#18 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Only really remembered these days because the Coen Brothers paid homage to it as the title of the screenplay being written by the title character in Barton Fink, Flesh is another nearly forgotten Ford film in his very busy 30s period that definitely doesn’t deserve to be overlooked. It’s a combination of drama and comedy that rather deftly integrated together with a winning central performance from Wallace Beery.
Beery plays Polakai, a German wrestler who meets the young American woman Laura (Karen Morley). She’s alone in Germany, just released from a German jail, with no money and orders a plate of food she can’t afford because she was expecting the associate of her imprisoned beau Nicky (Ricardo Cortez) to show up and help her. Polakai hears of her troubles as the manager of the restaurant is about to take her to the police and pays for her meal. Because she’s still alone and without money, she latches onto him. He takes her back to his flat, offers her the bedroom, and retreats to his living room in wonderfully entertaining fashion. He’s unable to get the lock of the door to work, so be breaks through the door and squeezes through to the other side.
Polakai is just a good guy, and he treats Laura extremely well. Giving her a place to live and food to eat. It’s obvious that she is beginning to fall for him, but she can’t quite throw herself at him. He may be a big, lovable lug, but she has a secret. Meanwhile, Polakai’s friends decides to move to America, and they promise to send for Polakai when they are settled. At the same time, Laura discovers where Polakai hides his stash of cash and tries to steal it for Nicky to get him out of jail. Polakai discovers her, and she covers by saying that Nicky is her brother. Polakai, being a nice and gullible man, offers up the money for Nicky.
All of this is told in light fashion, using comedy and just the right amount of drama to sell Polakai’s character. Karen Morley probably goes a bit too far into melodrama (especially in the film’s final reel), but it’s Wallace Beery’s portrayal of the wonderfully good-natured Polakai that makes it work.
Nicky arrives, and then quickly skips out on Laura when she reveals to him that she got out of prison because she’s pregnant with his child. That leaves her alone with Polakai, who has proposed to her several times. Together, as husband and wife, they head to America to pursue his ascending wrestling career. With a child and wife that he loves, he’s ready to take on America. Nicky shows up again with an offer to manage Polakai, but Nicky takes Polakai directly into to seedier side of professional sports, introducing him to a gangster who wants Polakai to throw fights when necessary.
This is where the movie moves decidedly from a lightly comic telling of a story with a strong central character into a drama with Polakai needing to choose between his pride and providing for his family. He ends up taking the deal, happy to take part in the ascension to fame, but he knows that the fall is going to come at some point. The ending straddles the line between cliché, melodrama, and straight drama, but it’s buoyed by Beery. His goodness carries him through his final challenges, mistakes, and fate.
The only thing keeping me back from giving this a full four stars is the final reel. Morley just goes too far into melodramatic acting, and the final plot turn goes from interestingly oblique to kind of tired. It’s relatively minor stuff considering the whole of the picture but just enough to hold me back slightly in praise.
Outside of that, this is a surprisingly strong film. Confidently and quietly directed with a wonderful central performance and an ending that elegantly brings together everything in one place, Flesh is a completely forgotten film in Ford’s output from the 30s that really does deserve some revisitation and re-evaluation.