A Look at Boxing Movies, Part One: The Comedies

Herewith, a long-planned post on boxing comedies, having previously done ones on football, baseball, and golf. BTW,FWIW, the football one is among my top ten posts of all time (out of over 6000), whereas scarcely anyone has looked at the baseball or golf ones. This may be less a reflection of the relative popularity of the sports than that there are way more football comedies. At any rate, boxing is an especially rich arena for comedy material. (Dramatic material, as well; we are planning a second post on that; both ultimately derived from this earlier blogpost and my peice for the New York TImes).

The Knockout (1914)

Directed by Mack Sennett, The Knockout is one of the premiere boxing comedies. Today it is usually marketed as a Chaplin film, although it really stars Fatty Arbuckle. Chaplin has a small (but funny) turn as a referee. Fatty is drawn into the boxing world by a bunch of street toughs led by Al St. John who try to humiliate him in front of his girl (Minta Durfee). They haven’t counted on the fact that bricks bounce off of Fatty’s bean, or that he can lift 500 lb weights. He dispatches the punks in short order at the neighborhood gym. (Minta dons male drag so she can enter the gym to watch). Then gangster Mack Swain books Fatty to fight the champ (Edgar Kennedy, who’d actually been a boxer in real life) leading to our main comic set piece. The bout spurs Fatty into a violent rampage. The Keystone Kops are called, leading to a rooftop chase and a fall through a skylight onto a fancy party in the loft below. The Kops throw a rope around Fatty as though he were an elephant they were trying to bring down. He drags them all down to the pier and chucks them in the drink.

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The Champion (1915)

One of Chaplin‘s early Essanay comedies, The Champion is a nice snapshot of the comedian in transition, It looks back at the The Knockout, and it looks ahead to A Dog’s Life (in which he would also have a pooch companion) and City Lights, in which he would work the comedy boxing business yet again. In The Champion, he plays a down and out tramp who sees a sign advertising for sparring partners. He takes the job, being careful to load his glove with a horseshoe first, ensuring impressive success where every man in line ahead of him had gotten knocked out. By the play’s climax he is fighting the local Champion, played by Bud Jamison. The funny sequence that results is essentially the template for every comedy boxing match you’ve seen since. Arbuckle had done it before in The Knockout, but not with so many gags as Chaplin. Arbuckle’s character hadn’t been a coward and a weakling, and that’s the real gag engine. The recipe for comedy is the “David and Goliath” scenario. The business is all Chaplin’s, and would be re-used and adapted by every comedian who entered a boxing ring thereafter. The love interest is Edna Purviance, the trainer’s daughter, who goes around in male drag so she can get close to the action.

At the Ringside (1921)

This Hal Roach comedy, directed by Charles Parrott a.k.a. Charley Chase is essentially a mash-up of two Chaplin comedies: Easy Street and The Champion (above). Snub Pollard plays a cop trying to keep the peace in a slum neighborhood lorded over by bully Noah Young, both if whom seek the attention of Marie Mosquini. As the title indicates, it all comes to a head in a comic boxing matrch between the two.

Horseshoes (1923)

Larry Semon takes on one Dynamite Duffy (Oliver Hardy) in the ring for a $50 purse with the aid of the titule horseshoes, which are of course secreted in his boxing gloves. Like many of these early silent comedy shorts it’s available to watch on youtube.

The Fighting Blood series (1923)

George O’Hara, yet another Sennett alum, starred in the Fighting Blood series for FBO. O’Hara was an amateur boxer himself, and these pictures (among his most popular) mixed drama and adventured with comic talents of directors like Mal St. Clair and Pathe Lehrman, and supporting players like Al Cooke and Kit Guard.

The Champeen (1923)

The first of several boxing comedies in Hal Roach’s Our Gang series. In this one, the kids have been caught stealing apples so Sunshine Sammy becomes a boxing promoter to pay off their debt to the grocer. Jackie Condon and Mickey Daniels battle it out in the ring to help raise dough (and to win the affections of Mary Kornman).

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Battling Butler (1926)

Buster Keaton‘s most recent feature Go West had not done so well, so his producer (and brother-in-law) Joe Schenck exercised a little authority and dictated his next couple of projects. Battling Butler was based on a hit stage play of the same name that had starred Charlie Ruggles. The film finds Keaton playing the same sort of character we find in The Saphead, Seven Chances and The Navigator, a rich, useless young man, whose father sends him camping to make a man of him. In short order he falls in love with a mountain girl (Sally O’Neil). In order to impress her and her rough, tough family with his manhood he misrepresents himself as another man who has the same name who happens to be a boxing champion. Little of Keaton’s full scope of ingenuity is in evidence in the film. It has almost nothing distinctive about it except a few small gags. Yet it was Keaton’s most financially successful feature. This ironic fact would not bode well for Keaton’s future and ongoing independence as a film-maker.

Battle of the Century (1927)

In addition to being very funny in its own right and containing the world’s most epic pie fight, this Laurel and Hardy is famous for having in the cast a young extra named Lou Costello, who plays one of the people in the audience at a boxing match. At the start of the picture Laurel is boxing in a bout, with Hardy as his manager and trainer. Somehow Laurel manages to knock his opponent down, but then foolishly squanders the victory by not going to his corner for the count, even going so far as to wrestle with the referee about it. In the meantime, the opponent has more than sufficient time to recover. He K.O.s Laurel. When Laurel wakes up, the crowd is long gone. At this stage, the picture leaves the boxing milieu; read about the rest of it here.

Three’s a Crowd (1927)

Harry Langdon’s Three’s a Crowd features a dream sequence with a boxing match between Harry and his rival. For more on the underrated silent comedy feature go here.

Walting Around (1929)

In this Fox comedy short, Clark and McCullough are a pair of tramps who find themsel;ves in the boxing world, with McCullough as the “meal ticket” and Clark as the manager. At this writing it’s available to watch on Youtube, a delightful rarity. Almost none of the pair’s Fox’s films survive. McCullough has a much bigger part than in their better known RKO pictures, in which for some weird reason, he has almost no lines or business. Also featuring Florence Lake.

Boxing Gloves (1929)

A part-talkie remake of Our Gang’s The Champeen, this time starring overweight contenders Chubby Chaney and Joe Cobb, now vying for the esteem of Jean Darling. It was the first Our Gang short to feature Jackie Cooper.

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Hold Everything (1930)

This film was based on a hit Broadway smash starring Bert Lahr – -and Lahr was understandably upset for the rest of his life that the film role went to Joe E. Brown (and that his own movie career pretty much went nowhere, Cowardly Lion notwithstanding. Lahr believed if he’d gotten to star in the film version of this vehicle, things might have gone differently). At any rate, Hold Everything, as you can tell from the poster was a boxing comedy. The usual drill — a lummox is mistaken for a star prizefighter and has to make good. Winnie Lightner co-starred, along with Sally O’Neil. As far as is known, the film is lost; only the Vitaphone disks survive today.

City Lights (1931)

Many consider City Lights to be Chaplin’s masterpiece, though there are several other candidates for that distinction. It is not a boxing comedy per se, but it does feature one climactic scene where Chaplin fights to gain to win a purse to help his lady friend, the blind flower seller. It is, to my mind, the funniest of all comedy matches and a real testament to Chaplin’s inexhaustible comedy well that it’s not a simple retread of The Champion, it’s full of original business. Fellow Keystone alum Hank Mann is his opponent in the scene. More on this classic here.

Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) (Honorable mention)

Two Marx Brothers films have brief boxing allusions, as opposed to whole boxing scenes or a boxing scenario, hence just honorable mention. Groucho announces Zeppo’s climactic fistfight with a kidnapper at the end of Monkey Business as though it were a boxing match besing presented on radio. And in Horse Feathers, in Harpo and Chico’s “get toff” scene with Mullen and MacHardie, part of is stage like a boxing match (Harpo retreats to corner with Chico as manager). These little moments certainly give flavor of what a Marx Brothers boxing comedy might have been like.

Any Old Port (1932)

In this beloved classic Laurel and Hardy talkie short, Stan must box against his terrifying landlord Mugsy (Walter Long) who has serious grudges against him. Fortunately, though he doesn’t know it, he has an edge. More on the film here.

Hooks and Jabs (1933)

In this Educational short, Harry Langdon plays a street person who’s compelled to work at Vernon Dent’s saloon in order to pay off the sandwich he ate. In the back room, there is a boxing gym, and we just know that before the thing is over, Harry will wind up in the ring with gloves on.

Belle of the Nineties (1934)

In Mae West’s third starring vehicle, she plays the gal of a boxer (Roger Pryor) whose manager (Johnny Mack Brown) frames her so she’ll stop being a distraction to his fighter. Mae flees to New Orleans, but the Tiger Kid winds up there anyway, the pair of them getting entangled separatetly with local gangsters and coming together at the end. Originally called Ain’t No Sin and directed by comedy auteur Leo McCarey, this one was heavily butchered by censors, and was Mae’s first box office disappointment, More on it here.

Punch Drunks (1934) et al

I am lumping all the the 3 Stooges boxing comedies together to avoid repetition! The early classic Punch Drunks is the one in which waiter Curly is hired by fight manager Moe as a boxer, because he goes into a violent frenzy whenever he hears the song “Pop Goes the Weasel” (played by Larry on violin). In 1937 they made the similar Grips, Grunts and Groans, in which the sport is wrestling, and the trigger for Curly is the smell of a certain perfume. In Fright NIght (1947), the Stooges (now with Shemp) manage a boxer (Dick Wessel) whom gangsters have instructed to throw a fight. The third act takes place in a haunted house; ultimately it is more of a spook comedy. Fling in the Ring (1955) is a remake of Fright Night.

Joe Palooka (1934)

The first screen version of Ham Fisher’s popular comic strip, directed by Benjamin Stoloff, with Stuart Erwin as the titular boxer, Jimmy Durante as Knobby, and Marjorie Rambeau as his mother. Note how Durante, in a supporting part, gets all the billing! It was even renamed The Great Schnozzle for its UK release. The cast also has Lupe Velez, Mary Carlisle, Robert Armstrong, Thelma Todd, Tom Dugan, Louise Beavers, Fred Toones, William Cagney (James Cagney’s younger brother), and Gus Arnheim as himself, with his Orchestra. The movie contains many songs, including Durante’s famous “Inka Dinka Doo”.

The Nitwits (1935)

Wheeler and Woolsey briefly put on the gloves in The Nitwits, although this 1935 comedy is more of a mystery caper involving murder and a truth machine. That’s Betty Grable coming between the boys.

The Milky Way (1936)

Ten years after Keaton, twenty years after Chaplin, Harold Lloyd finally gets his boxing comedy. The Milky Way was Lloyd’s last independent feature, and a very respectable one (i.e., funny!) at that. He plays a bungling milk man who is misunderstood by the press to have KO’d the world champion middleweight. What he is good at, however, is ducking, and that’s enough to secure him victories, and get the girl. Directed by the great Leo McCarey, this underrated classic features Adolph Menjou, Lionel Stander, Charles Lane et al, and featuring the first onscreen appearance of Anthony Quinn. It was later remade in 1946 starring Danny Kaye as The Kid from Brooklyn (see below).

Kelly the Second (1936)

A rare starring vehicle for the adorable Patsy Kelly, in which she undertakes to make a boxer out of a lummox played by Big Boy Williams. It features many of the Hal Roach stock company, including Charley Chase (as Kelly’s boss at the drug store), along with other recognizable folks such as Pert Kelton, Edward Brophy and real life boxer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom.

Vitaphone’s Joe Palooka series

Nine Vitaphone Joe Palooka shorts were released from 1936 through 1937 with Robert Norton as Joe, and Shemp Howard as Knobby. Norton seems only to have done a couple of movies other than the Palooka series.

Glove Taps (1937)

Another boxing comedy starring Our Gang, now with Alfalfa (who was also in Kelly the Second) winning a bout against Buckwheat, emboldening him to take on Butch, all to win the hand of Darla.

The Kid from Kokomo (1939)

In this Warner Brothers comedy, Wayne Morris plays a dimwit musicle head whom Pat O’Brien and Joan Blondell want to make into a champion. The hitch is that he won’t leave Kokomo until he is reunited with his mother — whom he has never met. So the pair hire an old woman played by May Robson (Apple Annie in Capra’s Lady for a Day) to portray his mother. Maxie Rosenbloom and Edward Brophy of Kelly the Second are in this one too!

Pride of the Bowery (1940), et al.

Pride of the Bowery is an East Side Kids boxing comedy. It was followed by Bowery Blitzkrieg (1941), and the Bowery Boys comedy Fighting Fools (1949).

Ringside Maisie (1941)

In this installment of Ann Sothern’s Maisie series, our heroine works in a dance hall, shaking her fanny as a taxi dancer. Her manager (Rags Ragsland, with whom Sothern also appeared in Panama Hattie) hooks her up with a job. Later she is on her way to the gig and is thrown off a train for not having a ticket. She gets hooked up with a reluctant boxer (Robert Sterling) who’d rather run a grocery store, and his manager (George Murphy). First she works in a night club and then gets fired — and then gets a job pushing an old lady in a wheelchair. Virginia O’Brien (also in the Sothern vehicles Lady Be Good, Panama Hattie and Thousands Cheer) plays herself as a nightclub singer. Two years after this film, Sothern would marry co-star Robert Sterling. The pair remained hitched through 1949.

The Kid from Brooklyn (1946)

A remake of Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way (above), directed by Norman McLeod and starring Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Vera-Ellen et al. And Lionel Stander, who’d been in the original film. The Kid from Brooklyn ended up eclipsing the Lloyd original.

Monogram’s Joe Palooka series (1946-51)

Probably best known to posterity is the series of 11 Joe Palooka B movies released by Monogram Pictures between 1946 and 1951, followed by a 1954 TV show. These starred 2nd generation Australian golfer Joe Kirkwood, Jr. as Joe, Leon Errol as Knobby, Eddie Gribbon, and Richard Lane, who later became a wrestling announcer.

Hippety Hop cartoons (1948-64)

Warner Brothers’ famous boxing kangaroo character, who cheerfully walloped Sylvester the Cat, among other characters

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

The title of this film in some ways promises more than it delivers. It doesn’t for example deliver Claude Rains or even his character from the original crop of Invisible Man films. The scientist in this film is one “Dr. Gray”…the uncle of the girl of a boxer who has been falsely accused of murder. It is the boxer who takes the invisibility serum and provides the familiar spectacle, sometimes rendered as a guy in bandages and sunglasses, sometimes as floating objects. Abbott and Costello play private detectives who help the boxer clear his name. Lou gets scared a lot, and Bud says things like “Why, you’re seeing things!” and “It’s all in yer head!” In too many ways to count, the original film The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale, is much funnier than this movie.

Sailor Beware (1952)

This Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film is really a naval comedy, but there is some funny boxing business. The scene is notable for featuring Duke Mitchell, who later play the Dean Martin equivalent in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brookly Gorilla. And James Dean has a bit part in it as well!

Off Limits (1953)

Bob Hope plays a boxing manager who enlists inthe army so he can keep tabs on his fighter, Mickey Rooney, who has been drafted. This happens all the time in movies; never in real life. Directed by George Marshall, with Marilyn Maxwell as the love interest.

Matilda (1978)

Can there be a better illustration of Elliot Gould’s fall from mighty box office heights during the ’70s than the fact that he starred in this AIP comedy just a few years later? Based on a book by Paul Gallico (who also wrote the novel The Poseidon Adventure was based on) it’s literally about a manager who books a boxing kangaroo, played by a man in a costume, which is more disturbing than funny. The inevitable Lionel Stander appears in this one as well, as do Robert Mitchum, Art Metrano, Lenny Montana, and country singer Roy Clark, star of TV’s Hee Haw. You’ll note a quarter century gap since the previous boxing comedy. This is because pugilism, once a universal fact of American life, had gone out of fashion, as had slapstick comedy. Rocky started to restore its popularity as subject matter, however.

Movie Movie (1978)

More interesting than funny (but VERY interesting, come to that), Movie Movie was Stanley Donen’s entry into the then very popular genre of movie spoof, released during the period after Mel Brooks had made it hot, but before ZAZ had become the new kings of the form with Airplane! The film has a couple of sections. “Dynamite Hands” is a parody of a classic old boxing drama in the Golden Boy vein, co-written by Larry Gelbart doing Odets. It’s extremely deadpan. One thing I find extremely interesting is that the black and white look of the film anticipates Scorsese’s Raging Bull by two years. Was it an influence?

The Main Event (1979)

Ryan O’Neal (a real life boxer in his youth) is reunited with his What’s Up Doc? co-star Barbra Streisand. She plays a perfume magnate who is swindled out of her fortune, and whose few remaining assets include a management contract for retired boxer O’Neal. In order to make back her fortune she resolves to get her money’s worth out of O’Neal by making him a champion. And naturally they get romantically involved. Previously O’Neal had also been in talks to star in the remake of The Champ, which eventually starred Jon Voight.

The Great White Hype (1996)

The title is a play on The Great White Hope, of course. This one is a satire in which Samuel L. Jackson plays a fight promoter who calculates he’ll make more money by pitting a white fighter (Peter Berg) against his champ, plaeyd by Damon Wayans of In Living Color. The cast includes Jeff Goldblum, Jon Lovitz, Cheech Marin, Jamie Foxx, and several real-life boxers.

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube