The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933) is the story of a champion boxer, Jimmy Dolan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) whose public persona is that of a cheery, clean-living, no booze, no women mama’s boy, but in reality he’s none of those things. During one wild victory party, he accidentally kills a reporter who finds out he’s a phony and threatens to expose him. In the aftermath, Jimmy ‘s best pal robs him, dumps him in the country and runs off with his girl, and when they die in a police chase, Jimmy Dolan is assumed to be dead.
Broke and facing a murder charge if he reveals the identity mixup, Jimmy runs. He rides the rails and collapses at a ranch for disabled children run by Peggy (Loretta Young) and Auntie (Aline McMahon). After nursing Jimmy back to health, the ladies shame him into staying to work, they all bond and Jimmy grows a heart and a conscience. When Peggy faces losing the ranch, Jimmy goes back to boxing to earn the mortgage payment. In so doing he’s recognized because of his famous southpaw stance and attracts ace detective Phlaxer (Guy Kibbee), who needs to prove Jimmy is alive in order to restore his own reputation, which was ruined by sending an innocent man to execution.
This is one of my favourite feel-good movies. You get a lot of story, cast and quips for the buck, it’s cute, sweet and romantic without being overly sappy, there’s a nice moral illustrated through a couple of interesting and suspenseful character arcs and the fight scenes are exciting. Fairbanks is at his most charming and handsome and does good work as he goes from bitter, selfish cynic to good guy willing to be a “sucker” for love and the good of others. He has an impressive vocabulary, dropping ten-cent words everywhere he goes and making a show of explaining them to the lesser minds around him, but in the end he needs to learn the meaning of the words love and idealism. He reacts awkwardly to generosity and mocks those who act selflessly with no material payoff to show for their effort, but, through his own choices and the actions of people who have much to lose by helping him, sees that things done from the heart have their own reward.
There are many memorable moments thanks to this great cast. McMahon is the tough-love taskmaster who condemns the violence of boxing, and pretends to go to bed but sneaks off to be Jimmy’s loudest cheerleader at the fight. Party girls Budgie (Fifi D’Orsay) and baby-talking Goldie (Shirley Grey) are clingy and annoying and Lyle Talbot plays the scummy friend who helps himself to Jimmy’s watch, girl and Lincoln. John Wayne plays a skittish boxer who needs a pep talk from Jimmy before getting in the ring. Edward Arnold is the police chief who cruelly calls Kibbee a washed-up old woman, and Arthur Hohl is the lawyer who “advises” Jimmy to take a new name and life, and charges a fee amounting to 99% of Jimmy’s savings.
The ranch setting and the lovably wisecracking kids (including Mickey Rooney) give us for very funny little episodes like Jimmy trying to talk the milk out of a cow and a “who’s on first” exchange involving the word udder. Jimmy and Auntie bicker, the kids follow him around like puppies, while Peggy sighs at the sight of him and works on his pessimism. Don’t stare pensively at the ground, she tells him, “if you must look at nothing, look at it up there, it’s much prettier.” When she gets him to finally say “I love you” out loud, it’s for the benefit of the giggling kids who tease him mercilessly. Of course it’s one of those admiring kids who ends up blowing Jimmy’s cover by entering a photo of his lefty stance in a national contest. After Jimmy’s angry outburst he must decide if it’s worth staying and exposing himself further, “just” to help the woman and kids he loves. Once he makes his choice it’s up to Phlaxer to make a similar one. In all this heartwarming goodness and growth, Jimmy never loses his edge. Right before his crucial fight he goads his hulking opponent King Cobra with the crack, “I’m no boxer, I saw your picture in the paper and I thought I might like to be alone with you.”