I watched this John Ford film twice over the weekend and rather than digging as deep as usual I just wanted to capture some quick impressions.
Before I even get to the story I just want to say, wow, Karen Morley--fantastic! If Morley's Poppy from Scarface (1932) was ever spun off into her own film title it would be her hard-bitten Laura from Flesh.
She's served her time in a faraway land and now free and alone she's in survival mode. Dark and pathetic she reluctantly latches on to the little bit of security Wallace Beery's Polakai offers, all the while awaiting the arrival of the love of her life, an extra-sleazy Ricardo Cortez as Nicky, from his own prison cell. If you told me there was a prequel explaining just how Americans Laura and Nicky wound up in Germany and what they had done to get arrested there I'd be watching it right now!
The more I see Karen Morley, and purely by coincidence I've watched her again in both Scarface and Black Fury (1935) within the past couple of weeks, the more I appreciate her. Her performance in Flesh is now my favorite, by far.
We spend the first half of Flesh in Polakai's native Germany. After that recent experience suffering through Muni's Black Fury accent I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Wallace Beery's less distracting German act throughout Flesh. Polakai is a top ranked German wrestler who also pours the keg at Herman's (Jean Hersholt) beer garden. He lives in an apartment adjoining the beer garden which is also owned by Herman and his wife (Greta Meyer). Polakai meets Laura at the beer garden and comes to her rescue when she can't pay her bill. He saves her again later that evening when Laura scampers to Polakai's room rather than be harassed as a streetwalker by the neighborhood policeman.
Polakai is a gentle giant. It isn't in his good nature to ever doubt Laura's intentions, especially since he's fallen in love with her. Laura soon has Polakai spending his savings to bail out her lover, Nicky, on the pretense that he's actually her brother. Cortez is a total slime as Nicky. He treats Laura terrible time and time again but she's so desperately in love with him that she keeps falling prey to his growing abuses. After Nicky learns why Laura was released from prison early--they don't want any babies born there--he borrows money from Polakai and gets out of town as fast as he can leaving Laura behind and completely heartbroken. Without a dime or any remaining hope, Laura has no choice but to marry Polakai.
It may have turned out better for Polakai had they remained in Germany. Laura would have eventually left him, sure, but that would have been a better fate than what came to Polakai in America. Laura gives birth to a son the same night that Polakai wins the German wrestling championship. She's wracked with guilt and a longing for Nicky that she and Polakai both mistake for homesickness so Polakai declares that he's ready to go to America where he'll make an attempt at capturing wrestling championship of the world.
The Hermans are already in America having traded their wide open German beer garden for an out-of-sight Hoboken speakeasy. We soon see Nicky has made his way back to the US as well and he quickly takes over as Polakai's manager after claiming to be tight with Willard (John Miljan), the top wrestling promoter in the States. Polakai discovers that not only is Willard crooked but so too is the American wrestling game and he has to decide whether to follow Nicky's urging and wrestle fixed matches for Willard or to return home to Germany where he could wrestle honestly but lose Laura.
Beery is a lovable oaf as Polakai. He's not a rich man by any means, but his brawn has brought him a living and a happy life. He retains all innocence through that happiness. He never questions Laura's actions to be anything but as pure as his own. America proves a rude awakening after his idyllic existence in his homeland. I usually prefer Beery as mean as can be and have never been much of a fan of the movies that made him such a huge box office star around the time of Flesh, The Champ (1931) and his Marie Dressler pairings, but he won me over as the almost too simple Polakai.
Karen Morley is a tightly wound ball of almost every painful emotional trait you could think of as Laura. Her wisecracks are tough and well delivered. Laura has to be tough and with Morley bringing her to life she's not taking any guff. Except from Nicky. But that's love and that's the cause of so many of those terrible feelings she has inside. When she attempts to steal money from Polakai you hope she comes out of it okay because you know how bad she needs it. After Nicky leaves her without a word of warning she's like a wild animal trying to get past Polakai to join him. Once reality sets in she realizes she must accept Polakai's proposal but immediately excuses herself and cries uncontrollably in her bedroom. When her son is born and Polakai, believing the boy to be his own, visits her in the hospital Morley is absolutely heartbreaking as she fights every emotion in front of this man who loves her. Morley continues to give Laura everything she's got once in America including a couple of fantastic confrontations with Nicky where she's fed up with him but even angrier at herself because she just cannot get over him. And when it comes time for the most memorable scene in the movie it's Morley's face that will stick with you. You can't help but to feel for her Laura especially since Morley gives so much to the character the entire way through Flesh.
And that leaves us Ricardo Cortez to hiss at as Nicky. For Nicky the tougher the breaks the easier it becomes to walk away. He survives on confidence and if there's one thing he's sure of it is that Laura loves him and not Polakai. The more Nicky twists Laura towards him, the more she comes. And that's bad for Polakai. She continually reminds Nicky that Polakai is a good egg, but Nicky's only interest is in using the big man, first to escape Germany, next to make a million in the wrestling game. Laura wants Nicky but Nicky is only out for himself.
Directed by John Ford and adapted from a story by Edmund Goulding, Flesh stars Wallace Beery, Karen Morley and Ricardo Cortez. Jean Hersholt, Greta Meyer, Herman Bing and Vince Barnett figure as Polakai's Germany family while John Miljan runs the crooked American wrestling game with Edward Brophy at his side. Beery knocks out Ford regular Ward Bond in the American gym and he wrestles for the championship with Wladlek Zbyszko in the US. Wladlek's brother Stanislaus Zbyszko played Gregorious, the old wrestling purist, in Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950). Maybe it was because of the close resemblance of the Zbyszkos to one another, but the wrestling storyline in Flesh, especially in America, recalled Night and the City to my mind more than once.
The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production of Flesh was made in September-October 1932 and released in the U.S. on December 8 of that year. While my copy was taken from a Turner Classic Movies airing it is available for immediate purchase as part of the Warner Archive collection.
GEORGE RAFT WALLACE BEERY JACKIE COOPER in The Bowery Original Vint 1933
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