The Prizefighter and the Lady
Originally, screenwriter Frances Marion, who had just won an Oscar® for another boxing themed movie The Champ (1931), was given the assignment at MGM to write a new story for Myrna Loy and Clark Gable to fit the title The Sailor and the Lady. Howard Hawks was slated to direct and the story department was instructed to deliver a typical Gable scenario: gruff but lovable sailor falls for an upper class girl. Marion dismissed the story idea as warmed-over pudding, but was ordered to proceed by studio head Louis B. Mayer. After working on the script for weeks, Marion turned it in only to find out that Clark Gable was no longer available to do the film. Instead, the studio had signed the real-life boxer Max Baer to star, with the story's focus shifted to the world of the boxing ring. Major re-writes were needed to accommodate this significant premise change in the newly re-titled The Prizefighter and the Lady, and Marion wanted nothing to do with it. "Gene Tunney (Heavyweight Boxing Champion 1926-28) is my friend. He married a beautiful society girl - and they might think that I have exploited their love affair," she pleaded with a studio supervisor as remembered in her 1973 autobiography Off With Their Heads. "Just tear up that manuscript and find another story - dozens of that genre have been published." The studio supervisor reminded her not-so-nicely that she was contractually obligated to do as the studio said, so she re-wrote the script to accommodate the new boxing angle.
Since Gable was no longer available to star in The Prizefighter and the Lady, director Howard Hawks begged off the project as well. Woody Van Dyke, who was known for his speedy shooting style, was re-assigned to direct. MGM asked Hawks to stay on board for a few weeks, however, in order to help Max Baer, who had never been in a film before, with his acting. The results were excellent, as Baer proved to be a natural in front of the camera. He shines in his winning debut performance, and holds his own next to seasoned performers like Myrna Loy and Walter Huston, who plays Baer's manager in the film.
Myrna Loy loved working with Woody Van Dyke. He had directed her once before in Penthouse (1933) and was one of her biggest supporters, proclaiming early on that she was going to be a star. In her 1987 autobiography Being and Becoming she remembers Van Dyke as the fastest director she had ever worked with who "managed to give a personal stamp to everything he did." He was also full of practical jokes on the lively set of The Prizefighter and the Lady, including having chairs wired so that the actors got an awful jolt when they sat down. Van Dyke directed Loy in a total of eight films, including the one that made her a star: The Thin Man in 1934.
The Prizefighter and the Lady climaxes with a heavily hyped fight scene between Baer's character and reigning real-life World Heavyweight Champion Primo Carnera. The shooting of this scene was an event on the set since Baer was a real-life contender for Carnera's Heavyweight title. People came from far and wide to watch the thrilling fight being filmed. Former Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey was an added treat playing the referee. The following year, Max Baer did beat Primo Carnera in the ring for real, and Baer became the new World Heavyweight Champion of 1934.
The film was a hit, with Frances Marion's screenplay winning an Academy Award nomination. The critics praised Max Baer's winning personality and natural screen presence; in fact, many people felt that he walked away with the movie. Following his boxing career, Baer managed to make a living as an actor, appearing in several feature films throughout the 1940s and 50s, including The Harder They Fall (1956). His son Max Baer, Jr. went on to television fame playing Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies.
Producer: Hunt Stromberg, W.S. Van Dyke II
Director: W.S. Van Dyke II
Screenplay: Frances Marion (story), John Lee Mahin, John Meehan
Cinematography: Lester White
Film Editing: Robert Kern
Art Direction: Fredric Hope, David Townsend
Music: Ray Egan
Cast: Myrna Loy (Belle Mercer Morgan), Max Baer (Steve Morgan), Primo Carnera (Himself), Jack Dempsey (Himself), Walter Huston (Edwin J. Bennett), Otto Kruger (Willie Ryan).
BW-102m. Closed captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume