Not Quite Classics: The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933)

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.

There’s an old aphorism that says a camel is just a horse designed by committee. The Prizefighter and the Lady from 1933 is, I think, one of those camels.

The Prizefighter and the Lady relies on the central trio: the boxer Steve Morgan (Max Baer), the love interest Belle (Myrna Loy) and the manager known as the “Professor” (Walter Huston). The plot is simple: the Professor discovers Morgan and trains him to box. Morgan discovers Belle and they fall in love. Morgan’s rise through the ranks provides his moral test in the form of amorous attention from other women. He fails that test, repeatedly, alienating Belle and the Professor (“You hit me pretty low, Morgan,” she tells him while packing her suitcase). When the big fight comes, Morgan blows it, but in doing so is humbled and therefore able to win back the friendship of the Professor and the love of Belle.

That basic structure – rise, test, failure, redemption – is a familiar storyline that forms the core of a lot of sports movies. But The Prizefighter and the Lady tries so hard to please everyone that any chance for emotional truthtelling is outstripped by a seemingly endless string of gimmicks.

The main gimmick: real boxers. Max Baer! Primo Carnera! Jack Dempsey! Baer plays the lead, while Carnera and Dempsey are relegated to the last big fight, playing the opponent and the referee respectively.

Another gimmick: not one, but three musical numbers. Belle sings in the nightclub twice (clearly dubbed, and poorly), while Morgan appears in a fully-staged vaudeville number. It is interesting to see Max Baer sing and dance (imagine a current heavyweight pulling that off!), but the song goes on and on for an exhausting six minutes.

Another scene that overstays its welcome: before the big fight between Morgan and Carnera, we endure eight uninterrupted minutes with possibly the most grating ring announcer ever recorded: the complete walkouts, rules, and celebrity introductions (including cameos by former Dempsey opponent Jess Willard and pioneering wrestler Strangler Lewis).

This kitchen-sink approach makes an otherwise serviceable story feel overlong and at times tedious.

There are some highlight moments, of course. Boxing sequences (three fights in all) are well-lit and thoughtfully constructed. Time and attention went into them and it pays off with lively fights full of realistic-enough action. Plus, the presence of big-name boxers is a treat for fans of boxing history.

Dempsey winks to the camera as he makes a joke about fighters needing to remember to move into neutral corners after a knockdown, the rule that he himself forgot and led to the infamous “long count” against Gene Tunney a few years prior. And Baer breaks character to crack a smile after his first-round against Carnera, indicating they were enjoying filming together. Baer and Carnera would face each other for real a year later in 1934. (In the movie, the fight goes the distance and Carnera gets the decision; in real life, Baer would TKO Carnera in the 11th).

If you only know Max Baer as the inaccurately-portrayed villain in Cinderella Man, it may be worth seeing his lighter side in The Prizefighter and the Lady. Unfortunately, though, its many charms are eclipsed by its pandering use of bells and whistles. Feeling long at 97 minutes, The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) ends up more plodding camel than galloping stallion.

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Read more ‘Not Quite Classic’ reviews:
Iron Man 1931

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