Saturday, May 26, 2012


Can you imagine a time when pro football was considered nearly as disreputable as professional wrestling? Look no further than the fall of 1932 and Dudley Murphy's film for RKO, a Pre-Code bromance between college football stars Joel McCrea and William Gargan in which McCrea's decision to go pro is the wrong turn in his life. Back then if you played for pay it proved your low character, with high-profile exceptions like iconic "Galloping Ghost" Red Grange, whose experiences in the pro game may have inspired this collaboration between four screenwriters and Robert Benchley, who apparently wrote his own lines for his comedy-relief bits as a drunk or simply confused radio broadcaster.  McCrea washes out in the pros, despite the superiority implicit in his remark to Walter Catlett, a high-pressure promoter, that his eleven is "good for a pro team." He's also had his fill of the corruptions of pro sports, from Catlett's urging that he put some showmanship into his play to the inevitable invitation to throw a game. McCrea's time at Dartmouth left him unprepared for a real career, and by the time he quits football the businessmen who wanted to give the sports celebrity a job have forgotten him. Fortunately, Gargan still longs for the old partnership and hires McCrea as a columnist for the sports section he now edits. Of course a dame comes between them, the sports department staff artist (Marian Marsh), Gargan's girl turned McCrea's. But McCrea feels guilty about two-timing his pal and quits the girl and the job. There's nothing left for him but to take up Catlett's offer, formerly spurned, of a wrestling career. It probably tells you something about pro football in 1932 that a team owner is also a wrestling promoter; this film has the XFL beat by something like seventy years.

Something must have happened to put pro wrestling in the public eye, because some cities had Sport Parade and John Ford's Flesh, the legendary Wallace Beery wrestling picture, playing at the same time. Both films share a shocked horror at the thought that wrestling bouts are fixed and a hero who rebels out of pride against having to do the job in the big match. Here the assumption is that pro wrestling is fixed because people are dumb enough to bet on it. As far as Gargan is concerned McCrea has humiliated Dartmouth by becoming a wrestler with a collegiate gimmick, and a group of alumni confront McCrea and warn him not to wear the sacred D on his ring robe. But Gargan's attitude is based on his assumption that McCrea will do the job; when it becomes clear that McCrea's fighting to win all is forgiven, and when he sees Marsh's faith in McCrea he realizes that she's rightfully McCrea's girl. McCrea officially gives up 15 pounds to his antagonist but in the flesh it looks like more. He clearly yields to a stuntman for the more elaborate work but clearly takes some bumps himself. And here's something you probably didn't know, courtesy of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

Chaney was under contract to RKO at this time and had appeared with McCrea in Bird of Paradise earlier in 1932. Whether this entitles him to "uncredited technical advisor" billing, let history judge.

Dudley Murphy is best known for the avant-garde silent short Ballet Mecanique and the Paul Robeson showcase The Emperor Jones. If that partial filmography promises an eccentric feature, Murphy fulfills the promise. He proves fond of gimmicky transitions, most notably a bit where the camera dollies in to a picture of Catlett on a barroom wall, and the picture comes to life to start the next scene. Murphy really gets ambitious in the big wrestling scene, filmed either in a big arena or a convincing studio facsimile. He shoots from all angles, moves the camera freely, and really shows off with a topsy-turvy POV shot as McCrea tumbles across the mat to escape from a submission hold. He also stops the show briefly for a trip to a Cotton Club-type joint with a "savage" dance number seen from a drunkard's multiple-perspectives, almost a cross between Busby Berkeley and Marcel Duchamp. Murphy's showiness is in sync with RKO's Pre-Code tendency to cartoonishness, as is Benchley's irrelevant patter, but he also keeps the film moving at a brisker pace than many Radio Pictures from the period. It almost has the snap of a Warner Bros. picture. Among Pre-Codes in general, it seems unusual for emphasizing beefcake over cheesecake, from a football-team shower scene with naked buttocks in the background to McCrea grappling in some tight and tidy whiteys. You get your racism when a black man's head is rubbed for luck. You get your homophobia when two flaming fairies leave the wrestling arena in disgust at the antics of the brutes. And you get lots and lots of drinking, including from McCrea, a year before Repeal. It has its moments, and on the other hand it's probably less than the sum of its parts, but good or bad Sport Parade looks like an indispensable part of the Pre-Code filmography.


Movies on my Mind said...

Never even heard of this movie.

Samuel Wilson said...

Well, that's why I write these things. I'd never heard of it myself until I saw it on TCM's schedule.

Lassie said...

It's on TCM this very moment, in the background, and I just caught the 'savage dance' - would like to have seen more of that, lol. Remember Marlene Dietrich's 'jungle number' in Blonde Venus!