Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kid Galahad (1962, Phil Karlson)

While perhaps not conventional noir by the strictest definition, Michael Curtiz's original Kid Galahad (1937) (much like King Vidor's 1931 boxing film The Champ) is steeped in an unnerving nihilism reminiscent of the genre.  In the original, it was easy to see who the main characters were (because they were being acted by Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart), none of whom played Galahad.  Kid Galahad is not the main character in this feature or its 1962 remake.  The latter aims to misguide its audience in casting Elvis Presley as the boxer, although the story has always been about the wayward fight promoter. 

The promoter, Willy Grogan (Gig Young) is a self-seeking gambler who places value on others based solely on what they can do for him.  He sees promise in Walter "Kid Galahad" Gulick (Presley) based on his ability to take a few punches and sting with a strong right hook.  Perhaps with enough exploitation, Willy hopes to earn enough money through Walter's boxing (legal or otherwise) to pay off his gambling debts to gangster Otto Danzig (David Lewis).  Women are also a means to an end for Willy, whose relationship with girlfriend Dolly (Lola Albright) is behind closed doors to his family ("what is there to know about us anyway?  Am I a lady barber or something?", Dolly asks in exasperation).

All the groundwork is in place (mostly from the original film) for a classic antihero; the kind for whom there are no easy answers and, at the end of the day, fate catches up with.  Such was the case for Edward G. Robinson, but not for Gig Young.  Kid Galahad waffles by removing any stakes from its nihilistic overtones.  In the end, all is forgiven, slates are wiped clean, and gangsters have no bite.  Any consequence for even mixing with such company is glossed over and the happy-go-lucky Walter sings to his love interest "I Got Lucky".  The pleasant ending robs us of emotional investment by rounding the edge of any conflict.  Presley's relatively passionless Walter Gulick essentially gets what he wants:  a return to a mundane life, working on cars and an occasional lazy Sunday drive.  Not necessarily the most compelling cinema.

Much grit is also loosed by the fact that Presley is no boxer.  Elvis trained with former junior welterweight champion Mushy Callahan who had some career training actors in boxing films (notably Kirk Douglas and Errol Flynn).  As you would expect from someone in the position, Callahan praised Presley's preparation for the role, suggesting, "he never boxed before but he picked it up quick because of his karate training."  As producer Hal Wallis never invested in Elvis Presley as a serious actor, imagine how someone not invested as a serious actor tries investing to act as a serious boxer.  Suffice to say his boxing looks about as genuine as his karate does in Roustabout: wide-eyed by fits and starts in older-brother's shoes.

Kid Galahad unnecessarily emasculates the noir sting of its original much like the 1979 remake of The Champ turned true drama into soap opera.  Each remake is a misreading of what audiences love about boxing movies: the underdog isn't fighting for anything, and we're not even sure how the malevolent promoter is let off the ropes.  Kid Galahad champions the middle-of-the-road, not only in its thematic reinterpretation, form and function. -- **/four stars

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