Sunday 22 May 2011

The Big Timer (1932)

Director: Eddie Buzzell
Stars: Ben Lyon and Constance Cummings

Cooky Bradford thinks he's a fighter. He's mostly there for the genuine boxers to spar with and his real job is dishing out hamburgers behind the counter of a lunch wagon. He's personable and boastful and a little dense, but he has all the right lines. 'I'll murder him!' is his catchphrase, consistently delivered as a throwaway thing. Pop Baldwin, who runs the local gym, thinks he's a palooka, but Pop's daughter Honey thinks he's going to make it big. Of course she's head over heels in love with him, so that really doesn't count; but before we know it, Pop gets hit by a car, she takes over the place and he's the only fighter who stays in her camp. Honey may be blinded by love but she isn't stupid. She teaches him a few tricks, puts him in the ring and he does good, but that prompts them to try to break into the New York fight racket and that doesn't work out too well. After all, he has a dame for a manager.

There's a common thread running through this film about this sort of society perception, but not only as regards women. It's a precode picture, an era which was known for its preponderence of strong female lead characters and Honey Baldwin fits on the saintly side of that. She's a strong woman, one who is willing to play in a man's world, and it's plain that she's an important part of whatever success Cooky is ever going to have. His corner man, Catfish, memorably tells her that, 'he needs you like Gandhi needs his safety pin,' which is underlined when he unbelievably fails to remember his own birthday. Many scenes grow out of a disbelief that Cooky could have a dame for a manager, but the sexism isn't one sided here. At a job agency, a lady tells Honey that being a cook is no sort of job for a man. Class comes in for a few jibes too, the guests at a boxing event for charity complaining that the host lets the fighters stay to eat with them.

Really it's not a boxing movie, as much as there's some of the standard progression. Sure, Cooky lives the hard life, finally gets his break and moves on up, only to let it go to his head and cause him to start making all the wrong decisions. In fact, as much as Ben Lyon is an endearing lead, full of boyish charm and contradiction, that charm wears thin. When Thelma Todd arrives in the picture as Kay Mitchell, the society girl who hosts those charity events, pretty obviously because she has a thing about slumming with the rough and tumble guys who win, we find ourselves not caring about Cooky any more. We can root for him as an outsider, but when our sympathy goes our interest goes with it. On the other hand, the lovely Constance Cummings as Honey isn't just a strong female lead but a cute and devoted lady too. No, she's not believable as the boxing equivalent of Ida Lupino, the sole woman in a man's business, but she's decent nonetheless.

Cummings was a capable lead, though she never found herself at home in Hollywood. Samuel Goldwyn discovered her on Broadway but she had a tough time finding the right films. Though her 35 pictures ran from 1931 to 1963, over half of them were released in her first four years in the business. When she made The Big Timer she had six movies behind her, half of which saw her credited above Boris Karloff, one released after his huge break in Frankenstein. None were major pictures though and there would be no big hits to come either, at least until she moved to England and appeared in comedies like Blithe Spirit and The Battle of the Sexes. This is what makes her a discovery, a face you find while filling in gaps in the filmographies of others. Worthy pictures to seek out include Frank Capra's American Madness, the Warren William precode The Mind Reader and the highly underrated Washington Merry-Go-Round with Lee Tracy.

The problem with this film is that there isn't enough substance to her part to make her more than just the best thing abut it. In fact it misses all the many opportunities it has just as surely as if it was written by Cooky Bradford rather than Robert Riskin, who had two years to wait before making his name on and winning a well deserved Oscar for It Happened One Night. He'd already worked for Frank Capra, adapting The Miracle Woman well, but that working relationship would go on to much better things, like Lady for a Day, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe. In a strong filmography this is one of his lower points. If he had been serious about the sexist and classist hints he kept dropping, he should have made the film about Honey Baldwin not Cooky Bradford. While she's the glue both to the film's story and to Cooky's, this should have been an influential proto-feminist opportunity for her to stamp her authority over the plot and his career.

I don't know what Riskin had aimed at, but it doesn't feel like he'd aimed at anything. It's a love story, though not a particularly heartfelt one and we rarely feel that there's any real substance to it. The surprise party scene is about as tender as it gets and that just allows Cummings a shot at dignified heartbreak. It's a boxing picture but there's not much time spent in the ring; what there is fails the authenticity test, not least because it's sped up for effect. Mostly it's a simple drama of human nature, with a couple starting low, moving up in the world, falling apart and eventually finding a way to begin again. Mathematically it may be textbook, but emotionally it leaves us dry. Cummings does what she can with the material and Lyon is decent. Thelma Todd doesn't get enough to do and the best known other name, Nat Pendleton, doesn't arrive until the end in an uncredited bit part. Given they're the only reason to watch, that doesn't leave much.

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