Director: John Ford
Cast: Wallace Beery, Ricardo Cortez, Karen Morley
Synopsis: Gifted German wrestler Polokai falls in love with ex-con Laura, who persuades him to emigrate to America and gets him involved with crooked promoters.
Although they claim otherwise, the Coen Brothers probably had Flesh in mind when they made Barton Fink in 1991. After all, how many Wallace Beery wrestling movies co-written by William Faulkner (upon whom John Mahoney’s W. P. Mayhew is based) can there be? The idea of Wallace Beery wrestling struck the brothers as funny, and it is – especially when he’s given a German accent and the sweet-natured innocence of a child. But Flesh isn’t a comedy, and the humour in Beery’s character is there to win our sympathy.
The film opens in Germany, where an American woman named Laura (Karen Morley) is informed that she’s about to be released from prison. We’re not told exactly what it is she’s in for, but she hasn’t been there long. As we later learn, the authorities are releasing her because she’s pregnant (it’s noticeable how often pregnancies out of wedlock served as plot points before the Production Code grew teeth). She’s free, but she has no money, much to the annoyance of the manager of the Beer Garden where she’s just ordered a slap-up meal. He’s about to phone the police but is prevented from doing so by the intervention of Polakai (Wallace Beery — The Champ, The Bowery), one of the establishment’s waiters, who also fights in wrestling bouts when he’s not delivering steins of frothy beer poured from a barrel he carries around on his shoulder. Although he’s a fearsome wrestler, Polakai’s just a big softie outside the ring, and he offers Laura a place to sleep when she’s in danger of being picked up for street-walking.
Laura’s not ungrateful, but she’s in love with Nicky (Ricardo Cortez — The Maltese Falcon), her partner in crime who is also incarcerated in a prison somewhere in Germany. When Polakai catches Laura in the midst of stealing his life savings she confesses she was going to use the money to free Nicky, but pretends that her lover is actually her brother. Of course, Polakai’s such a trusting soul that he believes her story and lends her the money she was attempting to steal from him, and before you know it Laura and her ‘brother’ are reunited. This is when we – and Nicky – learn that Laura is expecting, and while most of us will stick around to see what happens, Nicky high-tails it back to the States using money he’s borrowed from the Bank of Polakai. Now a distraught Laura feels she’s left with no choice but to marry the big oaf who keeps proving to be her saviour, but whom she doesn’t really love.
Despite its unusual setting – let’s face it, the world of Beer Garden wrestling doesn’t feature big in the history of cinema – Flesh tells a well-worn tale. Its saving grace is the performances of its three leads. Beery handles a German accent surprisingly well and somehow manages to prevent the childlike simplicity of his character from becoming annoying. In Beery’s hands, this affable, sweet nature serves well to endear him to the audience as well as mark him out as someone who is ripe for exploitation. Nicky fits the bill of the exploiter perfectly, and is portrayed with a dangerous charm by Ricardo Cortez which makes it easy to understand why Laura would keep being taken in by him the way that she is. It’s a good performance from Cortez, who keeps Nicky likeable until the last few scenes when he starts getting handy with his fists.
The strongest performance comes from Karen Morley who, despite receiving second billing to Beery, plays the film’s key character who goes through an emotional wringer and a redemptive arc as well as providing the middle-ground between Polakai’s innocence and Nicky’s wickedness. She’s a flawed character capable of doing wrong, but she has a conscience and deep down she wants to be good; and she’s also the type of person who can see the evil in others to which people like Polakai are blind. Morley gives a pitch-perfect performance, never giving in to the temptation to over-emote, and she’s aided by director John Ford, who for once reins in his tendency to over-sentimentalise. Take the scene in which Polakai, mistakenly believing himself to be the father, visits Laura in hospital after she has given birth for example. Many directors would have chosen to shoot it in extreme close-up in order to wring every possible ounce of pathos from Laura’s guilt-stricken emotional torture. But Ford frames it in a medium shot, thereby drawing upon Morley’s skill as an actress to communicate her turmoil. Morley was a highly-skilled actress – much better, in fact, than many contemporaneous female stars whose reputations continue to endure — but she was no beauty and she’s rake-thin in Flesh. She looks as if Beery would accidentally snap her like a twig the first time he embraced her. She was quite the political activist, though, at a time when the studios liked their stars to toe the line, and her career fizzled out pretty quickly because of it.
Fresh is a typical example of the kind of quality entertainment churned out by MGM back in the 1930s. It has few artistic ambitions and nothing particularly important to say, but it taps into the kind of situations, and populates them with the type of colourful characters, that will always draw an audience in.
(Reviewed 3rd February 2014)