Long before his John Wayne collaborations, John Ford had worked to perfect his own style as a filmmaker. Even though the cranky, idiosyncratic Ford, who directed his first film way back in 1917, had his directing credit removed from 1932’s FLESH, it is credited as “A John Ford Production”, and one can tell this is definitely a “John Ford Picture”. The man himself thought the film was lousy, and most critics agreed, but I’m in the minority opinion. I think it’s worthy of reappraisal for film lovers to get a glimpse of some vintage Ford, with solid performances by Wallace Beery, Karen Morley, and Ricardo Cortez. Plus, as a long-time pro wrestling buff, the grappling game setting appeals to me, as do the many Pre-Code themes and moments.
Beery once again is a good-natured lug, a German wrestler named Polakai who doubles as a waiter in a rowdy beer garden, toting a keg on his massive shoulders. Morley is Laura, an American just released from prison with no visible means of support. She runs up a hefty tab and is unable to pay, so Polakai takes care of it. Later, Laura is walking the streets and spotted by a local polizeibeamte. The smitten Polakai takes her in, giving this stranger in a strange land a place to stay, much to the shock of his neighbors.
What Polakai doesn’t know is Laura is carrying a torch for her lover, the still incarcerated Nicky (Cortez), as well as carrying Nicky’s baby! Polakai catches her trying to lift his stash of cash, and she gives him a sob story about helping spring her “brother” from jail, so the naïve rassler insists on helping her once again. When Nicky is released, and finds out Laura’s pregnant, the rat drops her like a hot weinerschnitzel and skedaddles back to the states. This leaves Laura with little choice: convincing Polakai she’s carrying his child, the dumb brute does the honorable thing and marries her.
Polakai wins the championship of Germany while she gives birth to a son, then takes his new family in tow and comes to America to compete for the World’s Championship. Now the roles are reversed, with Polakai the “stranger in a strange land”. Slimy Nicky worms his way back into the picture and becomes Polakai’s manager, but when the big lug learns the American rasslin’ racket is fixed, he refuses to play ball and decides to return to Germany. Nicky, not wanting to lose his new meal ticket, smacks Laura around to force her to convince him otherwise. She achieves this by leaving him, backing Polakai into a corner, and the hulking grappler agrees to “wrestle crooked”. He discovers the effects of American bootleg whiskey and hits the bottle hard, unable to function on the night of his big championship bout. Nicky is steamed when the brute is unable to get out of bed and shoves Laura to the floor, angering the giant. She confesses everything to Polakai, who rises from his sickbed and strangles Nicky. Polakai is arrested shortly after winning the title, and Laura visits him in prison, stating she’s leaving town, but Polakai begs her to stay. Despite all that’s occurred, he’s still in love with his American liebchin.
Appropriately, since half the film is set in Germany, Ford utilizes an Expressionistic style in FLESH. The director had worked alongside F.W. Murnau on the Fox lot, and Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) was an eye-opener for Ford. He considered it a masterpiece of filmmaking, and it heavily influenced Ford’s silents FOUR SONS (1928) and HANGMAN’S HOUSE (1928), as well as his later, more “arty” films like THE INFORMER, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, and (to a certain extent) THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Ford’s signature doorway motif shows up, as do some marvelous overhead shots, and the use of shadows give FLESH even more of an “Ufa” feel. Though everybody knows Ford called the shot selections on his films, DP Arthur Edeson was no slouch; Edeson was the man behind the camera for such classics as FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, THE MALTESE FALCON, SERGEANT YORK, and CASABLANCA , and surely must’ve had some input into the look of the film.
A whole host of writers worked on the screenplay for FLESH, both credited and uncredited. Film director Edmund Goulding is credited with the story, adapted by writers Leonard Praskins and Edgar Allan Woolf. Moss Hart wrote the dialog, while William Faulkner, John W. Considine Jr. and Hanns Kraly made uncredited contributions. Faulkner’s participation inspired the Coen Brothers to parody him “writing a Wallace Beery wrestling story” in their 1991 film BARTON FINK.
Beery goes for pathos as the dim-witted but kind-hearted bear Polakai, although even John Ford himself couldn’t restrain the actor completely from mugging for the camera (this would be their only film together). Karen Morley (Laura) is superb in a difficult role, as she was in the Pre-Codes SCARFACE, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, DINNER AT EIGHT, and King Vidor’s excellent 1934 OUR DAILY BREAD. Morley was a fine actress whose career, along with husband Lloyd Gough, was ruined by HUAC in 1947. Ricardo Cortez is vile as ever in the part of Nicky; the former “competitor” to Valentino’s Latin Lover crown made a career out of playing low-down snakes in 30’s films before turning to directing. Familiar Faces rounding out the cast are Vince Barnett , Herman Bing, Ed Brophy , Jean Hersholt, Wilbur Mack, John Miljan, and Frank Reicher . Ford favorite Ward Bond plays one of Beery’s early sparring partners, and ex-wrestler Nat Pendleton is cast as (what else?) a wrestler. The film also features an appearance by real life heavyweight champ Wladek Zbyszko, who fought such greats of the era as “Strangler” Ed Lewis and Joe Stecher.
I’m unsure why Ford chose to pull his name from the director’s credit. FLESH isn’t a bad movie by any means, and in fact is quite entertaining. It’s been said he felt constricted working at MGM, and didn’t work at the studio again until 1945’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. By that time, John Ford had already won three of his record four directing Oscars, and was a force to be reckoned with in cinema. FLESH offers viewers a chance to see the master in an early, experimental stage, and for that reason alone deserves to be seen.