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When John Ford, Andy Warhol and Joe Dallesandro got high one evening and decided to make Flesh .... no, just kidding. This Flesh is the MGM picture from 1932, a star vehicle for Wallace Beery, a hugely popular and just plain huge actor who had just reached top stardom in a string of talkies: The Big House, Min and Bill, The Champ and Grand Hotel. Loud, swaggering and crude, Beery was the kind of star for whom the studio fashioned custom-made movie vehicles -- pictures that played to a star's strengths and, frequently enough, vanity. Cobbled together by some of Irving Thalberg's top writing talent (including playwright and theater director Moss Hart), this "simple story for simple people" takes the sentimental route and imagines the hulking Beery as yet another brute with a heart of gold.
Slimy American con man Nicky and his girl Laura Nash (Ricardo Cortez & Karen Morley) are in a German jail. Laura is released but has no means to free Nicky until she stumbles into the beer garden of Mr. Herman (Jean Hersholt). About to be arrested for vagrancy, she is befriended by the giant champion wrestler (and waiter) Polakai (Wallace Beery). Although touched by Polakai's child-like innocence, Laura maneuvers him into offering money to get her "brother" Nicky out of jail. Against Nicky's wishes Laura refuses to cheat Polakai any longer. She finally tells Nicky that she's pregnant. Nicky's response is to borrow money from their host "to help his mother" and escape alone to America.
With nowhere to go Laura marries Polakai, who accepts her baby. When the new family travels to New York Nicky soon finds them again, woos Laura and tricks Polakai into fighting in rigged wrestling matches. The big lummox refuses, until he's led to believe that it's the only way he'll keep his wife...
Flesh may sound like a dark tragedy, but it's really a confected melodrama about simplistic characters. It was a routine studio assignment for John Ford, who, like actress Karen Morley, was a last-minute replacement. There are certainly none of the expressionist touches Ford was experimenting with at the time, and he doesn't bother to smooth out the script's lumpier passages. Germany's wrestling champion still works as a waiter, and has no manager? The fairytale story imagines a gentle giant so stupid that the heroine can only relate to him as she might a big lovable dog, only a little less slobbery. The fine actor Ricardo Cortez puts some shading into Nicky, a total cad incapable of a decent act. Keeping these two from clashing until the right moment is Karen Morley's Laura, "the girl". As in so many awkward melodramas, Laura's character is conveniently indecisive. She loves Polakai but apparently doesn't sleep with him; the movies at this time could ignore the odd situation of a sensual woman married to a sexless heap of concrete like Polakai. She deceives Polakai over Nicky's true nature as well as the truth about her child. When push comes to shove, Laura sells Polakai out yet again -- yet we're still supposed to accept her as a good girl worthy of a happy ending. Perhaps the title comes from the saying, "The flesh is weak". In Flesh that would seem to translate to, "The flesh doesn't know what the hell it's doing". Cortez and Morley show considerable skill in making all this nonsense stand up long enough to look like a movie.
And then there's Wallace Beery, the big deal at the middle of this triangle. A ham actor who always seems to be reciting his lines phonetically, Beery can be effective in certain roles. He's truly lovable in Min and Bill, but some of that can be chalked up to the reflected warmth of the wonderful Marie Dressler. He's easier to take in featured character parts, but one needs to be a Beery fan to warm up to his dimwit Polakai character. Rather than push my personal opinion of the actor any further, I'll say that if you enjoyed Wallace Beery in The Champ, where he steals scenes from a little kid and shamelessly begs sympathy from the audience, you'll certainly like Flesh.
That MGM writing committee puts a little bit of everything into Flesh. Wallace Beery is again a fighter, another simple-minded lover of gentle things. We get a bit of The Student Prince of Heidelberg and a bit more of The Big House when Polakai gets himself in hot water. But these were the days when Irving Thalberg made a distinction between classy pictures and ones thrown together just to keep a big star's name on the marquees every four months or so. After spending an hour in a quaint German rooming house and beer garden, the movie abruptly relocates to The Big Apple and reboots as a wrestling racket gangster picture. The faces are the same but it's like starting from scratch.
Jean Hersholt is inoffensive as one of the pleasant Germans, all of whom seem to be sweet-natured Old Country volk. Vince Barnett is a comic waiter and favorite mug Edward Brophy is underused as a member of the rackets. The only hint of the enormous stock company waiting in John Ford's future is Ward Bond, who is lively and notable as Muscles Manning, a cocky fighter that teases Polakai with some "unrestrained" dirty tricks. Interestingly, one of Polakai's opponents is named "Zbyszko" -- Stanislaus Zbyszko is a famous real-life Greek wrestler from the 1920s, later immortalized in Jules Dassin's Night and the City.
Although Flesh isn't a standout film for Karen Morley, John Ford clearly favors her above her co-stars. Morley deserves attention as a distinctive 30s actress who often appeared in controversial films, perhaps because other actresses shied away from socially conscious material. She was Paul Muni's girlfriend in Scarface and she faced Karloff's evil mastermind in The Mask of Fu Manchu. She also played the President's illicit lover in the strange Gabriel Over the White House and worked in the labor-conscious films Our Daily Bread and Black Fury. Named as a Communist by Sterling Hayden, Ms. Morley refused to answer questions put to her by HUAC and was among the first actors to be blacklisted. But she remained politically active, and ran for public office in New York in 1954.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Flesh is a good transfer of a well-worn original source -- the film is intact and sharp but shows plenty of wear. This attests to its popularity in reissues -- some pictures from this era are pristine only because they didn't see much service beyond their initial bookings.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.