Not Quite Classics: Iron Man (1931)

Boxing and movies have gone hand-in-hand ever since audiences saw Bob Fitzsimmons KO Gentleman Jim Corbett with a blow to the solar plexus in 1897. High in drama and low in cost, boxing has been a staple subject for the movie industry, from Body and Soul to Requiem for a Heavyweight, from Rocky to Raging Bull. The movies I review, however, won’t be appearing on any Top 10 lists. Or any Top 50, for that matter. But what these B-movies lack in name recognition, they more than make up for with their blunt charisma, their quirks, and their unexpected cameos. These are the sometimes-forgotten pictures that shaped the genre we know today. Join me in rooting for these cinematic underdogs as we explore some of boxing’s Not Quite Classics.

Director Todd Browning is mostly remembered for two movies: Dracula (with Bela Lugosi) from 1931 and Freaks, the controversial, often-banned sideshow-themed cult classic from 1932. But between those two notable pictures, Browning found time to visit the squared circle. The result was 1931’s Iron Man starring Lew Ayres, Robert Armstrong, and Jean Harlow.

Iron Man (1931) makes use of the central trio that will be familiar to anyone who has seen more than two or three boxing movies. The trio consists of 1) the male boxer, 2) the female love interest, and 3) the male trainer/manager/friend-from-the-old-neighborhood. In this case, the boxer is “Iron Man” Kid Mason (unclear why he warranted the double moniker). The love interest is his wife Rose. The third member is the manager, George.

As in most of these stories, the boxer is tested physically in the ring by his opponents. But more importantly to the storytelling, he is also tested morally by the other two members of the central trio.

The plot is fairly simple, but has some interesting twists and turns,

Rose is a gold-digger who leaves Kid Mason when he’s losing and returns when he’s winning. (Mason remains totally and inexplicably oblivious to this side of Rose, despite it staring him in the face.) After winning the championship, Mason and Rose live the high life. This alienates manager George, who leaves Mason. Distracted and without a proper manager, Mason fails to train properly and loses his first defense. He also loses Rose. But in a final moment of humility and redemption, he regains the friendship of George.

The gold-digging Rose is a completely one-dimensional character, thoroughly unlikeable, who does not seem to grow or change at all through the picture. By contrast, the manager George changes wildly from scene to scene one. In one scene, he belittles Mason for losing; in the next, he’s inviting him to move in with him. He introduces his fighter to “sports gamblers” who offer a fixed fight, but in the next scene he’s defending Mason’s integrity.

Kid Mason does pass the morality test presented by the gamblers, but he loses big time when he’s tested by wife Rose. After winning the championship, they move into a mansion-like apartment, and the champ begins dressing like an English gentleman, complete with derby hat and cane. Confronted by the suggestion that he’s living soft and ducking opponents, Mason derides other fighters off as “gashouse pugs,” a wonderful example of period trash-talk.

There are three boxing matches in total, but the first two fights last only a minute or two each, mostly shot from a distance. There is a nice shot of the entrance to the old Madison Square Garden, as well as an unconventional shot of the ring, filmed through the overhead lighting, that looks like a surrealist painting. The final fight is the longest, and due to the paucity of the other fights, the most dramatic. We’re finally inside the ring with Kid Mason, only to watch as he is KO’d by the challenger. Knocked out, he writhes on the canvas like a worm trapped between a child’s fingers, the movie’s most memorable shot.

As an aside, I loved the opening credit sequence: the shadow of an unseen figure hits a speed bag for almost a solid minute. The noise of it – the slapping of the leather and the clanging metal bracket – is jarring. Ugly, even. It also leads me to wonder if shots like this are precursors to that boxing movie staple, the training montage.

An early example of the boxing movie, Iron Man (1931) offers some templates, such as the central trio, that remain in use to this day. But clocking in at only 73 minutes, it remains strictly boilerplate, leaving the deeper shades of human experience sadly unexplored.


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