Not Quite Classics: They Never Come Back (1932)

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.

A wonderfully sinister title like They Never Come Back suggests something dark, maybe a crime-filled noir or undead zombie thriller. From 1932, They Never Come Back turns out to be a fairly light-hearted boxing picture with rom-com flourishes.

The plot in a nutshell: Boxer Jimmy Nolan injures his left arm during a fight. It does not heal properly and Jimmy is forced to quit boxing. Taking a job as a bouncer for an upscale nightclub, he meets the beautiful Adele, a dancer, and the two fall in love. However, club owner Filmore has designs on Adele, and jealous of Jimmy frames him for some missing cash. Jimmy spends six months in prison, where Adele visiting him often.

Upon his release, Jimmy needs to make some quick money and he’s heard they’re “fighting a bunch of hams Friday night over on the East Side,” with prize money for anyone who can go five rounds with the wonderfully-named “Sailor King.” Jimmy enters for the payday, with no expectation of winning. Once in the ring, his injured left arm miraculously begins to work again and Jimmy KOs Sailor King, allowing him to square things with the nightclub owner and propose to Adele.

Those are the bare bones, but the story is fleshed out by a pretty entertaining supporting cast. Jimmy has a sister, and Adele has a brother; those two meet and fall in love while Jimmy serves his six months. There is also a female manager of the nightclub, Kate, whose genuine levity serves to balance out cold-blooded nightclub owner Filmore.

Some of the movie’s best moments are often between women. In the opening of the picture, for instance, Kate and Adele sit ringside for Jimmy’s fight. Adele is cheerfully snide and full of snark, playfully booing whenever the crowd cheers. Her sarcasm and back-channel commentary feel surprisingly modern.

They Never Come Back really shines in its striking mix of the exotic: a gratuitous scene of two gnarled wrestlers plays out in the athletic training hall, while on the opposite end of the spectrum, two nightclub dance numbers feature a row of pretty girls. That pulpy combination of glamour and grotesque is an aesthetic that still draws crowds to modern-day fights nights.

One thing the movie doesn’t do is moralize. The story could be interpreted in multiple ways. On the one hand, boxing could be seen as the corrupting influence on Jimmy – his injury is sustained in the ring, which pushes him into the nightclub, which pushes him into a jail cell. On the other hand, boxing could be a noble pursuit, a bastion against the ills of the world outside the ring – it’s only when he quits boxing that his troubles begin to pile up, and success in the ring is what eventually corrects his situation. By raising moral questions without drawing lines in the sand, They Never Come Back feels more authentic than the so-called “preachment yarns” that proselytize too earnestly.

While featuring only two fights, those sequences are noteworthy in that they both convey narrative. Rather than being merely stand-alone action sequences, each fight has a story that carries emotional freight and alters Jimmy’s trajectory, leaving lasting impact outside the ring. Also noteworthy, heavyweight champion and one-time“Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries appears as referee for the opening fight, though boxing-heads may question his performance as third man in the ring (fighters drop to the canvas several times, but Jeffries does not initiate a count).

A fairly entertaining watch, They Never Come Back runs fast at only 62 minutes, and is buoyed by the surprising lightness of its Depression-era comedy.

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

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