Director: Roy Del Ruth
Winner Take All wastes no time getting right into the story with the first scene, an announcement to a packed house that boxer Jimmy (James Cagney) is taking a break to get much-needed rest, and the spectators throw money at him to help finance his recuperative six-month stay at a New Mexico health ranch. Jimmy’s manager (Guy Kibbee) wants to tear him away from the endless booze, dames and wild nights that have ruined his career (“exhaustion” isn’t just a modern celebrity euphemism for excess partying), but as soon as Jimmy arrives at the retreat, he falls for Peggy (Marian Nixon), a chorus girl from New York who’s there with her sick boy Dickie (Dickie Moore).
Jimmy drastically improves thanks to love, and decides to stay out there and away from boxing, but when Peggy runs out of money and has to leave the ranch before her son’s treatment is complete, Jimmy goes back to fighting to raise the funds. He makes a huge comeback and returns to NYC, but before Peggy and Dickie can join him, his life and affections take a massive hit. He falls under the spell of playgirl socialite Joan (Virginia Bruce) and when he changes his look and ways to please her, he almost ruins his career, reputation and scrappy fighting spirit.
This was the first of several boxers Cagney would play in the movies, and he excelled at this type of restless, brash lug with a big heart he’s ashamed to reveal. He spreads the dopey density and the accent on thick for this role, but shows he’s no dummy when it counts, like when he slyly pretends to be after the right photo composition in order to get Peggy in the right kissing position. He’s generous but doesn’t want credit, insecure and willing to improve himself but will deck anyone who mocks his ignorance. He “hits big” and can power through great odds so long as his heart, his will and good intentions are behind every punch, but when his affections and priorities are misplaced, he goes soft.
Cagney’s befuddled fascination with the elite, his contempt for their condescension and his awkward attempts to fit in create funny scenes, like his premature clapping during a piano solo (a moment made better when Bruce tries to keep a straight face), or his comical response when asked his opinion on the Five-Year Plan. The brute exposes the fakery of the hifalutin Park Avenue swells and the pitfalls of aspiring to their shallow values. Nothing wrong with taking etiquette lessons from Alan Mowbray (none of that Shakespeare stuff that ruined Tunney though), but Jimmy also gets his ears fixed and nose straightened, relandscaping, as he puts it. It turns him into a prettified social lap dog and useless boxer who dodges punches to preserve his new face. Thrill-seeking, unpredictable Joan only finds him amusing as an objectified celebrity attraction, a hunk with muscles all the women want to squeeze, a curiosity and souvenir of her slumming at the fights, so she repays his commitment and sincere efforts to please by giving him the air and mocking his marriage proposal.
Peggy comes back to this Jimmy, entirely different, confused and even cruel, and she responds to his rejection by tossing his money back at him, which gives the sweet, meek single mother the chance to land a devastating blow against his pride and conscience, if he has any left. With that bruise on his heart, he roars back to fighting form for the wrong reason: a rush to K.O. his opponent so he can catch Joan at the pier before she sails away without him. Once there he clearly sees her as a cheating flake and returns to Peggy, who doesn’t care how much class he hasn’t got, how impossible he is, or how much he pretends he was never serious about the ritzy blonde.
The boxing scenes are well done, Clarence Muse gets a nice, non-stereotypical part as Jimmy’s trainer but, like Kibbee, is underused. George ‘Gabby’ Hayes appears as the health resort intern who outlines strict diet and routine orders, Esther Howard is Joan’s meddlesome, romantic-night-blocking friend, and Ralf Harolde provides Cagney with a stolen engagement ring, which Harolde guarantees will be more than suitable for a Park Avenue dame since that’s the neighbourhood where he picked it up. At least when the ring ends up on Peggy’s finger, there’s little chance she’ll cross paths with its original owner, since Jimmy has found happiness in more down-to-earth circles. When Jimmy and Peggy recall the club where they first met, the flashback includes footage from Queen of the Night Clubs (1929) with George Raft as band conductor. In 1984, footage from Winner Take All was used in flashbacks to the youth of Cagney’s retired boxer character in The Terrible Joe Moran.