Raoul Walsh’s comedy of fin de siècle athletic showmanship pivots on the sport’s progression from waterfront brawls to "the scientific art of self-defense," foxy James Corbett (Errol Flynn) sees it as the upgrade from bank clerk’s counter to Nob Hill drawing room. His natural brashness segues seamlessly from hitting on a customer to getting a tour of San Francisco’s Olympic Club, parlor, gym and all. "In six months, he’ll own the place," marvels the patrician belle (Alexis Smith), who’s taught a crucial point in the art of bragging: "Mr. Corbett, what a beautiful swelled head you’re going to have." "Oh no, you see, a swellhead is a guy who thinks he’s good and isn’t." His first great victory is against the British champ hired to pound some humility into him, the post-fight party kicks off the melding of prole and aristo values and includes the wonderful sight of his soused best friend (Jack Carson) waltzing rowdily with a socialite half his size. Embodied by the never-better Flynn, the heavyweight pugilist is a blithe, dandified tomcat who likes top hats and Shakespeare and getting his mom gifts and doing a jig when his father breaks into impromptu song, the motor of the film’s investigation of celebrity and masculinity. ("He should’ve been a dancer," priest Arthur Shields chimes in from the audience’s side.) Walsh’s direction is attuned to the protagonist’s fleet footwork, "no fancy knots" and plenty of loving detail (bearded moneybags doing stretching exercises, like Thomas Nast’s Boss Tweed cartoons). Alan Hale leads the charge of roughneck Irish minstrelsy, Ward Bond’s grand John L. Sullivan provides the chest-pounding Old Guard’s curtain call. "I don’t know much about this ‘gentleman’ stuff..." The most kinetic of period pieces, the least pious of biopics, Walsh’s Grand Illusion, an elegy for men trying to hang on to the notion of blood sports as games of honor. (The Set-Up, Champion and Body and Soul are on the horizon.) With John Loder, William Frawley, Minor Watson, Rhys Williams, Madeleine Lebeau, and Dorothy Vaughan. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce