Winner by TKO
Movie Lover: Clifford Weimer
Sacramento, CA US
-- November, 14, 2004
Ham Fisher's JOE PALOOKA comic strip, about a good-natured and none-too-bright boxer, doesn't top many lists of all-time great comic strips, but it ran in newspapers from 1930 until 1984 (nearly 30 years after Fisher's death). Joe, his gal Ann Howe, and his manager Knobby Walsh had a long and happy relationship with the motion picture industry, too, beginning in 1934 with PALOOKA.
Quite a cast was compiled for Edward Small's production of Joe's film debut, including Jimmy Durante as Knobby, Stu Erwin as Joe, Lupe Valez as the femme fatale, Robert Armstrong and Marjorie Rambeau as Joe's parents, and Mary Carlisle, Tom Dugan, Thelma Todd, and Jimmy Cagney's look-alike brother William.
The film clearly was meant to be an ?A? picture, with impressive production values. PALOOKA opens in the early part of the 20th century, as we meet Pete "Goodtime" Palooka, champ o' the world in the ring and with the ladies, much to the chagrin of his wife, who walks out on him with their infant son Joe. Twenty years later, a chance encounter between young Joe, now a hand on his mom's farm, and a boxing manager named Knobby Walsh leads to Joe's ring debut, which ends inauspiciously and prematurely. Everybody thinks Joe's pugilistic dreams were a mistake, except for the manager of Al McSwatt, middleweight champ of the world, who sees Joe as a pushover for McSwatt. McSwatt thinks so too, and when he shows up soused for the fight, Joe gets lucky and takes the crown. Joe also takes McSwatt's floozy girlfriend (Miss Valez), who soon has the country boy sipping champagne from her slipper. Eventually, McSwatt tricks the overmatched Palooka into giving him a rematch, and Joe's career and future (not to mention his love life) are determined in 15 grueling rounds.
PALOOKA is a comedy that's not very funny, a drama that's not very dramatic, and a musical with only two brief musical numbers, but it's awfully hard not to like. First and foremost is Durante as Knobby; he's a bundle of energy and a double bundle of laughs who tosses out one-liners like confetti. Assessing his boy's chances, he comments "He couldn't hit McSwatt with a handful of rice." When trainer Tom Dugan cautions him not to be so stressed over Joe's antics ("Worry kills more people than bullets"), Durante replies, "What do I care how many bullets get killed?" And for some unknown reason, he stops the film long enough to warble his theme song, "Inka Dinka Doo". "What a voice!", as he himself proudly proclaims. (The other musical number is a song-and-dance by Miss Velez, and it was apparently choreographed by St. Vitus. It's a howl and a half.)
PALOOKA apparently wasn't the success United Artists hoped it would be, because Joe's next theatrical appearance would be in a series of Vitaphone shorts starring Robert Norton as Palooka and Shemp Howard as Knobby. Better remembered is the late '40s series of low-budget Monogram pictures (sheesh, is THAT redundant, or what) starring Joe Kirkwood as Joe and Leon Errol as Knobby.
Alpha Video's DVD of PALOOKA is terrific, with a very clear picture and sound that belies its rock-bottom price.