The Prizefighter and the Lady mixes a couple genres–the philandering husband whose wife can’t stop loving him standard and, additionally, stunt casting. Heavyweight contender Max Baer stars as a heavyweight contender, who fights the champ, played by champ Primo Carnera. Myrna Loy plays the suffering wife, while Walter Huston and Otto Kruger finish the supporting cast. There are boxing and wrestling cameos–the biggest being Jack Dempsey.
The film culminates with the fight between Baer and Carnera. Loy’s supposed to be cheering for Baer’s defeat, while Huston–Baer’s boxer is an almost unparalleled narcissist–I can’t remember a feature with a more despicable protagonist who the viewer is supposed to adore and admire–is quietly cheering his fighter on. Kruger sort of stands around, looking doe-eyed, as former love Loy can’t resist the manliness of Baer.
What’s strangest about the scene is the film’s relationship with the viewer–it certainly appears the audience is supposed to be cheering Baer win, after spending forty minutes of him acting like a complete jerk and however much time before with him acting like a moderate jerk. The film opens strong because of Huston, whose performance as a broken down, drunken boxing manager who gets another shot, is utterly fantastic. Every line Huston delivers is perfect. He’s marvelous.
The big fight isn’t even directed with an emphasis on the exhibition. Instead, the film cuts between fight shots and reactions in the crowd and among the main cast. The sequence has great sound, with the background rumble overpowering everything else. Van Dyke has some excellent shots here, but the emotional impact is obviously more important.
Except it’s not, because Baer’s a jerk. The conclusion’s even ambiguous as to the future of his philandering. Whatever lesson Baer’s supposed to have learned through the running time, whatever change he’s going to make to his life, whatever development… the film’s indifferent. He’s a hero because he’s a real-life boxer; he’s not accountable for his actions.
Van Dyke’s got some great shots and some fine moments throughout the picture. Kruger’s gangster with a heart of gold is okay–he and Loy have some good scenes together. She’s fine, if completely unbelievable in the role as it gets towards the end. Like I said before, Huston’s superb. There’s some nice work from Vince Barnett and Robert McWade. Carnera shows more charisma in his practically wordless performance than Baer does as the protagonist.
There’s a lot of filler–musical numbers, mostly, trying to obscure the lack of story. Baer isn’t terrible–he can’t emote, of course–which might have been from Howard Hawks working with him… or not (Hawks was going to direct before MGM signed Baer, then may or may not have stuck around to work with him while Van Dyke finished up a different picture). He can’t make the character likable, which makes the whole premise fail. But he could be worse….
A lot like the film itself. It could be worse–and I had to keep reminding myself of that one.
Produced and directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by John Lee Mahin and John Meehan, based on a story by Frances Marion; director of photography, Lester White; edited by Robert Kern; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Myrna Loy (Belle), Max Baer (Morgan), Primo Carnera (Carnera), Jack Dempsey (Dempsey), Walter Huston (The Professor), Otto Kruger (Willie Ryan), Vince Barnett (Bugsie) and Robert McWade (Sonny).