Rockin’ in the Film World #13: Elvis Presley in KID GALAHAD (United Artists 1962)

Let’s face it – with a handful of exceptions, most of Elvis Presley’s  post-Army 1960’s movies are awful. They follow a tried-and-true formula that has The King in some colorful location torn between two (or more!) girls, some kind of vocational gimmick (race car driver, scuba diver), and a handful of forgettable songs. KID GALAHAD is one of those exceptions; although it does follow the formula, it’s redeemed by a stellar supporting cast, a fair plot lifted from an old Warner Brothers film, and a well choreographed and edited final boxing match.

The movie’s very loosely based on 1937’s KID GALAHAD, a boxing/gangster yarn that starred Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Wayne Morris in the role now played by and tailored for Presley. He’s a young man fresh out of the Army (how’s that for typecasting?) who returns to his upstate New York hometown of Cream Valley looking for work as a mechanic. He wanders into in a boxing camp run by glib Gig Young, who has a penchant for betting on horses, and gets roped into being a sparring partner, despite the fact he has little ring experience. Gig throws Elvis to the lions and discovers the kid has a devastating right and so, together with trainer Charles Bronson , begins grooming the naïve youngster for pugilistic stardom.

There are subplots galore, as Gig has run afoul of some crooked fight promoters, and has issues with his ladylove Lola Albright to boot. Gig’s kid sister Joan Blackman (costar of Elvis’ hit BLUE HAWAII) comes to camp to straighten out her brothers finances, and of course falls in love with Presley, to big bro’s displeasure. Trainer/cornerman Bronson has his hands broken before the eve of the big fight by goons, but you just know Presley’s gonna come out on top, and win the girl as well… you do know that, right?

The supporting players make the film a cut above the usual Elvis pic. Gig Young’s fight manager is a smooth-talking hustler, in up to his neck with trouble from both the mob and the feds, and takes gal pal Lola Albright for granted. Young gives a good performance, as does the sexy Lola, an actress who deserved a better career than she had. Charles Bronson was still a second-stringer at the time, and is totally believable as the veteran fight trainer. He and Presley work well in their scenes together; it’s too bad they never costarred again, preferably in a Western (Curse you, Col. Tom Parker!). Joan Blackman, making her second appearance with The King, had a few good roles (GOOD DAY FOR A HANGING, CAREER, TWILIGHT OF HONOR), but like Albright never reached the heights her talent deserved. Some Familiar Faces bobbing and weaving through the plot include Edward Asner , Michael Dante, Richard Devon, Robert Emhardt, David Lewis, Bert Remson, and Roy Roberts.

As for Elvis… well, he’s basically playing Elvis, and as such he’s fine. There are echoes of some of his earlier characters, but after 1960 his screen persona had mellowed. No longer the hot-headed rebel of JAILHOUSE ROCK or KING CREOLE, here he’s just a good ol’ country boy who wants to work on cars, and happens to have a powerful right hook. The songs aren’t all that memorable, but I did like the jaunty “I Got Lucky” (co-written by Ed Wood’s ex-girlfriend Dolores Fuller!) and the wistful “A Whistling Tune”. The boxing scenes were staged by former welterweight turned bit player Mushy Callahan, who plays the referee in Elvis’s big bout with “Sugar Boy Romero”, played by then-current welterweight champ Orlando De La Fuente. And yes, that’s renowned boxing announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. as the ring announcer.

All of this is put together with style by veteran director Phil Karlson , who I’ve discussed several times and whose filmography is worth looking into. KID GALAHAD is the last really good Elvis movie, thanks to that cast and crew, before he settled into the predictable formula for the rest of the 60’s. It’s a pity Col. Parker didn’t let Presley spread his thespic wings, because Elvis coulda been a contender with the right balance of script, cast, and direction. But as they say in Hollywood, that’s show biz.

The Main Event: Kirk Douglas in CHAMPION (United Artists 1949)

Kirk Douglas  slugged his way to superstardom in director Mark Robson’s CHAMPION, one of two boxing noirs made in 1949. The other was THE SET-UP , helmed by Robson’s former RKO/Val Lewton stablemate Robert Wise. While that film told of an aging boxer (Robert Ryan) on the way down, CHAMPION is the story of a hungry young fighter who lets nothing stand in his way to the top of the food chain. The movie not only put Douglas on the map, it was a breakthrough for its young independent producer Stanley Kramer .

Douglas is all muscle and sinew as middleweight Midge Kelly, and a thoroughly rotten heel. He’s a magnetic character, a classic narcissist with sociopathic tendencies drawing the people around him into his web with his charm. Midge has no empathy for others, not even his loyal, game-legged brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy in a solid performance), after he gets what he wants. And what he wants is the respect and admiration of the world, his bravado but a mask for his deep-seated insecurities brought on by his childhood poverty and abandonment issues. He treats the women in his life like dirt, seducing pretty waitress Emma ( Ruth Roman ), leering to her at the beach, “Well, shall we get wet?” (and how THAT quote got through the censors is a miracle!). Forced into a shotgun marriage by her father (Harry Shannon), Midge leaves her to hit the road to boxing glory. Later in the film, after Emma asks for a divorce to marry Connie, Midge brutally rapes her, then violently shoves down his own lame brother when confronted. Yes, Midge Kelly is a total shitheel, and Douglas’s acting will keep you riveted to see what new depths he’ll go to next. It’s a no-holds-barred performance that deservedly won Kirk his first Oscar nomination.

Emma and Connie aren’t the only victims in Midge’s merciless rise to the top. Fight manager Tommy Haley ( Paul Stewart ) takes the creep under his wing and trains him in the pugilistic arts, only to be first betrayed when Midge refuses to dive in a Number One Contender’s Match, then unceremoniously dumped for the lure of big money manager Jerry Harris (Luis Van Rooten) and femme fatale Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell). Harris isn’t exempt as Midge seduces his young wife Palmer (Lola Albright), a naïve sculptor unaware she’s being used until Harris teaches her a valuable lesson. Midge even abandons his own mother ( Esther Howard ), arriving too late to visit her before she dies.

Carl Foreman structured his screenplay in circular fashion, with an extended flashback relating the bulk of the story. Foreman, who got his start working on Bowery Boys programmers,  and producer Kramer teamed for some great films: HOME OF THE BRAVE, THE MEN (Marlon Brando’s film debut), CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and the classic Western HIGH NOON, but the writer’s former Communist affiliations got him blacklisted by HUAC. Foreman won the Oscar for 1957’s superb war drama BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, though the statue was given to credited author Pierre Boulle (this was corrected 27 years later, the year Foreman died).

CHAMPION was nominated for six Oscars, including Douglas, Kennedy, Foreman’s screenplay, Dmitri Tiompkin’s  score, and Franz Planer’s cinematography, winning for Harry Gerstad’s stellar editing job. The ultra-realistic boxing scenes were staged by former Light Welterweight champ Mushy Callahan, who trained Douglas for the film. Midge Kelly is a repellant character, but Kirk Douglas makes him fascinating to watch, and as in all good noirs, he receives his just desserts in the end, a victim himself of his own lustful machinations. It’s a knockout of a film that pummels the viewer with a barrage of body blows before delivering its fatal punch, and is highly recommended.