In 2013 the Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o got into trouble for talking about his tragic romance with a girlfriend who didn't exist. Jimmy Dolan could sympathize. Jimmy (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is a champion boxer who wins hearts by making shout-outs to his ma during post-fight interviews. It's part of his image as a clean-cut, clean-living American youth. Post-fight and post-interview, Jimmy's a different man. He gets drunk. And when he gets drunk, he lets slip that his mom's been dead for years. Then he realizes that he's let that slip in the presence of a reporter. He and his manager (Lyle Talbot) desperately try to persuade the reporter not to blab in print, but there's no way the man is letting go of that scoop. Jimmy becomes more desperate and slugs him. But whoops! The reporter dashes his brains out on a fireplace and Jimmy's a killer. Manager and girlfriend hustle a dead-drunk Jimmy away, but finally decide to ditch him and let him face his fate alone. Some friend Talbot is: he takes Jimmy's money and his fancy watch. That way, when Talbot and the girl are killed in a car crash, the police identify Talbot's charred corpse as Dolan by the watch. Well, most of them: Phalaxer, a disgraced detective (Guy Kibbee) -- a man he'd nabbed was proven innocent, but only after he fried -- visited Jimmy after that last fight and remembers him wearing his watch on the opposite arm from the corpse's. No one's listening to him, however, and Jimmy, when he tries to collect his purse from the fight, learns from a shocked promoter that he's legally dead. The promoter advises him to disappear, become a bum, keep his head down, avoid people. He'll only need a fraction of his purse for that.
So goes the first act of Archie Mayo's film, and it's a decent shock to see Talbot exit so early. It's practically a new film from there as Jimmy ends up out west as a handyman at the little farm for crippled orphans run by Auntie Moore (Aline MacMahon) and her niece Peggy (Loretta Young). They're raising some precocious orphans there, including Mickey Rooney, "Farina" Hopkins from Our Gang, and Dawn "Anne Shirley" O'Dea. But they're also very poor, and you can see where this is leading. Just as Jimmy Cagney would in Winner Take All this same year, Jimmy Dolan (under his alias of Jack Daugherty) will enter the ring again to raise money for the farm. He has to fight the local champ, "King Cobra" (a menacing Sammy Stein), who's taking on two other men, including a young and scared John Wayne, the same night. Jimmy will earn $500 for every round he lasts against the bigger man, and he thinks his style is a good match for him. But one of the orphans happened to take a picture of him on the farm, and that picture won a contest and was published in a magazine, and back in New York Detective Phalaxer saw the picture. Burning for vindication -- he fantasizes himself lording it over his humbled boss (an unbilled Edward Arnold) -- Phalaxer embarks on a Javert-like quest to prove his hunch, showing up at the fight arena to distract Jimmy from the task at hand. King Cobra has destroyed the Duke and the other prelim palooka, neither of whom did much to soften up the brute for Jimmy. Nor can Jimmy really open up on him from fear that Phalaxer will recognize his style -- and the detective is absolutely convinced that "Daugherty" is his man anyway. This is probably as close to a literal "no win" situation as you can get....
Jimmy Dolan is interesting to watch for all the familiar faces who go unnamed -- not only Arnold but Rooney, Shirley and Clarence Muse all go unbilled. Wayne is tenth-billed; he was let out of Warners' B-western ghetto occasionally, most notably in Baby Face, and makes more of an impression now, probably, for his atypical nervous turn than he did during the first run. On top, Fairbanks was near the end of his Warners contract, a period practically unknown for decades when he was best known for later swashbuckling roles. The revival of Pre-Code movies demands a reappraisal of Fairbanks, who at Warners was far from the genetically-predetermined type he would become. I'm often impressed by his range in these pictures, or else by the continuing novelty of seeing him play bums, boxers, gangsters, etc. He has one of those Noo Yawker voices that gave Warner Bros. films their era-defining snap and puts it to good use here. There's not much he can do with the climactic melodrama, but he's quite good as the dissolute dope of the first act, more convincing as a pug than the name "Douglas Fairbanks Jr." might lead you to expect. The more I see his Warners films, the more I'm convinced that Junior is a worthy member of that greatest of studio stock companies. Dolan isn't really anyone's finest hour -- Loretta Young has another largely thankless ingenue role -- but everyone's trying and for a Warners fan it's not at all unpleasant, even though longer than average, to sit through.
Here's your trailer, courtesy of TCM.com as usual.