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The New York Times review of Winner Take All (1932) begins, "After having been highly successful in his portrayals as a gangster, a gambler, a taxicab driver, a confidence man, and an automobile racer, James Cagney, the stormy petrel of the Warner Brothers studio, turns his attention...to impersonating a prizefighter." Critic Mordaunt Hall goes on to note that Cagney "is far more convincing than most players who elect to impersonate pugilists." Cagney so often played gangsters in his early movie career that it's easy to overlook the variety of his performances, and his dedication to getting it right, even in routine programmers. At that time, Cagney recalled in his autobiography, "I was still learning, and I went along making what was given to me." Winner Take All may have been routine, but Cagney wasn't. In his first boxing role, Cagney plays an on-the-skids fighter who's drying out at a Southwest health spa. While there, he meets an impoverished young widow and her little boy, and returns to the ring to help them financially. He wins, but once he goes back to New York, he gets tangled up with a society dame and his ego gets out of control.
Cagney trained for the role with a real-life boxer, former welterweight champion Harvey Parry, who has a role in the film. Cagney recalled in his autobiography that another professional fighter, watching him spar, was certain that Cagney had fought professionally - his footwork proved it. "I said, 'Tommy, I'm a dancer. Moving around is no problem.'" Winner Take All was written by Wilson Mizner, a true Hollywood character, screenwriter, raconteur, con man and bon vivant. Mizner knew something about the fight game - his colorful past included managing several boxers in New York, as well as bilking miners during the Alaska Gold Rush, swindling rich speculators during the Florida land boom, and writing successful Broadway plays. Cagney wrote that he was fascinated by Mizner and sat for hours listening to his stories.
Winner Take All has some unusual plot twists - not many boxing pictures feature the fighter getting a nose job to fit in with his society sweetheart - that raise it above the run-of-the-mill. And critics were impressed with Cagney's portrayal. "Mr. Cagney gives such a fascinating picture of the boxer's conceit and stupidity that the original plot, which might have come from a novelette, is lost in the intricacies of his character," according to the Times of London. "He carries with him a veritable smell of the shower room, of sweating body and sodden leather. He walks like a punch-drunk fighter," wrote Gerald Breitgan in the New York World-Telegram. Cagney would play boxers twice more, in The Irish in Us (1935) and City for Conquest (1940).
Winner Take All was another hit for Warner Bros., and Cagney, who just a year earlier had gone on strike until the studio raised his salary from $400 to $1600 a week, staged another strike for the second but not the last time. He didn't work for six months, and threatened to quit movies and go back to New York to study medicine at Columbia University. He got a raise, but not as much as he'd asked for, and over the next decade, Cagney would be both one of the studio's biggest moneymakers, and one of the biggest thorns in Jack Warner's side.
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Wilson Mizner, Robert Lord, based on a story by Gerald Beaumont
Cinematography: Robert Kurrle
Editor: Thomas Pratt
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: W. Franke Harling
Cast: James Cagney (Jim Kane), Marian Nixon (Peggy Harmon), Virginia Bruce (Joan Gibson), Guy Kibbee (Pop Slavin), Clarence Muse (Rosebud), Dickie Moore (Dickie Harmon), Allan Lane (Monty), John Roche (Roger Elliott).
BW-67m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri