Flesh, 1932. 5/10

Set both in Germany and America, a love triangle plays out with some oddball characters. Polokai (Wallace Berry) is a wrestler and waiter who falls for a down-on-her-luck Laura (Karen Morley). But lurking in the background is schemer Nicky Grant (Richard Cortez).

Nicky is also Laura’s former partner in crime; the two of them get Polokai to marry her, so that she and Nick can manage his wrestling career. If that’s not enough, Nick wants the big lug to throw fights for gambling interests, fronted by promoter Joe Willard (John Miljan). Not to mention, there’s Laura’s baby–which guy is the father? Let’s not forget some tag-along Germans–the Hermans (Jean Hersholt and Greta Meyer).

We start at the women’s prison; Laura is being released, but she’s upset that Nicky isn’t free too. She calls a friend to talk about Nicky. At a beer hall, there’s commotion, and a huge crowd; not to mention a wrestling ring in one room.

Backstage, Polokai cools off–the biggest barrel in the world serves as a bathtub; he then gets a drink from the biggest beer stein ever. There’s so much carousing and unfocused stuff that it’s like a scene from Felleni. Eventually, we see Laura getting served at a table.

She kind of stands out because she can’t pay. “Nevermind the jokes, I want my money!” insists the headwaiter. Polokai plays nice guy, and pays for her. She accompanies him home; she has no where to go, so he invites her in. She’d rather just split, but a policeman hovering nearby makes up her mind–she needs to be off the street.

He clowns around, giving her a wrestling pose; she says “Why Polokai, you even have sex appeal.” I like the beer hall stuff better…He can’t be as dumb as he seems, just a mite too silly. Check this out: he locks himself out of a room despite the fact that he’s put the key in the lock himself. Not funny. Thankfully, back to the biergarten.

The landlady complains about Laura (can’t have unmarried women sleeping around in the ’30s you know). Laura agrees to leave. But he says, she goes, I go. They come to an arrangement–as long as she sleeps in another room, she’s ok. I’m already fed up with Polokai acting like a four-year-old. He’s learning to read English; big deal.

He asks Laura “Maybe I am to you…?” “Sunshine” she says . The Hermans barge in to tell him and Laura that they should relocate to America. Mr. Herman says that Polokai ought to marry Laura–why? She sneaks into his place at night to take money (she knows where he hides it). “You don’t have to take money from Polokai; everything I have is yours…” Come on!

Well, at least she comes up with a reason: her brother (actually Nick) can get out of jail if she pays his fine. So Polokai is going to bail out Laura’s real boyfriend. He completely caters to both of them, as though he’s their servant. How much does he believe in the ‘brother’ thing? She still plans to marry Kolotai. Why?

Anyway, they plan to go back to the US (she and Nick are Americans). She blames Nick because he doesn’t object to her marrying Kolotai (?). The other tid-bit, or “jam” as she puts it, is that she’s pregnant. It’s obviously Nick’s, because she knew she was pregnant before she met Polokai. Anyway, Polokai gives Nick a bunch of money (1,500 Marks) for his passage.

Nick hints that the big lug should propose to Laura; he does. The only reason I can see for her accepting is that she (and Nick) see him as a meal ticket. More wrestling action, interspersed with news of Laura’s giving birth. Soon, he’s bringing tons of baby stuff to her hospital room. “He’s funny-looking, like me.” Coincidence, actually. She’s thinking about America. I’m thinking about the space this recording is taking up.

Polokai figures that they all make for the States. He’ll be the breadwinner. Actually, he’s kind of a big deal. Mr. Herman introduces him to the fishy trainer, and the dapper promoter, Willard. The local chumps sort of try a hazing ritual on him, but he quickly turns the tables.

Nick pops in at their place. She’s mad at him again. I don’t get their relationship; he encouraged his rival to marry her, but he says he’s still “crazy about [her].” She basically tells him to get lost, as though she’d been jilted by him. The marriage doesn’t make sense. Anyway, Polokai comes in.

So the two guys talk up Polokai’s career. They go to make a deal with Willard (Herman’s out as manager). Willard tells the big guy to “lose when I tell you to.” Polokai has scruples–but he needs a match. Here we go. Polokai’s upset because he loses unfairly. The real fight is after the fixed one; he takes on his ring rival and a couple of cops.

How can Nick spend so much time with Laura? She finally says something sensible when she tells him to leave her and Polokai alone. Once again, she kicks him out. Polokai announces that they should go back to Germany; that way, he won’t have to wrestle crooked. She, angry as always, says if so, he goes back by himself.

So, now, she takes the baby and goes to Nick’s. They embrace. “What happened to my favorite wrestler?” The problem is that both Nick and Laura need the “dumb cluck.” Polokai shows up to ask about her and the baby. “I couldn’t expect Laura to love me.” Even this late in the game, he still doesn’t pick up on Nick’s role.

She refuses to go back to her husband; Nick is genuinely afraid of Polokai. Well, she does go back. And of course, she’s unhappy. She wants him to wrestle for “the real money” (the crooked kind). Thanks to snippets of ringside action and headlines, he has a bunch of matches. He’s getting somewhere, but drinking too much.

He talks about the upcoming big match, after which they’re going on a vacation. He’s never going to get over the dishonest way he’s making money. She keeps saying that she likes him; and “made him” crooked. At least she has a conscience. She wants to tell him something (probably about the baby’s parentage) but he won’t listen.

Polokai is again saying he’s not working crooked. We’re shaping up to a denouement in the ring. He’s drunk/hungover. Laura is genuinely concerned about him. Now she gives Nick “the good-old double-cross.” Nick, reacting, stirs Polokai’s ire. She blurts out that Nick isn’t her brother–Polokai, not amused, strangles slick Nick.

The match itself isn’t going too well, though. He’s literally “punch drunk.” But he makes a comeback. Will there be truth, justice, and the German-American way? I guess so–Polokai’s not Superman–but, having won, it seems so. Problem is, he killed Nick, remember? Unexpectedly, Laura tells him that the D.A. says “that there’s nothing to worry about.” She’s tearful, yet happy. She realizes that she loves him after all. The end.

After spending most of the movie bad-mouthing both guys, Laura more or less wakes up, and shrugs off the parasitical Nick. I can see that the homicide could be construed as justified, because Nick was attacking Laura when Polokai intervened. Ok, a happy, and believable ending.

Another nice bit were the biergarten scenes; this stuff was very authentic, and entertaining as well. It sets up the story; in particular Polokai’s role. Unfortunately, almost nothing else worked.

As mentioned, Polokai is much too naive throughout. We could buy that he would jump at the chance to marry Laura. But for him not to question Nick’s prescence, including his role as the baby’s father, is just ludicrous. On top of that, Polokai doesn’t seem to mind supporting him–even if he were Laura’s brother.

The performances were generally too broad; attempts at comedy undercut the genuine pathos here, except when things straighten out near the end. The only scene that’s worth snickering at is the comeuppance Polokai gives the American wrestlers.

This has got to be the most absurd love triangle possible. Until the denouement, Laura pretty much dislikes both guys; they, on the other hand, remain on good terms. That’s primarily because good old Polokai is delusional. And Nick is a big-talking nobody. So, who do we root for?

The beer steins, maybe; and the wrestling. Despite some good scenes this is not a good movie. I’m glad it picked up at the end; but that bonus was like the salvaged junk from a train wreck. 5/10

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