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In Joel and Ethan Coen's 1991 comedy Barton Fink, an intellectual New York playwright is recruited to Hollywood, circa 1941, and assigned to a project that seems to be the embodiment of undignified, dimwitted commercialism: a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. In reality, Beery made one wrestling picture -- only one -- and it was not the matinee fodder the Coens depicted. It was Flesh (1932), directed by John Ford.
When a hardboiled moll named Laura Nash (Karen Morley) is sprung from a German prison, she is given food and shelter by the burly Polakai (Wallace Beery), an easy-going waiter in a biergarten, who moonlights as a professional wrestler. Polakai is so love-struck and naive that he is blind to Laura's criminal instincts. She convinces Polakai to bail out her lover, Nicky (Ricardo Cortez), and tells the gentle giant that Nicky is her brother. Laura doesn't seem to be a bad woman, and appears to have a genuine affection for Polakai, but she can't stop taking advantage of his kind nature. Pregnant with Nicky's child, she marries Polakai and dupes him into believing the baby is his own. They move to America, where Polakai pursues the wrestling championship of the world. But the couple again falls under the corrupt shadow of Nicky, who becomes Polakai's manager, and encourages him to throw fights rather than win matches. In the end, Nicky learns that Polakai -- in spite of his gullible good nature -- has a will of his own, a discovery that has tragic consequences.
When discussing the art of filmmaking, Ford was always self-effacing. In later years, he would reduce his vast, remarkable career to the simple phrase, "I make Westerns." Even when he was enjoying critical acclaim (as he was at the time of Flesh), he shrugged off any associations between his films and art. According to his son Dan, Ford bragged to producers "that he was a 'money director,' a man who could be counted on to bring in a 'good commercial picture' on time and within its budget. He told Harry Wurtzel that he was 'a journeyman director, a traffic cop in front of the camera, but the best traffic cop in Hollywood.'"
Ford was a reliable maker of profitable films, and ran an efficient set, but he could hardly be characterized as a "traffic cop." He said such things in order to mock his genuine artistic aspirations, which he preferred to keep hidden beneath his crusty exterior. In reality, Ford was strongly inspired by the German silent cinema -- particularly the films of F.W. Murnau -- and that influence is obvious in the fluid camerawork and stark shadows of his films of this period, including Four Sons (1928), Pilgrimage (1933), and The Informer (1935). Visually speaking, Flesh is less dark and moody than Ford's other "Germanic" films, but thematically, it reflects these European psychological dramas. Polakai is clearly cut from the same cloth as several roles played by the great German actor Emil Jannings. In Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930), and E.A. Dupont's Variety (1925), Jannings depicts a proud, upstanding man who suffers a series of personal and professional misfortunes that lead him to humiliation and the brink of destitution. Oftentimes a woman is the catalyst for the downward plunge. The connection between these films and Flesh is clear, but one would have never gotten Ford to admit it.
In spite of these thematic similarities, Flesh isn't all Germanic tragedy. It is also a lively comedy at times, animated by the director's penchant for ribald buffoonery and violent slapstick, which often erupts in Ford's The Quiet Man (1952), Rio Grande (1950), and Donovan's Reef (1963). In fact, one could argue that Beery's performance as Polakai was a prototype for the brash, two-fisted, hard-brawling characters portrayed by Victor McLaglen. And speaking of fun-loving brawlers, Ford stock player Ward Bond makes an appearance as wrestler "Muscles" Manning.
Flesh was intended to capitalize on the success of Beery's boxing picture The Champ (1931), which earned him an Oscar® for Best Actor. As such, it was Beery's film through and through. However, MGM had some degree of difficulty assembling the cast and crew around him. The female lead was first announced as Colleen Moore, then Madge Evans. Just two days prior to filming, Karen Morley stepped into the role of Laura. Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, 1932), who wrote the original story, was first slated to direct the film. Months later, Raoul Walsh (White Heat, 1949) was announced as director, who was in turn replaced by Robert Z. Leonard (The Great Ziegfeld, 1936), before Ford took the helm. This sort of pre-production musical chairs was common in the period, as the studio refined its method of factory-style film production that would become its trademark.
Karen Morley would later star in King Vidor's socialist drama Our Daily Bread (1934), about a man and wife who form a farming commune during the Depression. Apparently the film reflected her own idealistic political leanings, as she was named in the House Un-American Activities Committee as a suspected member of the Communist party (actor Sterling Hayden was the informant). Morley evoked the Fifth Amendment, was informally blacklisted from the studios, and never made another film.
According to Hollywood lore, Ricardo Cortez was discovered by the studio heads of Paramount Pictures while he was ballroom dancing at the Hotel Ambassador "with a Los Angeles society girl." Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky were so intrigued by the light-footed Cortez that they inquired about his acting talents and eventually offered him a five year contract.
Director: John Ford
Producer: John Ford
Screenplay: Leonard Praskins and Edgar Allan Woolf (Dialogue by Moss Hart), based on a story by Edmund Goulding
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Wallace Beery (Polakai), Karen Morley (Laura Nash), Ricardo Cortez (Nicky), Jean Hersholt (Mr. Herman), John Miljan (Willard), Vince Barnett (Karl).
by Bret Wood