Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Sport Parade

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

The Sport Parade (RKO, 1932) – Director: Dudley Murphy. Writers: Corey Ford, Francis M. Cockrell (s/p), Jerry Horwin (story), Robert Benchley, T.H. Wenning (additional dialogue, uncredited). Cast: Joel McCrea, Marian Marsh, William Gargan, Robert Benchley, Walter Catlett, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Clarence Wilson, & Ivan Linow. B&W, 64 minutes.

The Sport Parade is a child of its times. Although it may seem especially odd to us today to see pro football treated with the same disdain as professional wrestling, we should keep in mind that, with the exception of baseball, pro sports were seen as disreputable as compared to the “pure” sport that was found in amateur competition. Of course, in reality amateur football was just as crooked, if not more so, than what was claimed for the pro side. Back in those days, the NFL was no more than a blip on the sports map, still struggling for existence. Although it got a boost when the great Red Grange signed on in 1925, not many other college greats followed suit; the prevailing ethos at the time being that taking pay for one’s play was sign of questionable character.

Pro wrestling, on the other hand, was always seen as questionable. A child of the carnival, it thrived in the underbelly of American popular culture. By the time this picture opened, wrestling was seen as little more than a comedy act, a good night’s cheap entertainment.

By any standards, though, this film is a queer duck. It has a solid cast and boasts several good performances. The subject is interesting, though the plot, even then, was rather hackneyed. But this is a film that should be directed by Howard Hawks, William Wellman, Irving Pichel, or even Norman Taurog. Instead, the director is Dudley Murphy, best known for avant-garde films like Danse Macabre (1922), Ballet Mecanique (1924, considered his masterpiece), St. Louis Blues, 1929, with Bessie Smith), Black and Tan Fantasy (1929, with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra). A year after directing The Sport Parade, Murphy would direct Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones.

Pretty heady stuff, so for Murphy to do a sports action film is a departure, to say the least. In 1931, he helmed a drama with music, Confessions of a Co-ed, starring Sylvia Sidney as a free-living jazz baby. The film was noted more for the appearance of Bing Crosby with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra than the quality of the drama itself. Murphy apparently had the full blessing of studio head David O. Selznick; perhaps Selznick was trying to see if Murphy could stretch his horizons, for Confessions of a Co-ed was a departure from Murphy’s usual work. Being as RKO was the smallest of the majors, outside of Universal, Selznick may have been looking to develop his directing talents to where they could work in different genres. Whatever the reason, this was clearly Hawksian territory, and Murphy failed to scale the bar, instead delivering a run-of-the-mill programmer noted only for some arty camera work.

The film opens at the ivy halls of Dartmouth University, where the combination of Sandy Brown (McCrea) and Johnny Baker (Gargan) is dominating opponents with their talent. Besides being a formidable combination on the field, they are enjoying a full-blown bromance off the field. Something I found interesting in this film was the amount of beefcake, as opposed to the usual cheesecake. In an early shower scene after the game, the boys are snapping each other in the buttocks with towels. And speaking of bare buttocks, there are plenty to be seen in the locker room. The homoerotic theme is quite strong, rather surprising in an era that looked down on and made fun of homosexuality.

But all good things must pass. Sandy and Johnny are to graduate, and this is where we see the basic difference between the two. Johnny is an ant, already having a newspaper job lined up. Sandy, on the other hand, is a grasshopper. He’d rather party.

To that end, Sandy signs with a manager, “Shifty” Morrison (Catlett). He arranges for both Sandy and Johnny to undertake a personal tour for cash. But Johnny turns him down; he already has a good job at the paper. Sandy can’t understand this. Why work when you can have people pay to see you? And Johnny can’t understand why, with all the lucrative offers Sandy has, that he would choose to sign with someone as obviously shady as Shifty.

Needless to say, the personal tour is a bust, for Sandy lacks the personality needed to get himself over. His next stop is pro football, as Morrison happens to own a football team. But once again, Sandy is a failure. Morrison advises him to put a little “showmanship” into his play, spice things up a bit, stand out, even if the team is losing. Soon this turns into an invitation to throw games for the bettors. This is too much for Sandy, who quits in disgust. Returning home, he discovers that all the business offers have dried up.

Unable to find an opportunity, Sandy spends his last dollars on a ticket to the Yale-Dartmouth game, where he runs into Johnny – of course. Johnny has risen over the years and is now the editor of his paper’s sports department. When Johnny asks how Sandy’s doing, Sandy gives him a soft-shoe routine, but Johnny sees through it and tactfully offers Sandy a job as a columnist, suggesting they write a column together called “Baker to Brown.” Sandy accepts, and while writing his half of their first column, meets a winsome young blonde named Irene Stewart (Marsh). They hit it off and soon she’s accompanying him to the various sporting events he’s covering for the column, as we see in a traveling montage. What Sandy doesn’t know, and what Irene isn’t telling him, is that Johnny is head over heels in love with Irene. Irene doesn’t feel the same way about Johnny. Sandy, however, is another story entirely.

One night, Sandy takes Irene to the wrestling matches, which he thinks are great fun, though she doesn’t. Again, who should he happen to run into? Why, Shifty Morrison, of course. Shifty has moved on from fixing football games to promoting professional wrestling, a natural progression of sorts. After the usual how-do-you-dos, Shifty asks Sandy how he enjoyed the matches. Sandy replies that he could easily defeat the wrestlers, given his collegiate wrestling background. A light bulb goes off in Shifty’s head. He hands Sandy a card, telling him he could use him, and a guy with his background could clean up. Sandy politely declines. He’s got a job and a girl.

But all this happiness can’t last for long. While attending the six-day bicycle races with Irene, Johnny spots them in a clinch and slugs Sandy, accusing him of betrayal. Sandy, for his part, swears he knows nothing of any relationship between Johnny and Irene. Miffed at both Johnny and Irene and feeling guilty, Sandy accepts Shifty’s offer to become a wrestler. Morrison concocts a gimmick playing on Sandy’s Dartmouth background, billing him as “the pride of Dartmouth.” With a series of quick victories, Sandy has been built up for a match with the reigning champion, Sailor Muller (Linow). Talk about life imitating art: the idea of Morrison the wrestling promoter also owning a pro football team prefigures Vince McMahon and the XFL by about 60 years

Now it’s Johnny’s turn to be miffed, because Morrison is using Sandy’s Dartmouth background as part of the act. He writes a scathing column about Sandy, questioning the legitimacy of his victories and calling wrestling “a racket.” This, in turn, miffs Irene, who confronts Johnny about the column. She tells him that, contrary to speculation, Sandy will win the championship, and if he doesn’t, she’ll go with Johnny to get that marriage license.

The night of the championship match, Sandy’s fellow alumni visit and warn him not to wear the sacred “D” on the back of his robe. But when Irene enters to see Sandy he tells her that he is to lose this night. Irene declares her love for him telling him she doesn’t love Johnny. She loves him and believes in him. This little corny declaration changes everything for Sandy and he decides he’s now going to wrestle to win, informing Morrison of his change in plans. Morrison, in turn, warns Muller, who decides that he is going to teach the young punk a lesson.

During the introduction, with Sandy in a pair of white tighties that leave little to the imagination, he is billed at 15-pounds less than Muller, though it clearly looks like more. Muller wins the first fall, and Sandy wins the second. Before the third fall, Shifty tells Muller that Sandy has a bad shoulder and to work on it. Things look bad for the boy in white during the third fall as Muller works him over. Johnny, sitting next to Irene, sees the genuine look of pain on Sandy’s face, then sees the look on Irene’s face and has a sudden epiphany – Sandy’s on the level. Johnny stands up and yells to Sandy the buzzword they used during their football days: “Contact!” Sandy hears it and comes to life. He begins to pummel the champ, hitting him with a variety of moves and finally knocking the champ out of the ring with a flying tackle. Muller, knocked silly, can’t get back into the ring. He’s counted out and Sandy is the new champion. Johnny and Irene came into the ring to congratulate Sandy. Sandy kisses Irene as the film fades to the end.

The film moves at a quick pace, much quicker than other movies from RKO; its running time of 64 minutes is more than enough. McCrea dominates most of the film, though Gargan has his share of scenes. But he only seems to come to life when in scenes with McCrea; otherwise he barely noticeable. Young, doll-faced Marian Marsh, loaned out to RKO for the film, played a role far beyond her 19 years of age. It’s a shame she wasn’t given more to do besides function as the girl who comes between the stars. However, it’s Walter Catlett as the agent Morrison, and Robert Benchley as the befuddled radio announcer, who steal the movie. Catlett is delightfully crooked; as long as he can make a profit, no grudges are held, except at the end when he learns of Sandy’s plans to double-cross the champ. Benchley’s turns as the radio announcer following the career of Baker and Brown, but who can’t keep the teams straight and his foot away from his mouth, is hilarious. It also sounds as if he wrote his own material. Also look for ex-vaudevillian Richard “Skeets” Gallagher as a drunken photographer who seems always to miss the photo because he didn’t remove the lens cap, or shoots it out of focus due to his constant inebriation. Somehow he manages to get an award-winning photo when he snaps a photo of a racecar going off the track and crashing.

Although a stuntman was employed for the more elaborate work, McCrea himself learned the art of wrestling before he went before the camera. (He does take a few of the bumps himself.) Below is a terrific tidbit of trivia courtesy of the Spokane Spokesman-Review:

There is a great wrestling match as a climax to the picture, in which Joel gets a lot of rough treatment. Advance notices say he took a lot of wrestling instruction under Creighton Chaney, son of the late Lon Chaney, to fit himself for the part.

Chaney was under contract to RKO at this time, appearing with McCrea in Bird of Paradise earlier that year. He also worked as a stuntman and trainer, though I would like to know when and where he learned the art of wrestling. And here it appears that he also moonlighted as an “uncredited technical adviser."

1932 was a good year for films concerning wrestling. The Sport Parade was released on November 11, 1932, and Flesh, from MGM and directed by none other than John Ford, was released almost a month later, on December 8, 1932. As far as I can determine, The Sport Parade is the second film with wrestling as the subject matter. The first was Sit Tight (1931), a Warner Bros. comedy directed by Lloyd Bacon and starring Joe. E. Brown and Winnie Lightner. But The Sport Parade was the first drama to feature pro wrestling. And it does not shine a favorable light on the game, seeing it as a “fixed” sport, which was not outside the prevailing opinion of the day. The movie also looks down on professional football, which was barely out of its infancy when the movie was released. Basically, all professional sports, excepting baseball, were disparaged during this time as in the control of the bettors. Ivan Linow, a real pro wrestler, played the role of wrestling champion Sailor Muller. Born Janus Linaus in Latvia in 1888, he came to America sometime after the turn of the century. When he took up wrestling is unknown, but given his build (about 6’4”, 240 lbs.) he carved out a decent career, beating the scrubs and losing to the stars. He participated in the big wrestling tournament in New York City in 1915, billed as “the Finnish Lion.” He later toured the country using the monikers “The Cossack” and “the Russian Man-Eater.” When his wrestling career declined in the early ‘20s, Linow went into films, playing supporting and bit parts. He retired in 1935 and died of a heart attack in London, England, in 1940 at the age of 52.

The character of Sandy Brown, who plays football at Dartmouth, and later the pros before going into pro wrestling as “the pride of Dartmouth” seems to be based on pro wrestler “Dynamite” Gus Sonnenberg. Sonnenberg was a football hero at Dartmouth who later played with the early NFL on such teams as the Columbus Tigers, Detroit Panthers, and the Providence Steam Rollers. In Providence, he became a close friend of amateur great John Spellman, who won Olympic gold in 1924 in freestyle wrestling. Spellman thought Sonnenberg could be a hit on the pro mat and Sonnenberg in turn saw wrestling as a way to earn off-season money. When Spellman throught his protégé was ready, he introduced him to Boston wrestling promoter Paul Bowser. Bowser liked what he saw, being aware of Sonnenberg’s fame in New England. Bowser had big plans for the ex-Dartmouth athlete and eventually put him over as world champion by defeating Strangler Lewis.

Sonnenberg proved to be a popular champion, not so much for his wrestling as for his finishing maneuver – the flying tackle. He was the first to use it and the move was a hit everywhere he wrestled. He would stand in the ring across from his opponent, then run forward and launch himself in the air like a spear, tackling the rival with all his speed and strength, usually around the chest or waist. It was a devastating finisher, and helped transform the sport by getting it off the mat through the use of aerial tactics.

Although the ardor for Sonnenberg cooled down in areas of the country, there was one area besides his native promotion in Boston where he was especially popular. That was Los Angeles. The matches, held at Hollywood Legion Stadium and the Olympic Auditorium, were a favorite for the denizens of the studios, with movie stars usually seen at ringside. Co-writer Corey Ford claimed to know absolutely nothing about professional wrestling, though the views of the other co-writer, Francis Cockrell, have never been recorded. At any rate, even though wrestling is seen as a crooked sport, McCrea’s character nevertheless wrestles the championship match with Muller straight, for Sandy is a true athlete and no true athlete would take a dive.

Director Murphy does a decent job of keeping the action at a brisk pace and making sure that McCrea is featured in many masculine settings and having the camera look in on his shirtless torso on a few occasions. He also seems to like gimmickry transitions, like a scene where the camera closes in on a picture of Walter Catlett on a wall, and comes to life in the next scene. In the finale, which seems to have been shot inside the Olympic Auditorium, Murphy comes to life, shooting from many angles with fluid camerawork throughout. The film also features a cutaway to a Cotton-Club type of nightspot with a couple of numbers from African-American dancers, making it seem as though Murphy was returning to his musical roots. The Sport Parade is typical of the Pre-Code era, only emphasizing beefcake over the usual cheesecake. There is also the typical racist scenes of rubbing a black man’s head for luck, and a homophobic scene where, during the wrestling matches that Sandy takes Irene to watch, two rather flaming fellows stand up with one crying out “Such brutality! Let’s leave.” That’s a rather odd jab in a film where the two leads are friskily cavorting with each other nude in the post-game shower room, snapping each other with towels and wrestling. Several times in the film, Johnny refers to Sandy as “handsome” and praises Sandy’s ways with the ladies.

In the end, The Sport Parade holds interest as an example of the Pre-Code era and for its subject matter far more than any interest as a film.

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