Ring Lardner's bitter short story about the lionization of a loser who bullied his way to the top of the fight game was transformed into a larger-than-life portrait of an anti-hero by the soon-to-be-blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman. Many of the illustrations which made the original yarn so cynical are included in the film, but the approach changed completely.
Midge Kelly is a jerk because he is a jerk, according to Lardner. As portrayed by the likable Kirk Douglas, Midge Kelly is an ambitious young hustler who is jerked around by the circumstances of his limited life and who makes errors in judgment which propel him straight through his spectacular rise and inevitable fall. Therefore, even though Midge Kelly is shown beating up his crippled brother and abandoning his wife on their wedding day, neglecting his mother, pursuing and dumping a married woman and using yet a third woman for his own gain, Kirk Douglas invests his pathetic character with such an unconscious, driven quality that we can not help identifying with his struggle. He manipulates everyone in sight, yet when he says "I'm not going to be a 'hey, you' all my life. I'm going to make something of myself", it is not hard to sympathize with his desire to improve his wretched existence. Midge Kelly's going to be champion even if it kills him.
When we watch his agonized scrambling for recognition and see his broken body and battered face, we understand his brother's refusal to condemn him and not for the hard-boiled reasons supplied by Lardner. This is what winning at any cost does to some people, says Foreman. Midge Kelly's victims, who learned to swallow their losses, are in far better shape than he is. He may be achieving immortality, but they are learning how to live.
© 2006 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 12/7/05
USA - 1949