Winner Take All (1932)

Jimmy Kane (James Cagney) is a boxer whose career is on the rise when he’s sent from New York City to a New Mexico health ranch. While in New Mexico, Jim’s also supposed to stay away from boxing, or else face the wrath of his manager, Pop Salvin (Guy Kibbee). He’s supposed to recuperate from spending too much time drinking, smoking and cavorting with the ladies.

(Image via moviepostershop.com)
(Image via moviepostershop.com)

Ironically, it’s two ladies who indirectly help him reform.

There’s Peggy Harmon (Marian Nixon), whose son Dickie (Dickie Moore) is receiving treatment at the same ranch as Jimmy. The two quickly take a liking to each other, and when Peggy reveals that her insurance won’t pay for Dickie to stay at the ranch any longer, Jimmy goes to Tijuana for a fight and pays the bill for her.

In New York, there’s Joan Gibson (Virginia Bruce), a socialite with whom Jimmy falls in love after returning from the ranch… and returning to his old partying ways.

Roy Del Ruth directs 1932’s Winner Take All. The film was scripted by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner from a story by Gerald Beaumont.

Cagney, Cagney, Cagney. I was so delighted when TCM celebrated his birthday with a marathon of films back in July. I taped a couple to re-watch and a few that would be new-to-me. Winner Take All was one of the new-to-me picks.

Good ol’ Jimmy is wonderful as usual here. I could (and would) watch him in anything. He’s a captivating performer, even while sporting a fake broken nose and cauliflower ear, which he does for about half of this film.

Thank goodness for the choice of leading man, because otherwise, this film unfortunately doesn’t have much to offer.

Cagney’s leading ladies aren’t bad performers by any means, but their other them works as well with him as, say, Joan Blondell. The chemistry just isn’t there in any corner of the love triangle.

Perhaps this has something to do with the way the characters are written. Joan is clearly bad for Jimmy, and while Peggy is a total sweetheart who truly cares about him, she seems to feel much more strongly about Jimmy than he does about her.

(Image via Doctor Macro's High Quality Movie Scans)
(Image via Doctor Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans)

[SPOILER ALERT] Even in the film’s end, when he proposes to Peggy, it seems like he’s “settling” for her. He only proposes to her after realizing that Joan has been deceptive to him. Had the truth about Joan not been revealed to Jimmy, he probably would have remained stuck to her like glue. [END SPOILER]

Boxing films rank down toward automobile racing in the list of sports film subgenres I don’t really enjoy. There are a few exceptions, like the stellar Golden Boy starring William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck. Luckily, this film isn’t overloaded with boxing scenes — there are just a few.

But the film is so short (66 minutes) and the story so lackluster that Winner Take All doesn’t really work as a sports film or as a romantic dramedy. Surprisingly, I found Cagney’s scenes with Kibbee (playing his manager) to be the film’s best, so despite my aversion to the genre, I would have rather seen the focus put on boxing here.

Unless you’re a big James Cagney fan and want to complete his whole filmography, you’d be a “winner” if you skipped this one. A rare dud from one of my very favorite classic actors. The score: 1.5/5 – Bonus points for Cagney’s giggle as he runs out of the ship near the end of the film

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