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In the pre-Code drama The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. stars as a champion boxer who accidentally kills a newspaper reporter. He runs, taking on the identity of a man who died in a car crash and winding up at a home for crippled orphans. When the mortgage payment becomes due, he dons his boxing gloves again to raise the money, even though there's a good risk he'll expose himself to the one detective (Guy Kibbee) who still thinks he's alive. Rounding out the cast are Loretta Young as the young lovely who helps runs the orphanage, John Wayne in a bit part as a prizefighter, and Mickey Rooney as a kid named "Freckles."
Variety liked the film, calling it "a neat, sure-footed picture that's easy on the eye and ear," and singled out Guy Kibbee for special praise in true Variety lingo: "Kibbee's work as the foggy-eyed flatfoot is the best of the cast's contributions. He is getting to be a champ picture stealer among Hollywood's character people."
Fairbanks later recalled training with an ex-fighter in order to learn to fight right-handed. His character is a leftie who at the end tries to fight right-handed in order to fool the police. Fairbanks also claimed in his memoir to have gotten John Wayne his part. In 1929, Wayne (then known as Marion Morrison) had appeared with the entire USC football team in the Fairbanks vehicle The Forward Pass, which incidentally also starred Loretta Young. Fairbanks wrote, "Three years later, I got [him] a job in The Life of Jimmy Dolan." In truth, Wayne had already been cast in many B-westerns by 1933 so Fairbanks may have been exaggerating.
In any case, Fairbanks had high praise for his castmates. Of little "Freckles," he wrote, "Mickey Rooney was then about ten undersized years of age, but already so talented and bouncy it was scary." (Actually, Rooney was 12.) "We were all good in this picture - properly characterizing each part, and preventing what was basically an obvious, sentimental melodrama from becoming maudlin. All in all, we deserved the success the film enjoyed."
This film was remade with John Garfield as They Made Me a Criminal (1939) but the hard luck storyline was compromised by a sentimental finale. The Life of Jimmy Dolan is the tougher version with the Fairbanks character going unpunished for manslaughter - not an unusual occurrence for a Pre-Code melodrama.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser (play), Beulah Marie Dix (play), David Boehm, Erwin S. Gelsey
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Film Editing: Herbert I. Leeds
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Music: Cliff Hess
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Jimmy Dolan), Loretta Young (Peggy), Aline MacMahon (Auntie), Guy Kibbee (Phlaxer), Lyle Talbot (Doc Wood), Fifi D'Orsay (Budgie).
by Jeremy Arnold