A strange but nevertheless peppy little pre-Code pip, 1932's WINNER TAKE ALL (now on DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection), features a (what else?) feisty Jimmy Cagney as a prizefighter whose biggest problem is the white heat from his torrid zone.
Uncouth, uncompromising dese-dems-an'-does poster boy Knockout Jimmy Kaye never fails to cave from sucker punches delivered by dames (his most memorable fight was with a blonde from Joisey); close associates dub him the “women's home companion.”
It's decided that Jimmy best take a breather, and he's shipped pronto to a New Mexican health resort (as wise sage/pal Clarence Muse suggests, “Try going to bed at night.”). But if anyone can sniff out the broads, it's Knockout – and soon he's transfixed and transformed by Peggy (the beauteous Marian Nixon). Peggy ain't yer normal twist – she's got brains. A single parent, she's also got a small son (the era's ubiquitous Dickie Moore) – the reason for her sojourn at the western spa. The sprout is ailing, and she's running out of funds. Ya get where this is going? Yup, WINNER TAKE ALL is paving the way for 1933’s The Life of Jimmy Dolan (and its ’39 sanitized remake, They Made Me a Criminal). Soon an ecstatic Jimmy is taking bouts anonymously to guarantee his new paramour's offspring an extended stay at the joint. Telephoning his entourage back in Manhattan, Jimmy eloquently shouts the praise of his true-love-at-last match (“nothing like those tramps I was mixed up with in New York”). A return to the big-time to make enough scratch to settle down is all he wants...Can Guy Kibbee fix it (Guy Kibbee can usually fix anything)? So off Jimmy goes to make good – and, as often is the case, it doesn't take long before the endless array of twists turn both his heads. Primary in this department is cock tease supreme Joan Gibson (Virginia Bruce), a society babe who's attracted to the pug ‘cause she likes it rough (he's “fascinating,” she swoons, adding that's it's wholly in a savage way). Intentionally pimped to Knockout by her lounge lizard buddy Roger (John Roche), Bruce plays the contender for a giggle. And it's here that things get way out of hand.
Jimmy, now ashamed of his lack of etiquette and his ravaged pan (“ya don't get a kisser like this playing pinochle.”), opts for a pre-Botox makeover. Having totally forgotten Peggy, Jimmy goes the Pug-malion route and secures the services of plastic surgeon Alan Mowbray, who likewise throws in some elocution lessons (an hilarious outfitting by a pair of gay tailors is a hoot: “You want tails with that?” nervously asks a sweating tape-measuring-wielding proprietor as he feels Cagney up).
A souped-up Knockout surprises Gibson with his new look, much to her dismay. See, she gets off on doin' it with monsters, but now her disappointing delivery of “You're almost handsome” verbalizes a telltale sign of things to come. In a pre-Code moment to cherish, Knockout offers his cunnilingus specialty. Since Joan can get it anywhere with “normal” guys, she secretly calls her girlfriend to come to the rescue.
Peggy meantime is wondering what happened to her fiancé – and heads for New York, setting up a memorable confrontational and volatile final act.
WINNER TAKE ALL, directed by Roy Del Ruth, isn't all fun and games like your standard pre-Code Cagney triumphs (Blonde Crazy, Jimmy the Gent, Lady Killer). There's some surprisingly potent stuff regarding society's emphasis upon physical appearance, psychological rejection and the shameless and hurtful cavalier treatment of others. Heady territory to be sure, and much credit for this unusual drama must be given to screenwriters Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner (who adapted their script from Gerald Beaumont's story). And it's all unraveled in 66 minutes!
Of course, social commentary in a Warners pre-Code pic never ultimately gets in the way of the fun, and WINNER TAKE ALL has plenty of that. Cagney, as always, is terrific – and, yeah, that's really him sparring like a pro in the excellently staged boxing sequences (later used in the actor's final appearance, 1981's TV-movie Terrible Joe Moran).
As with so many pre-Code movies, it's the women who are quite extraordinary. Bruce, the last word in calculating skank (I guess Claire Dodd was busy) is nothing less than a personification of “cruel and inhuman punishment.” It's Nixon, however, who is most remarkable – essaying the kind of role ONLY possible in pre-Code.
When she tells Cagney that she had met him once before, one immediately surmises that it was when she was tip-toeing out of a nearby convent. Not so. With lip-smacking excitement she tells of a years-earlier encounter at a speakeasy, where, vying for Knockout's attention, she engaged in a free-for-all catfight with a platinum-folicled babe. A flashback showcases the event, heightened by Cagney's referee participation, joyfully spurting seltzer onto their breasts for encouragement.
The Warner Archive DVD-R (from 35mm elements) is in nice shape (albeit not as nice as Bruce's), accurately displaying the fine black-and-white cinematography by Robert Kuhle to good advantage. The fast wise-cracking exchanges (and music background by the ever-reliable Leo F. Forbstein) does the same for the crisp audio.
Say, ya plannin' on takin' a dive or what? Never mind. Don’t gimme none of your lip! Get movin' and start spinnin' dat platter!
WINNER TAKE ALL. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]. Mono audio. UPC# 883316979464. CODE # 12937257. SRP: $21.99.