In the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, a pretentious playwright is lured to Hollywood and tasked with making a "Wallace Beery wrestling picture." If you believe the Coens -- and that's a big if sometimes -- they didn't know at the time they wrote their picture that there was such a thing as a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. Yet to someone at M-G-M in 1932, it may have seemed natural to follow up Beery's big success in a boxing picture -- he won an Oscar for The Champ -- with a film about wrestling. But the natural-seeming follow-up doesn't follow The Champ's formula -- Jackie Cooper is conspicuously absent, as is any hint of father-son pathos. Instead, Flesh is much more of a true Pre-Code movie, at least on paper -- and can you beat that title? Actually, in retrospect, Metro should have thought twice about it. No matter how beloved Beery had become, I can only imagine that advertising a film called Flesh on the understanding that most of the title substance on display would belong to Beery might have sent even his most devoted fans in headlong flight from the nearest theater showing the picture.
That title isn't the only thing not quite right about the project. This is an M-G-M picture directed by John Ford during a period when Fox let him work for other studios -- Air Mail for Universal, Arrowsmith for Samuel Goldwyn, etc. It is, in fact a "John Ford Production," but Ford refused to take credit for directing. That is, he repudiated a picture that still bears his name. But I can't blame him. Flesh is one of those rare occasions -- the silent Four Sons is another -- when he indulges a certain Germania-mania. His is a vaudeville Germany where the natives sometimes speak their local lingo and sometimes speak English -- to each other. Ford never figured out a neat Judgment at Nuremberg type trick to transition us from German to English. They just start out auf Deutsch, vacillate a while, then stick to comic-strip dialect. In this milieu flourishes the great Polokai (Beery), king of the beer-hall wrestlers like Hitler was king of the beer-hall orators. But Polokai is more than a wrestler -- he's a wrestling waiter. He'll bring the beer barrel to your table to fill your mug. But he is mighty without being a brute -- he's shy, unworldly and simple -- Ford seems to suggest that the last is a national trait. In short, he's a sap. Or as one of the ads says of Beery, "The Champ becomes the Chump!"
Polokai proves easily manipulated by a pregnant expatriate American ex-con (Karen Moley) who's been ditched by her boyfriend/baby-daddy and needs money to get back home. When the boyfriend (Ricardo Cortez) finally appears, he pretends to be the woman's brother because he sees an angle to exploit Polokai, who has become the German wrestling champion, and sees a better chance for himself if Polokai keeps his romantic hopes up. Polokai's own plan has been to follow his emigrating employers to America, where they intend to open a biergarten in spite of Prohibtion. Now the Cortez character (a smooth-talking sleazebag, as usual) figures to promote Polokai in the big-time world of American professional wrestling. He explains the title by declaring his intention to make millions pushing "a hunk of flesh." Ford and his writers (reportedly including William Faulkner -- do the Coens really want us to believe they never heard of this?) don't have the surest grip on what wrestling was about at this point. They seem to understand that wrestling was what wrestlers call a work, but they seem to see this as the moral equivalent of fixed fights in boxing. That is, when Cortez suggests that it's sometimes the smart thing to lose instead of win, he seems to mean that Polokai should take a dive at some moment of his choosing, as a corrupt boxer might. Of course, German wrestling is totally real -- a shoot, as they say, so Polokai's honor is offended by the suggestion that he lose on purpose. His career is stalled a little by rigged decisions after time-limit matches, but he finally gets a title shot. As his career approaches its peak, his life falls apart as he discovers the truth about the sleazy Cortez and the repentant Morley and kills Cortez with his bare hands for hitting Morley. He proceeds to the arena and wins two of three falls before turning himself over to the police. There remains a tearjerker moment during visiting hours when Morley finally admits her love, for all the good it'll do Polokai in stir.
There's little Fordian about this picture, though the director does manage to hustle Ward Bond on screen for a minute or so as a wrestler. The ethnic aspect enables Ford's worst impulses, and the comedy in general is stupid. Typical is the German championship bout, where Polokai seems to be losing until he hears that the Morley character has given birth, at which point, after having chatted inanely with his corner men while suffering in a leglock, he promptly squashes his foe so he can get to the hospital. The one time I laughed out loud was when Polokai was learning English out of a phrase book, reading aloud, "That is a warm donut. Step on it." A glimmer of redeeming absurdity in a leaden melodrama. This is the part where I usually say that some film in the Pre-Code Parade is of interest as a historical document, at the very least, but Flesh is less than even that. It's probably one of the most forgettable items in both Ford and Beery's filmographies, and as such it does teach a historical lesson or two. First, not every great director flourished under Pre-Code conditions; 1929-34 was not a peak period for John Ford. Second, and corollary: Pre-Code didn't prevent anyone from making crap -- here's proof.