). Isaac tells Jim that if he’s that desperate for a fight with local hero Joe Pice (Rivero), it will be “Winner take all. Two thousand bucks and not a stick of peppermint for the loser.” Jim replies that he’ll fight Pice for the “winner take all” purse.
The fight ends when both boxers knock each other out. Jim manages to stagger to his feet, holding on to the ring ropes, and is declared the winner (shades of Rocky II), but not without a price. His nose is broken and one ear is cauliflowered. But Peggy’s bill has been paid, and she quickly puts one and one together and deduces he must have fought to pay it. Soon they’re making plans for a life together. However, Pop has heard about the Tijuana fight and, deciding Jimmy’s cured, calls him to Chicago for the necessary build-up bouts to contend for the lightweight championship. Peggy and Dickie see Jimmy to the train station, where Jimmy promises to get back as soon as possible so they can marry.
Jim fights well and is on his way to a championship bout. Returning to New York, he is introduced by Roger Elliot (Roche) to vampy socialite Joan Gibson (Bruce). Jim falls head over heels for her. Joan may be a man-hungry vamp, but she is also a Park Avenue snob, and treats Jimmy with a barely concealed contempt. Jimmy, for his part, misses all her signals and mistakes this attention as love. He begins to spend all his time with Joan and her uptown crowd. They, in turn, regard him as a sort of a mascot from the slums; good for a few laughs but not much beyond. A casual remark by Joan about Jimmy’s nose and ear hits him hard. When Pop arranges for Jimmy to fight the champion, Jimmy nixes the fight and goes instead to a plastic surgeon to fix his nose and ear. He also takes lessons in etiquette from Forbes (Mowbray), who is part of the crowd that surrounds Joan. But all his good work is for naught, for Joan is not amused, She tells her friend, Ann (Howard), "The fool took me seriously and went and had his face done over. Now, he's lost all the things that made him colorful and different. He's just ordinary, now like any other guy."
Confused by Joan’s attitude, Jimmy tells Pop to set him up with some palookas so he can get into fighting rhythm. However, with his newly reconstructed face, he is reluctant to take a beating, so he changes his fighting style from that of a puncher to more of a boxer, to avoid risking any damage to his profile. The fans, appalled by this new style, begin to boo him.
Joan discovers that getting rid of Jimmy is much harder than being introduced to him. Arriving at her apartment one evening, he is told by the butler that she isn’t home. He bursts into a party, telling her that his championship bout will be his last. Win or lose, they will get married. He gives her ringside tickets.
Meanwhile, Pop knows what’s going on and sends for Peggy. She surprises Jimmy and his reaction is callous, telling her that not only is he seeing someone else, but that he intends on getting married to Joan after his championship bout. Peggy, who has been most saccharine to this point, has had enough and tells Jimmy what’s what in a great scene for which we’ve been waiting since Jim met Joan.
It’s the night of the fight. Jimmy looks over the crowd, and guess what? No Joan. He sends Rosebud to call and find out where she is. After one round, in which Jimmy once again avoids contact, Rosebud reports that Joan is leaving on an ocean liner in about 20 minutes. With time slipping away, Jimmy goes on a furious attack and knocks out the champion. Without changing, he takes a taxi to the pier, boards the boat and frantically looks for Joan’s room. When he finds her, she lies and tells him that her sister needs her. Jimmy’s reply is that he didn’t even know she had a sister. Then, who else but Roger Elliot enters the cabin? It all becomes crystal clear to Jimmy. He punches Roger and kicks Joan when she bends over Roger's unconscious body before leaving. The film ends with Jimmy proposing to Peggy, who accepts.
Cagney gives Winner Take All the power it needs to keep its audience interested, and it’s to director Roy Del Ruth’s credit that he let his star bust loose, rather than trying to confine him within the strictures of the script and filming schedule. His Jimmy Kane is straight from the lower East Side, a loud and fast talker with an over abundance of pride that, combined with his tendency to think with his crotch, leads to his romantic troubles and almost to a career downfall. When he’s taken out of his element, as he is at the health farm, Kane’s demeanor changes from feisty and obtrusive to relaxed and compassionate. We sense that he seems to have found a true love match with Peggy. But when he’s back in the city, his demeanor returns to obnoxious. His pride, combined with his lack of intelligence, lead him down the merry road to ruin at the hands of Joan and her Park Avenue buddies.
It is only when Elliot comes into Joan’s cabin that Jimmy finally realizes the game is up and he takes what to him is the natural and appropriate action. Kane is a character whose callousness is more driven by ignorance than maliciousness; when in the company of the socialite wolves, he’s a lamb in the wilderness, and we can’t help but take delight when he gets his comeuppance in the end. Cagney’s ease in the ring, especially his footwork, caught the eyes of both critics and professional boxers. He trained for the role with former amateur boxing notable Harvey Parry, who has a role in the film, and would become Cagney’s regular stunt man. In his autobiography, Cagney noted that another boxer, watching him spar, was certain that Cagney had fought in the ring - his footwork proved it. "I said, 'Tommy, I'm a dancer. Moving around is no problem.'" He also said in interviews that he based the character of Jimmy Kane on guys he had grown up with, and it shows in his persona and delivery; imitating them, apparently, was no problem. It wouldn’t be his only role as a boxer - he would go on to play boxers twice more, in The Irish in Us (1935) and City for Conquest (1940).
Guy Kibbee and Clarence Muse offer solid support as Kane’s manager and trainer, respectively. Muse always brings a dignified persona to his roles and never allows himself to be placed into stereotype-land, no matter what the picture. Alan Mowbray does a fine job playing the “ponce” (this is a Pre-Code film), trying to teach Kane etiquette. John Roche is pleasantly invisible as Elliot, and it’s always good to see George Hayes in a film, Gabby or no Gabby.
As for the female leads, let me mention that, back in the Pre-Code era, Warner Brothers was tilted towards it male stars. Female stars often received short shrift, except when they could be exploited as sex objects. Consider the wealth of female talent at the studio: Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Virginia Bruce, Mary Astor, Aline MacMahon, Loretta Young, Myrna Loy, and Bette Davis. Then note that the only ones who lasted with the studio into the late ‘30s were Blondell and Davis. The others either left for greener pastures at other studios, or like Astor, chose to freelance. Jean Harlow, who was in The Public Enemy with Cagney, also left the studio for Columbia, and later, MGM. A wise career move on her part, otherwise she never would have learned to act or given vehicles in which to star and build a career.
Winner Take All has two prominent female roles: poor widow Peggy Harmon (Nixon) and vampy socialite Joan Gibson (Bruce). Bruce is a marvel to behold in the film, playing the man-hungry snob to perfection. Though she takes awhile to arrive on the screen, once she makes her entrance we are immediately drawn to her patrician looks. It also seems obvious that Del Ruth and Bruce placed more into her character than the script originally called for. Watch the scene where she meets Kane for the first time. We can see the excitement in her eyes as her hand brushes against Kane’s sweaty chest; a look of longing mixed with disgust for his lower-class origins. And yet she is hooked. It’s not until later, when Kane loses his gorilla-like charm, that Joan is no longer interested and returns to her own kind. The use of Esther Howard as her friend, Ann, is brilliant on both the writers’ and director’s part, for their conversations fill in the blanks and tell us what direction Joan is going to take her games with Kane. Howard, by the way, is marvelously catty in her small role. I think it was John Ford who said that film acting is done with the eyes, and Bruce does a lot with her eyes, using them to maximum effect in both medium shots and close-ups.
Marian Nixon, on the other hand, is the Good Girl, and as such, has the sugary role. Unlike Bruce, Nixon’s Peggy cannot exist without Kane, and during the middle part of the film, when the only thing she gets from Kane is a postcard with a brief message to the effect that he’ll be back, we begin to surmise that Peggy simply can’t take a hint. When Pop brings her back and she tells Kane off, we’re totally on her side and muttering to ourselves that it’s about time. But then comes the ending, and she takes Kane back with only his poor excuse for an explanation. He’s supposed to be crawling back to her, but it seems as if she’s crawling back to him.
Lord and Mizner adapted Winner Take All from Gerald Beaumont’s 1921 story “133 and 3.” Wilson “Bill” Mizner was one of America’s great characters. Besides being the co-owner of The Brown Derby (“If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.”), he was also a land speculator in Florida with architect brother Addison (they developed Boca Raton and Palm Beach), a successful Broadway playwright, boxing manager, and an opium addict. According to Cagney in his autobiography, Mizner would entertain him for hours on the set between scenes with tales of his exploits in Alaska, where he swindled miners with rigged boxing and wrestling matches. He died on April 3, 1933, at the young age of 56 from a heart attack. Presumably, he was all worn out. Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins later based the character of Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) in the 1936 MGM production of San Francisco on Milner. Loos referred to Mizner as “America’s most fascinating outlaw.”
Director Roy Del Ruth began his Hollywood career in 1915 as a gag writer for Mack Sennett. He was a Warner’s favorite because he brought the product in fast and cheap, without compromising the quality any more than was necessary. For instance, he needed only 15 days for Winner Take All. Other Warner’s titles he oversaw included Blonde Crazy (1931) with Cagney and Joan Blondell, Taxi (1932), with Cagney and Loretta Young, Blessed Event (1932) with Lee Tracy, Employees’ Entrance (1933) with Warren William and Young, Little Giant (1933) with Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor, and Lady Killer (1933) with Cagney and Mae Clarke. From 1934 to 1942, he was Hollywood’s second-highest paid director. He continued to make films until 1960, and died in 1961 at the age of 67, leaving behind his wife of 27 years, the former actress Winnie Lightner, and two sons, Richard and Thomas.
Winner Take All was yet another hit for Warner Brothers and solidified Cagney as a box-office draw. At its New York premiere, Warner’s played up the boxing theme by bringing in several ex-champions and using New York boxing promoter Jimmy Johnston as Master of Ceremonies. It also provided the actor with more ammunition in his ongoing fight with the studio for bigger paychecks, a fight that eventually led to Cagney leaving the studio in 1935 before returning in 1938.
A FACE IN THE CROWD: CLARENCE WILSON
When I spotted him in the role of Tijuana promoter Ben Isaacs in Winner Take All, I wasn’t surprised Clarence Wilson was in the film. He seemed like a regular staple of early ‘30s films. What did surprise me, though, was that Clarence was playing an honest promoter. I fully expected him to try to double-cross Cagney in some form or another. With that pickle puss, Wilson was destined to play the sneaky heel.
Face it, we’ve probably seen him more times than we can remember in films, yet some of us often mistake him for fellow character actor Jimmy Findlayson, the nemesis of Laurel and Hardy, to whom he bore a slight resemblance. But we loved this sourpuss, who, according to Bruce Eder on AllMovie.com, looked as if he was “evidently weaned on a diet of pickles and vinegar.” Wilson usually played the heel, the sort of person who dances while evicting a poor widow and her children. In those roles there was no one like him.
Clarence Hummel Wilson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 17, 1876. He began his career as an actor in Philadelphia in 1895 as part of a stock company that toured the United States and Canada. Making his way eventually to Broadway, he played a series of supporting roles to such stars of the day as James K. Hackett, Marguerite Clark, Charles Cherry, and Wilton Lackaye.
Wilson entered motion pictures in 1920 as “Jues” in Goldyn’s Duds. He followed this a short time later with an uncredited role in The Penalty, starring Lon Chaney. He worked steadily in the ‘20s, sometimes as “Wilson Hummel,” sometimes as “C.H. Wilson,” and sometimes as Clarence H. Wilson. When sound arrived, Wilson found himself still in demand. His first sound film was the Carole Lombard/Robert Armstrong newspaper comedy, Big News, for Pathe in 1929. He had a small role as a coroner.
Over the next 12 years, Wilson would specialize in playing crabby judges, cold-hearted landlords or orphanage officials, angry school or city officials, grouchy process servers, and stingy and nasty businessmen. Most of his roles were little more than bit parts (many uncredited), and he was wonderful as a humorless foil for the likes of W.C. Fields, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Charley Chase, though he occasionally landed a bigger role, such as Helen Mack’s drunken father, who ran a pathetic sideshow in Son of Kong (1934). He was best known as the corrupt sheriff in 1931’s The Front Page and for appearing as an Our Gang comedy foil. Shortly after playing school board chairman Alonzo K. Pratt in the Our Gang short Come Back Miss Pipps (1941), Wilson died, at the age of 64, on October 5, 1941.