Friday, September 6, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE PERSONALITY KID (1934)

Pat O'Brien often played a mentor figure for James Cagney in Warner Bros. pictures, but when Cagney wasn't in the picture O'Brien was often cast as a poor man's Cagney, playing similar roles with less charisma, less intensity and far less physical grace. Roles like The Personality Kid seem like Cagney cast-offs. O'Brien plays an up-and-coming boxer -- the real-life fighter King Levinsky was often called "the personality kid" in 1934 news stories -- whose savvy spouse (Glenda Farrell) acts as his business manager. O'Brien is the sort of boxer that used to be called a "dancing master" before Muhammad Ali made fancy footwork respectable. He's a showboater who taunts his opponents, knowing they can't lay a glove on him. In the first fight we see he makes the opponent look amateurish. This bum misses so wildly that he falls down almost every time he throws a punch. It looks like a Toughman competition before O'Brien finishes his man. Then director Alan Crosland does his most creative work in the film. O'Brien boxes much like Sugar Ray Leonard, throwing furious flurries of punches that impress quantitatively if not qualitatively, and Crosland films these flurries with rapid-fire editing of a speed and rhythm rarely seen in 1930s Hollywood, cutting on every punch until you're nearly as dizzy as the bum going down for the count. Watch more than one of these sequences and you may believe that O'Brien is as good as he thinks he is.

With Farrell's guidance -- and who would doubt her acumen? -- O'Brien rises up the ranks and becomes an object of high-society curiosity. Like Cagney in 1932's Winner Take All, O'Brien is taken up by a socialite (Claire Dodd) who sees him as an intriguing primitive type. She has him pose for paintings in the traditional strongman/caveman costume, and if he can't keep up with the sophisticated conversation he basks in the attention. Little does he realize that he's living a lie. He learns the truth after his latest victory when he hears his defeated opponent boast of his acting skills. Our hero refuses to believe that the other man took a dive but sees the light when the loser decks him in the dressing room. He hunts down the promoters and confronts them with his knowledge in front of a reporter. They angrily inform him that his manager/wife was in on the con, and at home she confirms it, telling hubby that it had to be this way because he doesn't really have a punch and would never get a title shot otherwise. Now that he's blabbed, of course, he definitely won't get one. Blaming wifey for that, he walks out on her, not knowing that she's carrying his child.

O'Brien is soon reduced to playing the strongman role for a patent-medicine show, but when he finally learns about Farrell's advanced predicament he tries to get back in the fight game. The most he can do is go to work for his old promoters and take a dive himself for the latest contender in order to provide for his little family. In the ring, his sense of honor and the promise of the winner's purse inspire him to double-cross the promoters. Aided by his old trainer (Clarence Muse, in a nod to the era's segregation, has to make his way all the way down from the nosebleed seats to reach ringside), O'Brien proves to the world that he has a punch after all, then proves to himself, confronting the promoters and his goons afterward, that he can take a punch as well. It's all good in the end, as the reporter who exposed him previously now lobbies for his formal reinstatement. Farrell looks forward to raising children on a little farm, but O'Brien now has new cause to believe his own hype again.

In a Cagneyesque role O'Brien only proves that he's no Cagney, but he has decent chemistry with Farrell and plays the sap well. The dependable quality of the Warners stock company and Crosland's lively direction of the fight scenes lift the picture a little above its utterly predictable plot and make it an entertaining little programmer of the sort Warners made in bunches in Pre-Code times.

Now for the trailer, boasting some original footage, from

1 comment:

Newworld Epic said...

Can you email or call please? We have a RED EPIC CAMERA and and script/book.