Top 10 Slapsticks in the Ring – Comedies That Pack a Punch
There are plenty of serious films that have taken on the drama of boxing. Often they play up the angle of the unknown, struggling underdog who works hard, and defies the naysayers to beat all odds and make it as a champion. Some have focused on the sport’s cultural integration in society. But boxing is also a sport that makes the perfect set-up for physical comedy.
Generally speaking, the funniest formula in the ring pairs up an unlikely hero who is deeply out of his league against the typical champion. The contrasts are striking and punctuated – often facing off a meagerly meated and inexperienced David, who is outmatched in every way from physicality to confidence, against his all-brawn and rarely any brained Goliath.
Here is my list of favorites, from the humorous views inside the ropes:
10: The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933)
More of a rom than com, this film is worthy of a footnote on this list because it’s a marvelous Pre-Code era gem. It’s a cinch namely for its cast, its Oscar-winning story from Marion Francis, and the truly authentic boxing performances. The terrific talent includes Myrna Loy, just prior to her Thin Man partnership with director WS “Woody” Van Dyke, Walter Huston, and the surprisingly solid performances from actual professional boxers, like Max Baer.
9: Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
This heavenly classic stars Robert Young as boxer Joe Pendleton who negotiates with angelic gatekeepers (Claude Rains, Edward Everett Horton) in search for his old boxing life (before being prematurely yanked from earthly bounds prior to the big championship) and a worthy body up for the task. The comic moments are light yet charmingly enduring. Based on the novel Heaven Can Wait the premise is unique in a timeless way, enough to later result in two remakes and a sequel. In one funny scenario, Montgomery lays on a thick, street-wise accent as he attempts to convince his old manager not only that he’s been reincarnated in a new body, but somehow they’re both not totally crazy.
Jimmy Durante, Tom Dugan, and Stuart Erwin lace up in Palooka (1934).
8: Palooka (1934)
Based on the comic strip character Joe Palooka created by cartoonist Ham Fisher in 1930, this boxer became a popular cultural figure across radio, Vitaphone shorts, television, and film. By the 1940s, Palooka was even merchandized and put on a cereal box. With an energetic ensemble cast, this film showcases Palooka’s first appearance in a feature film. This one takes boxing to a musical level, too. We are treated to the beauty and singing talents of Lupe Velez, wedged in between the wisecracking one-liners of Jimmy Durante.
7: Kelly the Second (1936)
After 21 comedy shorts teamed with Thelma Todd and playing second banana to other leading lady beauties, Hal Roach was ready to debut Patsy Kelly as the female lead. A prime example of the bounties found in boxing for physical comedy, this Hal Roach/MGM film peppers on the classic gags and silly slapstick to highlight the comic skills of Charley Chase and Patsy Kelly. Kelly plays a sassy Irishwoman, named Molly Kelly, who trains an Irish truck driver, Guinn Williams as Cecil Callahan, to become a prizefighter. It heavily relies on Irish stereotypes to enhance the standard bits, which I personally thought made it even more charming and amusing. I only recently discovered this film and I recommend this lesser-known gem, especially for Patsy Kelly fans.
6: Sailor Beware (1952), the boxing scene
This Paramount picture is Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s fifth film from their infamous film collaborations. Spoiler alert: it’s not a boxing film at all. It actually takes Martin and Lewis out to sea by enrolling them into the navy under hypochondriac circumstances. But it features a boxing match scene of supreme Jerry Lewis rubbery shtick in the ring. Check it out:
Boxing match with Jerry Lewis from the movie Sailor Beware.
5: The Kid from Brooklyn (1946)
4: The Milky Way (1933)
Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo headline The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), which is a remake of the 1933 version, The Milky Way, starring Harold Lloyd. In each film, the plot is essentially the same, of the male lead who goes from the mild-mannered milkman to a boxing champ via happen-chance circumstances. Each takes on the flavor of their leads Lloyd and Kaye. Personally, as a fan of both comedy icons, I find both renditions to be funny-bone-tickling solid entertainment. While the remake offers up gorgeous Technicolor and the deliciously dry sass of Eve Arden, Harold Lloyd has less of these types of distractions so the central focus remains on his solid gold gags and physicality.
3: Battling Butler (1926), boxing scene
It should come as no surprise that the arguably most athletic silent film star would rank high for displaying the boxing sport on the big screen. Buster Keaton, the star, and director of this film who performed his own stunts showcases his extraordinary dexterity. Beyond the typical cowardly type, Keaton enhances this inept persona as being also an impossibly spoiled playboy. This sets the stage for extremely clever and hilarious camping/hunting scenes. By the time this wealthy weakling springs into the ring for a climatic finish, “Stone Face” has won us over again. Considered his own personal favorite, and made during the peak of his prime years, I highly recommend screening this silent gem if you’ve never seen it before.
2 ~ The Quiet Man (1952)
I’ve repeatedly sung the praises of this John Ford homage to his Irish roots. At the time of the original release, many Irish citizens were not pleased with several examples in this film that portray the stereotype of Irish fighting. Luckily for those of us who have found nothing but pure joy in The Quiet Man, we know the magic of the movies is as wonderfully magical as leprechauns and pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. Besides, the reality is dull – when you can embrace a John Ford’s vision instead. The boxer, in this case, is John Wayne as “Trooper” Sean Thornton, who attempts to escape his recent past, by going back to his ancestor’s (and his own) origins in Ireland. His love for Maureen O’Hara as Mary Kate Danaher and rallying support from a tight-knit community allows Sean to face his personal demons via a very long fighting match, outside the ring. In the end, this fight brings respect and admiration from his new family and for himself. I guess you can go home, after all.
1: City Lights (1931)
I have listed many examples above of boxing comedies that are a sure-bet for knock-out entertainment. But the one cinematic boxing example that is so intrinsically funny that tears have streamed down my face, is Charlie Chaplin’s infamous boxing scene in City Lights. In addition to a natural instinct for survival, “The Tramp” had a finessed panache for rhythm. He truly dances in the ring. He may not “float like a butterfly, nor sting like a bee” like the great Muhammad Ali, but Chaplin is a heavy-weight world champ in making me laugh.
The Main Event (1979)
Filled with potential but somehow just misses its mark, this film has all the right ingredients but perhaps it was simply born in the wrong era, not unlike many of us classic film fans. I realize 1979 is not exactly what I would define as within the ropes of the classic timeline, but that may pinpoint its real challenge. It’s a film that attempts old-school methods of slapstick-meets-romantic comedy but something feels off. What does work well is the chemistry between the stars Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Both are skilled veterans of comedy at this point. Their performances bring the fun to this boxing flick that dukes out a battle of the sexes match-up in the ring. I felt compelled to add this one addendum as I’m a big Streisand fan.
What are your favorite classic boxing films or scenes that make you laugh?
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing and social media as her day gig, Kellee Pratt writes for her own classic film blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com). Kellee teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Screwball Comedy this Fall). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, Social Producer for TCM (2015, 2016), and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayHawk66.