Jimmy Dolan (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is a champion boxer with a reputation for living clean and devoting himself to his sport. He shuns alcohol, parties, and women, instead spending all of his time in training and visiting his mother… or so the public thinks. Behind closed doors, he’s a heavy drinker and spends most of his time with baby-talking girlfriend Goldie West (Shirley Grey).
One night, Goldie invites a few friends over despite Jimmy’s protests. Budgie (Fifi D’Orsay) and Charles (George Meeker) show up at the apartment, and Jimmy soon discovers that Charles is a reporter. When Charles threatens to reveal the truth — that Jimmy is motherless and lives dirty — the two get in a fight, and Jimmy’s fists get a little too powerful.
With the reporter dead, Jimmy’s manager Doc (Lyle Talbot) decides to skip town with Jimmy’s girlfriend and leave the boxer to take the rap alone. But Jimmy gets a chance to redeem his future when Doc dies in a fiery car crash, with only Jimmy’s watch to identify him. The papers have reported Jimmy’s death, so he starts over, hopping on a train and heading west with the brand new identity of Jack Dougherty. He soon finds himself at a home for disabled children run by a beautiful woman named Peggy (Loretta Young) and her aunt (Aline MacMahon).
The Life of Jimmy Dolan was directed by Archie Mayo. The script was written by Erwin Gelsey and David Boehm.
The first act of The Life of Jimmy Dolan is full of tension, and some of that carries throughout the rest of the film as well, though the mood is lighter in the middle. Jimmy strikes up a romance with Peggy and wins over the children at the home. Jimmy and Peggy make a cute pair, and Loretta Young does a great job with her lovestruck character. Peggy’s aunt is less receptive to Jimmy’s charms when he arrives. She thinks he’s lazy and lets him know it, but eventually she comes to like him.
The “second life”/”double life” premise is a fascinating one and it’s executed very well here, especially with a detective (Guy Kibbee) on Jimmy’s tail. He’s detective with a bad reputation, known for making a major mess-up on a case and sending the wrong man to death, but a detective nonetheless.
Even when he’s happy and spending time with Peggy, there’s a certain anxiety to Jimmy as he adjusts to his new life. Fairbanks makes sure that the audience never forgets what his character is: an accidental criminal on the run. He’s likable and makes a real transformation in the film, from booze-loving liar to a caring, altruistic man.
This plants the audience firmly on his side, which makes the whole film work. The end takes a turn for the sentimental, but at that point the viewer has become so invested in Jimmy making a better life as “Jack” (and with Peggy and the kids). It comes off as very sweet and heartwarming rather than cheesy or forced.
It may start with a little flair of crime drama, but when all is said and done, The Life of Jimmy Dolan is feel-good film as lovable as its leading couple. The score: 3.5/5
Loved this improbable tale, with pre-code favorites Loretta Young (especially!), Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and Aline McMahon. And Guy Kibbee.
I haven’t seen this one, but I’ve seen the excellent remake, 1937’s “They Made Me a Criminal”, with John Garfield, Claude Rains, Ann Sheridan, and The Dead End Kids!