Knockout (1941)

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When director William Clemens wasn’t making Perry Mason, Falcon and Nancy Drew movies (along with many other Bs) he made this boxing story with very early appearances by greats, and some of my favourites, Anthony Quinn, Arthur Kennedy and Cornel Wilde. Fighter Johnny Rocket (Kennedy) plans to quit boxing to please his bride-to-be Angela Grinelli (Olympe Bradna) and get her father’s approval, but his contract is bought by shady and controlling manager Trego (Quinn). When Trego can no longer talk Johnny into fighting, he resorts to fixing the employment scene and bullying all the gyms to ensure Johnny can’t get work anywhere. Desperate for cash to support his new wife, Johnny reluctantly comes back to Trego and fights his way up, almost becoming champion. Unfortunately, he loses his wife and skyrocketing career by letting the hype goes to his head, getting involved with glam gossip/sportswriter Gloria (Virginia Field), and then threatening to leave Trego, who retaliates by sabotaging Johnny’s biggest fight. Johnny ends up ruined, poor, fighting in the sticks circuit and developing a post-concussion injury that could kill him if he keeps boxing.

Knockout has a thin story that winds up too conveniently (albeit with one very satisfying punch), but it’s a good snappy B that moves fast by showing just the highlights and leaving the rest to newspaper headlines and fight posters. The main attractions are these actors, who already show a great deal of the presence they would become known for, and a good look at the upside of boxing fame as well as the tragic lows, such as a roomful of fighters taking suicidal risks for a measly $20, and stumbling back to the locker room with their brains so scrambled they can’t even tie their shoes.

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Bradna’s French accent is a bit off when you’re supposed to believe she’s the daughter of the Italian Louis (William Edmunds) who talks-a like-a Chico Marx, but even so, she was pleasant, sweet and believably devoted to Johnny. She’s less worried about him getting hurt than she is concerned about him getting drunk on the celebrity worship and sudden influx of money, and when she sees how uncontrollable his ego and their lives have gotten, she walks out and tells him to come find her when he’s the old Johnny again.

Cliff Edwards plays Johnny’s goofy trainer, and you can see William Hopper in a teeny bit as a reporter, among many other tough and weathered faces as the boxers. Cornel Wilde doesn’t get much to do other than look impossibly young and cute as Tom, who loves Angela, consoles her when she loses her baby (because the weasel Trego “forgets” to tell Johnny she’s in the hospital), remembers her birthday when Johnny doesn’t, and tells the broken-down fighter to scram when he finally crawls back seeking Angela’s forgiveness. Despite what all this might lead you to think, Johnny doesn’t come off like an irredeemable jerk. He’s a decent Cagney-type character who, thanks to Kennedy’s acting and natural charisma, remains likable, whether he’s cocky, stupid or realistic. He’s smart enough to know his fists are his only valuable asset, but too dumb to catch on when he’s being exploited and undermined, and his biggest human credential is the good wife who loves him no matter what.

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2 thoughts on “Knockout (1941)”

  1. I have this one and will have to dust it off. Yet to see it. I find it rather amusing that Kennedy is the fighter and in a few short years he’d be second fiddle to Kirk Douglas in Champion.

    1. He really got a “lovable loser Cagney type” part here and did a nice job with it. He and Quinn are riveting even this early, and if you like boxing movies like I do then it’s an interesting look at the dangers, for a 41 picture.

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