Mill Creek Musings is a series in which I’m attempting to review ALL of the films featured in the Mill Creek sets that are a part of my DVD collection. For more posts in this series, check out the Listography page!

Joe Palooka (Stuart Erwin) is the son of a boxing champion, which seems like it might make for an exciting life, except for the fact that Joe’s father abandoned his family as soon as he got a hint of fame. Desperate to protect her son from the alcohol-drenched, womanizing lifestyle of his father, Mayme (Marjorie Rambeau) raises Joe on a farm.

Joe’s got his father’s fists, though, and that means trouble when he has an encounter with boxing manager Knobby Walsh (Jimmy Durante). He convinces Joe to begin fighting, and following in his father’s footsteps, Joe beats the champ and starts a whole new life in the big, bloody city. Will success spoil Joe Palooka?

Durante, Velez, : A feuding trio (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Durante, Velez, and Erwin: A feuding trio (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Palooka was directed by Benjamin Stoloff and based on Ham Fisher’s popular comic strip. It appears in the 50 Classic Musicals set from Mill Creek. The print quality is quite good for Mill Creek – not a lot of wear and tear on the picture, and the audio is very clear.

Though appearing in Mill Creek’s “musical” set, Palooka is not a film heavy on the song-and-dance numbers. Lupe Velez gets to sing a tune or two, portraying a club singer who befriends Joe when he moves to the city and starts his boxing career. Durante brings his delightfully raspy style to the soundtrack for a few minutes. But the songs are few and far between, with more emphasis put on Joe’s new adventures, his team-up with Knobby Walsh, and his mother’s fears.

Speaking of ol’ Knobby, aside from Jimmy Durante, this film actually has a very interesting cast full of names I’m familiar with. Not unheard of in films that have fallen into the public domain, but always a pleasant surprise. The cast, in addition to the above-credited players, includes William Cagney (brother and near-lookalike of James!), Louise Beavers, and Mary Carlisle. There’s even an appearance by Thelma Tood, which made me very happy since I’ve been hoping to discover more of her films after reading The Ice Cream Blonde.

Thelma Todd makes a brief but well-performed appearance as the party gal who wins the elder Palooka's heart, swaying him away from his family. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Thelma Todd makes a brief but well-performed appearance as the party gal who wins the elder Palooka’s heart, swaying him away from his family. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

This wonderful ensemble of performers delivers a number of very good performances. Marjorie Rambeau is great as Mayme, bringing some heart to the film as a mother who cares greatly about her son, wishing for nothing more than a bright, successful future for him – in a career other than boxing. Jimmy Durante is also wonderful to watch, very high-energy and easy to buy as a slightly-shady (but also, at times, hilarious) man tied up in the world of sports entertainment. He brings many of the film’s laughs. (“Myyyy nemesis!,” he huskily spits out when he hears Al McSwatt – Cagney’s character – is at the door. A few minutes later, spotting some “miracle reducing cream” on the counter, he plasters it on his nose in a moment of self-deprecating comedy. By the end of the film, he’s dressed as a baby!)

Palooka isn’t a total laugh riot but has many amusing moments and a few laugh-out-louds, as well as a handful of more tense scenes. It’s a pretty good watch, especially for fans of Durante or those who’d like to see William Cagney steal a little bit of his brother’s tough-guy magic. The score: 3.5/5