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Sporting July: Golden Gloves (1940)

Sports have been a popular recreational activity since ancient times. They develop and show-off physical prowess as well as foster teamwork and fun. Sports have become big business and some of the major tournaments bring thousands of people together to root for their team in a world that is increasingly divided. This month we celebrate sports movies from the classic era.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Corrupt gym manager Joe Taggerty (J. Carrol Naish) sees the young men from the streets as fodder for himself to profit upon. When the boys win boxing matches, they receive a cheap watch that they can exchange for $3. The money keeps them fighting, even when they're sick or unevenly matched, and Bill Crane (Richard Denning) speaks out against these practices. He advocates for more management and restrictions and doctor evaluations to ensure the safety of the minors participating in the ring. After the younger brother of his love interest (Jean Cagney) dies as a result of a fight, Bill gives up boxing, but reporter Wally Matson (Robert Paige) creates the Golden Gloves, an above-board club attempting to draw kids away from Taggerty's operation, and he wants Bill to be the bait.

Bill attempts to explain to appeal of the violent sport, saying that the boys who grow up in the streets and get beat up on daily by their peers need a constructive outlet for their anger and a way to show off their skills in a regulated arena. I found this explanation to be valuable as someone who has a hard time watching boxing or mixed martial arts. The Golden Gloves tournament began in Chicago in 1923 and found sponsorship by the Chicago Tribune in 1927.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Titling a boxing movie Golden Gloves would’ve been a marketing slam dunk as newspapers and radio were inundated with coverage of the amateur boxing tournaments, especially in small town pre-war America. While this film never had any aspirations of rising above the bottom of a double bill or as a single on a neighborhood bargain night, the subject matter definitely seemed to be a box office knock-out (pun absolutely intended).

SG: Robert Ryan makes his movie debut as the ringer, already looking grizzled and too mature for the youthful amateur he plays.

RB: Ryan had spent time in amateur boxing before he was signed to a long term contract with Paramount, so it was a natural tie-in for this to be his first film, and who knows, that may have also explained his looks being older than the character that he plays.

SG: I had difficulty with the plausibility of some of the things in this movie. Time and time again characters are placed into precarious, dangerous situations and can't help but shoot their mouths off and wind up severely hurt or dead. Are all these young men hot heads? Cooler heads might prevail, but then maybe we wouldn't have much of a plot, and this movie definitely has a lot of action. It never stops moving.

RB: Often in these sorts of films, it seems that the young leads that we’re supposed to be endeared to, jump headfirst into conflict and danger without considering the consequences of their actions. With the conflict in Europe, and the fears of an impending conflict worrying Americans, it’s more than a little understandable why these traits may not have seemed out of place at the time. Plus, as you pointed out, it serves to move the plot along.

SG: The biggest flaw in the writing is the portrayal of the women, mainly Cagney as the love interest whose brother becomes the waste of the corrupt boxing organization. She is one dimensional and often changes her mind for no good reason other than to provide drama to the plot. Lewis Foster and Maxwell Shane, both of whom went on to direct later in their careers, relied on stock types and cliches when building their characters. It is most glaring in regard to Cagney, who they obviously thought of strictly as window dressing for their male-driven film. The Movies... And the People Who Make Them used phrases like "old stuff," "familiar pattern," and "standard heavy characterizations" to describe the film.

RB: Cagney was featured in Paramount advertising, obviously playing up the angle that she was James Cagney’s sister. I’ll agree that her performance is one dimensional here, but I’ll also counter that it’s refreshing to see her in a featured role (this was just before she started being billed as Jeanne Cagney). These days, we likely remember her best for Yankee Doodle Dandy, and while her career had multiple fits and starts and was never as notable as her more talented and famous brother, she does okay here.

SG: There is also a scene that would have likely been much more violent had the movie been made today where the baddie gets his. The confession he makes would never hold up in a court of law.

RB: Well, as expected, violence is largely muted here, as people with barely any safety gear largely shrug off the concussions and such that befall them. It’s not realistic, but as you’ve said, this movie MOVES.

The cast is really the main reason why a person would want to tune in, and the main reason why I picked this up from a dealer table at the Picture Show this year. In addition to the aforementioned Cagney, Denning and Ryan, there is J. Carrol Naish, essentially doing the same Italian dialect that he did on the radio and early TV series Life with Luigi, William Frawley, Edward Brophy, Frank Coughlin Jr. (best known today as Billy Batson from the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial) and Picture Show favorite Byron Foulger. If that’s not enough to whet the appetite of the Picture Show faithful, I don’t know what is.

SG: Vance King for Motion Picture Daily called the film, "a low-budget picture which turns out to be high-voltage in entertainment quality... Edward Dmytryk directed the offering, giving it a well-balanced sense of timing."

The fact that Dmytryk directed is interesting. Had I not noticed his name in the credits, I would not have picked this film out for displaying a trademark style, but the pacing is very good and reveals his talent before it was common Hollywood knowledge. Dmytryk went on to direct many tightly-made classic noir films, and this movie has a darkness running beneath it at all times, the formidable corruption of the racket, foreshadowing his future output.

I don't want no racketeering around this place, Potsy, you understand, huh?

Since the story is based on the formation of a real organization, it could have been plodding and dull. This movie is far from dull. It is, unfortunately, often ridiculous. Two and a half stars.

RB: Reviews were pretty lukewarm during the time. “Pretty good for its type,” mused G.S. Caporal of the Yale Theatre in Oklahoma City ,OK. “Rather good with a purpose and a good plot for those who are interested in boxing and racketeering combined,” explained George O. Wiggin, Maplewood Theatre in Malden, Mass. During a time when the Golden Gloves tournaments were providing some competition for movie attendance, this film surely seemed like a winner, and while it doesn’t hit on all marks (I agree that it’s a two and a half star film), it’s also one that I wish Universal would dust off and make more readily available, no matter how unlikely that may seem.

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