One connection leads to another and then another, whether via the proverbial Six Degrees of Separation or by means of random-chance Free Association. Which explains how the moviemaking Coen Bros., Joel and Ethan, and Ham Fisher’s strange trailblazer of a comic strip, Joe Palooka, come to be mentioned in a single sentence.
The Coen Bros.’ current motion picture, No Country for Old Men, took Best Picture honors the other day in a vote amongst members of my regional (Texas) society of film critix. A re-screening seemed in order, particularly because the film – an unnerving combination of crime melodrama with Existential Quandary – contains a bizarre murder gimmick that had triggered a vague memory of some other movie from ’Way Back When. I figured that a fresh look might complete the connection between the lethal device in No Country for Old Men and whatever other picture I was recalling.
And sure enough: The compressed-air cattle-slaughtering implement that Javier Bardem wields in No Country proves akin in that respect to Charles Lamont’s A Shot in the Dark – a fairly conventional whodunit from 1935, rendered weird by the use of industrial machinery in lieu of conventional weaponry. George E. Turner and I had devoted a chapter to A Shot in the Dark in our first volume of the Forgotten Horrors movie-history library, figuring that although murder per se might or might not render a film horrific, murder by unconventional means is a strong qualifier.
That slight recollection, in turn, pointed toward a batch of other weird-gizmo murder pictures, leading at length to 1947’s Joe Palooka in the Knockout, part of a series of movies spun off the Fischer strip. When odder random associations are made, the Forgotten Horrors franchise will make ’em.
Did I say “unconventional means” – ? Try murder by frozen-liquid missile, as in 1936’s A Face in the Fog. Or murder by toxic fumes, from 1935’s Rip Roaring Riley, amongst others. Or mur¬der by poison-saturated sweat-rag, as seen in 1936’s Prison Shadows. All of which lead toward Joe Palooka in the Knockout, which posits the notion of a prizefight killing via a tainted mouth-protector. That the implement of death is one of the most trusted tools of the pugilist’s trade, lends a black irony beyond the forced wholesomeness of Fischer’s original comics yarns.
This third of Monogram Pictures’ 10 Palookas stars dependable Leon Errol, one of Old Hollywood’s great grouches and a favorite foil of W.C. Fields, as manager Knobby Walsh; and Joe Kirkwood, Jr., as heroic pug Joe Palooka. Things start looking grim for Joe when opponent Jackie Mathews (Tom Garland) drops dead, apparently from a blow landed by Joe. In fact, Mathews had been overdosed with a sneak drugging that was supposed merely to have left him zonked out. Mathews’ manager, Max Steele (Whitford Kane), had played along with the scam under threat of blackmail, but now he is furious to learn that things have turned lethal.
Joe Palooka swears off fighting (a foreshadowing of John Wayne’s withdrawal from the sport in John Ford’s 1952 film The Quiet Man) and drifts about aimlessly – until an encounter with Mathews’ fiancée (Trudy Marshall) leaves him convinced that Mathews had met with foul play. Another bearer of clues turns up defunct, and finally Joe finds himself marked for murder. Gambler John Mitchell (Marc Lawrence) and henchman Pusher Moore (Danny Morton) are caught tampering with Joe’s gum-protector plate; they leave a locker-room attendant (Benny Baker) beaten nearly to death. Steele, fed up with it all, guns down Mitchell and Moore. Ringleader Howard Abbott (Morris Carnovsky) remains at large until confronted by the bereaved fiancée, who intends to shoot him. She is spared the trouble by Abbott’s dog, whose ill-timed boisterous entrance causes the killer to shoot himself. Joe re-enters the ring and slugs his way to a championship.
Joe Palooka had come to the screen in 1934 as Palooka, a respectable one-punch job from the coalition of little Reliance Pictures and big United Artists Corp., starring Jimmy Durante as Knobby Walsh and mild-mannered Stuart Erwin as the sweet-natured rube prizefighter Joe. Palooka is remembered fondly today, when remembered at all, as a showcase for Durante’s signature song, “Inka Dinka Doo.”
The Monogram series ran from 1946 into 1951. In addition to the viciousness at large in Knockout, the films would touch on such harrowing fare as sniper attacks (1946’s Joe Palooka, Champ); kidnapping and child exploitation (1948’s Joe Palooka in Winner Take All); inflicted blindness (1948’s Joe Palooka in Fighting Mad); and druggings and more druggings (1949’s Joe Palooka in the Big Fight and 1950’s Joe Palooka in the Squared Circle). In 1954, the Monogram series’ Joe Kirkwood, Jr., returned to the ring as producer-star of a low-rent television series called The Joe Palooka Story.
The character’s origins and back-story ran sufficiently deeper and darker as to suggest a scenario for some Coen Bros. film: Cartoonist Ham Fisher had launched Joe Palooka in 1928 as a sentimentalized romance-adventure piece for the McNaught Syndicate, hackishly drawn (Fischer was more a conceptual artist and pitch-man than an accomplished cartoonist) and written for full measure of corn – except for a Depression-era stretch when a young Al Capp, as Fischer’s anonymous assistant, took gradual charge of things with more intelligent results.
Having raised Palooka to levels of sardonic wit beyond Fischer’s grasp, Capp jumped ship and launched his own comic strip, the vividly satirical Li’l Abner, in 1934.
Prevailing antagonisms kept Fischer and Capp at odds for years – a common scenario in which a supposed apprentice out-performs an oppressive boss. The Joe Palooka comic strip continued apace as a happy-sappy popular favorite, spawning movies and licensed toys and other such cultural detritus.
(Li’l Abner found itself adapted sporadically to film during its earlier years – a 1940 grotesquerie that captured only the superficial attributes of Capp’s brilliance, followed by a disappointing run of animated cartoons. The 1950s would see the Gene DePaul-Johnny Mercer musical Li’l Abner become a smash on Broadway, followed by a splendidly bombastic movie version.)
The backstage hostilities culminated in Fischer’s attempt to drum Capp out of the cartooning profession by calling their colleagues’ attention to (forged) examples of hidden obscenities in Li’l Abner. His treachery having backfired, Fischer dealt with the loss-of-face by committing suicide in 1955.
Joe Palooka continued dispensing its reactionary wholesomeness well beyond Fischer’s lifetime, finally fading away in 1984. Capp, who nursed a grudge as relentlessly as Fischer but proved too honorable to resort to ambush defamation, had told his side of the story in a bitterly hilarious essay called “I Remember Monster,” never once mentioning his mentor-turned-tormentor by name. (The title, “I Remember Monster,” is Capp’s sarcastic evocation of John Van Druten’s famous family-saga play, I Remember Mama, filmed in 1948. Which might suggest a Free Association exercise for another day.)