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Old Ass Movies: Iron Man (1931)

By  · Published on May 2nd, 2010

Every Sunday Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Iron Man (1931)

Imagine for a moment that you’re in college. Young, idealistic, still exploring all the cinema that you can get your hands on, and your friend with an awesome Afro tells you that he’s going away for the semester to New York and wants you to take care of his $7,000 DVD collection.

It is full of Criterion titles, exploitation, classic romantic comedy, and at the top of the pile, a simple paper cover with the word Freaks written on it catches your eye.

That masterpiece of oddity is the film that Tod Browning might be most known for in today’s modern film geek world (contending heavily with his Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula). Whether because the Ramones evoked it in song or because it hits all the taboo sweet spots that we demand from our horror, it’s gained a pretty healthy following. But if you were to use that film as your introduction to Browning and dig deeper into his filmography, you are bound to find a few gems that don’t necessarily feature things that go bump in the night or that crawl through the circus mud with a knife between their teeth.

One of those films is Iron Man. It has absolutely nothing to do with Tony Stark or the metal-suited hero that hits theaters this week, but its title does give the thin connection needed to offer up this old ass film as one to be sought out.

Iron Man is a simple story featuring a boxer, his opportunistic wife, and her secret lover. It’s a theme that fans will see mirrored in Freaks almost exactly, but instead of abject horror, this movie is about as straightforward a drama as you can get.

As far as boxing movies go, and as far as all movies go actually, it’s not the best. Boxing is the kind of sport that filmmakers seem to love because of its balance between beauty and violence, so there are countless examples out there that are better than Iron Man. So why see it?

Beyond being an interesting film, it features several actors that would later come to prominence: Lew Ayres (who would eventually be nominated for Best Actor for Johnny Belinda), Jean Harlow (whose career really took off in 1931 after co-starring in several films), and Robert Armstrong (who you probably remember as Carl Denham from King Kong in 1933).

Ayres plays prizefighter Kid Mason who, beyond having a name destined to make him a boxer, also has a scheming wife in Harlow’s Rose who abandons him after he loses his first fight. A true sweetheart. Fortunately, Mason rises to the top with Armstrong’s George Regan coaching him along. That success has Rose interested again, so she sets out to influence Mason to fire Regan and hire the man she’s secretly seeing. Hilarity does not ensue.

The look of the film is sharp. Above all, Browning knew how to work with black and white to make every element in the scene pop with definition. Even with a different genre, he doesn’t vary his style all that much – playing with shadows and contrasts to help with the themes he was building through the characters.

What’s fascinating here is how absolutely, abysmally miscast everyone is. Ayres has the commanding acting presence, but he doesn’t have the look of a boxer. Harlow seems off-kilter turning her bubbly personality into a shrewd harpy. Armstrong appears almost lethargic when set against his other, more flamboyant roles.

What’s even more fascinating is how well it works. Iron Man has not stood the test of time because it’s not the best of its generation, but it’s still an engaging film that finds most of its compelling story in the empathetic eyes of Mason – a man with decent intentions surrounding himself with the wrong people. A man being used like a noir-era MacBeth.

So, no, this movie is not going to change your life or leave its devastating mark on your movie memory, but it’s a good film featuring some outstanding talent, directed by a pre-eminent talent of the time. There are some beautiful scenes, tense bits of acting, and even though it wasn’t the best of the best (for its time, for its stars or for its director), it still more than deserves to be seen and celebrated.

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