Friday, November 25, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Ringside (1949)

Pugilist Joe O’Hara (Tom Brown) is on the fast track to winning a middleweight boxing championship, despite reservations from manager Oscar Brannigan (Joseph Crehan).  Oscar has arranged a bout for Joe to take on current champ Tiger Johnson (John Cason), and to celebrate, O’Hara’s taking his fiancée—and Oscar’s daughter—Janet (Sheila Ryan) to an intimate, cozy, out-of-the-way bistro (okay—it’s just located across the street from the fight venue), owned and operated by Papa (William Edmunds) and Mama Berger (Edit Arnold).  As screenplay luck would have it, Papa—known to his creditors as “The Professor”—has been piano teacher to Joe’s brother Mike (Don ‘Red’ Barry); once Joe wins his fight, he’ll use the money to send Br’er Mike across the pond to further advance his career as a concert pianist.

While Joe’s party rages on, a two-bit bookie named Swinger Markham (Tony Canzoneri) crashes the affair, and demands—in his intoxicated state—that he be served some beer.  Because Swinger fails to grasp the meaning of “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here,” he continues making a pest of himself until a punch thrown by Mike sends him to the sawdust floor.  Swinger drops by Joe’s workout the next day to apologize for his beastly behavior, but while he’s there he witnesses Joe take a hit to the head from his sparring partner, a punch that gives Oscar cause for concern.  A trip to the doctor (Sam Flint) later, and Joe is diagnosed with a damaged optical nerve.  The smart money would be for the boxer to take a hiatus from the sweet science, but he’s anxious to win that purse on behalf of Mike.

During the bout with the Tiger, Swinger helpfully tells Johnson’s manager about Joe’s eye…allowing Tiger to capitalize on O’Hara’s weakness by sending him to the mat in record time.  Thus, Joe is now blind and he’ll need an operation to restore his sight…but he’s a victim of the Obamacare gap and the hospital bills are piling up.  So Mike—as “Kid Cobra”! —steps into the ring in order to earn the money for his brudder.  (It’s Chopin with a ten-count!)

Ringside (1949) is one of the “co-hits” on the VCI disc Forgotten Noir Volume 8 (along with the previously reviewed Mr. District Attorney [1947] and Hi-Jacked [1950], which will appear in this space next week).  It ain’t much of a noir, and it’s not too hard to figure out why it’s forgotten.  Ringside is 66 minutes of trite boxing movie clichés, though it’s probably the only fight film that opens and concludes with narration by a boxing ring.  (I’m not making this up, and the ring sounds as if it’s auditioning for The Whistler.)  Here’s the thing: I’m not a boxing aficionado in real life, but I do like movies about boxing—Body and Soul (1947), The Set-Up (1949), The Ring (1952), The Harder They Fall (1956), etc.  I will not be putting Ringside on this list.  For starters, at no time in this movie is it suggested that any of the fights are fixed.  That is not what boxing movies do.

Ringside is a slight re-working of City for Conquest (1940); Don ‘Red’ Barry is an aspiring pianist just Arthur Kennedy in the earlier film…the twist is that Barry decides to lace up the gloves when his brother goes blind—just like Jimmy Cagney in Conquest (though Cagney lost his sight when an unscrupulous boxer rubbed rosin into his orbs).  Barry’s motivation for becoming a pugilist, however, isn’t so much financial as it is vengeful: he’s vowed to make Tiger Johnson take the permanent long count in retaliation for rendering his brother sightless.  The movie predictably spares the character from going through with his plans…to be honest, it would have made Ringside a lot more interesting (and noirish) if they had allowed Don to be guilty of homicide.  (Instead, it opts for a sappy conclusion where Barry unconvincingly plays piano at a concert hall to the cheers from Joe and the rest of the characters who had the misfortune to be in this movie.)

L-R: Tom Brown, Margia Dean, Sheila Ryan.
Because this was a Robert L. Lippert production, I was truthfully expecting the characters in this film to spend the running time talking about boxing as opposed to demonstrating it.  (I will also point out—to no one’s surprise, of that much I am certain—that despite the loud noise of the crowd you rarely see a gathering commensurate to the sound effects in the arena.  Maybe this is an example of Fight Club.)  That this film was a product of the Lippert factory explains why there are so many familiar Lippert faces: Barry (Tough Assignment), Sheila Ryan (Mask of the Dragon), Margia Dean (FBI Girl), Lyle Talbot (Fingerprints Don’t Lie), and Edit Angold (also in Assignment), to name just a few.  Joe Crehan is the guy you’ve seen in a gazillion Crime Does Not Pay shorts; John L. Cason a serials and B-Western veteran, and Tom Brown also obtained chapter play immortality playing the titular hero of The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack (1943).  (Character fave Chester Clute has an amusing bit in Ringside as a timid spectator who explains that he doesn’t like Tiger Johnson because he reminds him too much of his mother-in-law.)

Joey Adams
The opening credits of Ringside “introduce” three thespians to the world of motion pictures: Joey Adams, who plays the comic relief role that Sid Melton would have taken had he not been elsewhere (maybe Sid had a funeral to attend), was a longtime New York Post columnist (he penned the "Strictly for Laughs" feature, and his wife Cindy wrote gossip for the same rag).  Tony Canzoneri, who plays Swinger, was a former champion featherweight (in the 1920s); Ringside was not his first rodeo, by the way—he had bit parts in two earlier features, Mr. Broadway (1933) and Let’s Live Tonight (1935) (you can also spot him in The Quiet Man).  Ringside seems to have been both Mark Plant’s debut and cinematic swan song—his only other credit at the (always reliable) IMDb is as “Emcee in Tarzan Costume” (I swear I’m not making this up) in a 1937 Universal short, Rhapsody in Zoo (1937).  (A pun only Andrew “Grover” Leal could love.)

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