To say that 1937’s Kid Galahad has an all star cast would be an understatement.
Put Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart together, and you know you’re in for a film with impressive acting and memorable screen moments.
Surprisingly, Robinson, Davis, and Bogart didn’t recognize just how talented one another were at the time of filming, or how electric their combined acting genius would be on screen. Despite this, Kid Galahad was a significant film in each of their careers.
Let’s start with the plot, then we’ll go behind the scenes for all about Bette Davis’ legal battle with Warner Bros., Edward G. Robinson’s enviable contract with the studio, and why Humphrey Bogart almost left Hollywood.
Edward G. Robinson is Nick Donati, a boxing promoter who’s a little rough around the edges, but has a heart of gold. After Nick’s boxer throws a fight for gangster/rival boxing promoter Turkey Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), Nick dumps his boxer, and begins searching for a new boxer to train, someone who follow his instructions in the ring, and remain loyal to him.
But first, Nick and his girlfriend, Louise “Fluff” Phillips (Bette Davis), decide to blow all their money on a wild party at the hotel where Nick lives.
At the party, Nick finds his next boxing protégé in Ward Guisenberry (Wayne Morris), the bellhop sent to Nick’s room to fix drinks for the party-goers. Ward shows his natural strength when he knocks an unwelcome party guest, Turkey Morgan’s boxer Chuck McGraw (William Haade), to the ground after McGraw un- chivalrously pushes Fluff.
Nick is impressed with Ward’s natural boxing talent, and Fluff, flattered that Ward thinks she’s a lady worth fighting for, nicknames him “Galahad.”
Nick's New Boxer: Kid Galahad
Nick decides that Ward is his new boxer, the one who will remain loyal to the end. And though Ward has never had any boxing ambitions, he does want to save up some money to buy his own farm…so Ward agrees to the proposition, and becomes Nick’s boxer.
But Turkey Morgan is also impressed with Ward, particularly after he quite easily wins his first fight in the ring. Turkey tries to get Ward to sign with him, but Ward remains loyal to Nick. Turkey’s pushiness results in Ward knocking him to the ground.
Not the smartest move because of Turkey’s mob connections.
So Fluff thinks fast, and without telling Nick, takes Ward to the country home of Nick’s mother, where no one will think to look for him while Turkey’s temper cools down.
While staying with Mrs. Donati, Ward falls for Nick’s younger sister Marie, a good girl who Nick has shielded from the crooked boxing world he runs in. So Nick is really frustrated with Fluff when he finds out that Ward has been staying with his mom and sister. Nick quickly brings Ward back to the city. And Ward decides to keep his feelings for Marie a secret from Nick.
Back in training with Nick and Silver Jackson (Harry Carey), Ward continues to grow as a boxer, winning match after match. He’s officially christened “Kid Galahad” in the ring for his clean cut image, after the nickname Fluff gave him.
Fluff's Heartbrake Over Kid Galahad
Fluff has fallen for Ward by this point, and believes that he returns her feelings. That is, until Ward confides to her that he’s in love with Marie. He longs to see Marie again, but is afraid of what Nick would do if he found out. Heartbroken Fluff does the right thing, and tells Ward to go to Marie, and profess his love.
Meanwhile, Fluff comes clean to Nick about her feelings for Ward, and leaves Nick and the boxing life for a job singing in a nightclub.
This is the part of of the film where we get to see Bette Davis glammed up and singing a torchy song. And it’s AWESOME.
When Marie comes to the city to watch Ward in a big match, she asks to meet Fluff afterwards, and the two go to her nightclub to catch a performance. Though Fluff still has feelings for Ward, she is happy for him and Marie. And though Marie seems to understand that Fluff cares for Ward, she’s grateful to Fluff for encouraging Ward to express his feelings for her.
Their pleasant evening abruptly ends when Chuck MgGraw, Turkey Morgan’s boxer who Ward knocked out at Nick’s party, drunkenly starts a fight with him, and challenges Ward to an official match. In the heat of the moment, Ward accepts the challenge, and the two agree to fight within the month.
Pictures of Ward with Fluff and Marie make it in the next day’s papers, and Nick discovers that Ward and Marie have been seeing each other. He’s enraged at the relationship, and, feeling betrayed, bets against Ward in the big fight with McGraw.
Nick plans to take advantage of Ward’s trust in him during the match, and will tell him to go all out in each round so that Ward’s too exhausted by the end of the fight to beat McGraw. Turkey Morgan hears Nick bet $150,000 against Ward, and does the same.
But on the day of the match, Marie and Fluff are both spectators, and they realize that Nick is sabotaging Ward out of spite for his relationship with Marie. The girls rush to Nick at ringside, and plead with him to accept Ward and Marie’s relationship. They ask Nick to give Ward the advice he needs to win the match.
Nick’s heart is softened, and he guides Ward to victory.
But now Nick has to deal with the wrath of Turkey Morgan, who thinks that Nick planned to betray him by switching his game plan all along.
Gun in had, Turkey corners Nick, Silver, and Ward in the locker room after the fight. Luckily Nick has a gun too, and he defends Silver and Ward from Turkey’s bullets. Turkey is fatally wounded by Nick, but it’s only a matter of minutes before Nick also dies from Turkey’s shots.
Before Nick dies, he squares things with Fluff, and gives his blessing to Marie and Ward.
And that’s the sweetly melancholy end to the film.
The Davis Fights Warner Bros.
It’s no secret that Bette Davis was one spunky gal.
Bette was a woman who knew what she wanted, and was always willing to fight for it. Especially when it came to her career.
Kid Galahad may not be the first movie that comes to mind when you think of Bette Davis, but it was significant to her career as one of the first films Bette made after her infamous, transatlantic contract dispute with Warner Bros. Bette’s very public trial in English court would, as Bette herself said, “make an example” of her for any other star who tried to fight the studio system.
Bette’s unhappiness with the roles Jack Warner assigned her had brewed for quite some time. Even after Bette won the 1936 Best Actress Oscar for her electrifying performance in the B-picture melodrama Dangerous (1935), she continued getting roles in predominantly second-rate films.
When Jack Warner assigned her the role of a female lumberjack in God’s Country and the Woman—doesn’t that sound like an appropriate Bette Davis role?—it was the last straw for Bette. She understandably called the film “tripe,” and took a three month, unpaid suspension.
When Bette and her attorneys met with Warner after the three month suspension for contract negotiations, Bette was firm in her resolve to have a script approval provision added.
And Jack Warner was just as resolved not to give it to her.
So Bette remained on suspension, willing to wait it out, unpaid, until Warner granted the greater artistic control she asked for.
The Italian Job
While on suspension, Bette was approached by Italian producer Ludovico Toeplitz, who asked her to star in two films he was producing in England. The pay would be extremely generous—and much needed as Bette had gone over three months without a paycheck—at $60,000 a picture, and even better, the films would be artistically fulfilling. Toeplitz assured Bette that as the films would be made overseas, she would not be in breach of her contract with Warner Bros.
That is, as long as she could make it to Europe without being served legal papers by Jack Warner, who, aware of Bette’s plan, remained firm in his belief that any film work Bette attempted to do outside of Warner Bros. was against her contract.
So Bette and her husband Ham clandestinely traveled to England, taking a red eye flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver, then boarding a train across Canada before finally sailing from Montreal to Britain. It was a harrowing trip, but Bette made it to Greenock, Scotland without being served.
Her relief was short lived however, for just before Bette was to begin filming in London, who should arrive in England but Jack Warner himself. Warner hired a barrister, and obtained a preliminary injunction that would keep Bette from working on the Toepliz films until Warner’s case was heard in the English King’s Bench Divisional Court.
Though Bette’s barrister made compelling arguments in court about the injustice of Bette being forced to play any role Warner assigned her, regardless of how ill-suited or damaging it could be for her career longevity, Mr. Justice Branson ruled in favor of Jack Warner: artistic grievances aside, Bette had signed a contract with Warner Bros., and though Bette could always legally choose unpaid suspension over a role Warner assigned her, making any film away from the studio without permission was against the terms of her contract. Justice Branson also ruled that Bette must pay all of Warner’s legal fees.
Following Justice Branson’s ruling, Bette told the press that losing the case was
“a real sock in the teeth. I’m a bit bewildered…I thought at least that it would have been a partial victory for me and for everybody else with one of these body and soul contracts…I suppose I have been made an example of as a warning to anybody else.”
Warner's Respect and a Good Role in Kid Galahad
Though Bette was not victorious in court, and was not granted the script approval she fought for, there’s no denying that Jack Warner came away from the whole situation respecting Bette Davis as a woman of her convictions. He gave her a $400 a week pay raise ($1600 to $2000), forgave the last $5,000 of legal fees Justice Branson ordered her to pay for Warner Bros., and then assigned her two good roles in two prestigious films, one of which was Kid Galahad.
These rewards weren’t exactly what Bette had fought for, but it was all a step in the right direction, on the path that led Bette to superstardom in 1938’s Jezebel.
Robinson's Renewal: A Different Story
Just before filming of Kid Galahad began in January of 1937, Edward G. Robinson was paid a home visit by Jack Warner. Eddie knew exactly what the visit was about: Kid Galahad would be the last film of his current contract, and Warner wanted to negotiate a new one.
Similar to Bette Davis, Robinson sought provisions that would ensure greater artistic freedom in his new contract, namely script approval. After Warner complained to Eddie about the ingratitude of such stars as Bette, James Cagney, and Olivia de Havilland, who all very publicly fought with him over these issues, Warner agreed to give Eddie “mutually agreeable” script approval as part of his new contract.
With this clause, Robinson could refuse any script or film Warner proposed to him, and Warner could veto any script or film Eddie proposed.
Sounds like a pretty fair compromise, especially for the time.
It’s noteworthy that script approval, this freedom Bette Davis fought so hard and publicly for, only to come out—at great financial expense—the loser just months before, was almost given to Edward G. Robinson on a silver platter.
Robinson did have to talk Jack Warner into this idea of “mutual script approval”, but Warner agreed to it without much fanfare.
So why did Warner give Eddie the script approval he so vehemently fought not to give other stars, like Bette?
Kid Galahad and Eddie's Enviable Contract
The surface argument is that Robinson easily got the respect and freedom in his contract that eluded Bette Davis simply because he was a man.
While that may be partly true, it’s an immature conclusion: Jack Warner also fought these bitter battles of artistic integrity and script approval with male stars, such as James Cagney, one of Warner Bros. biggest stars at the time. Jack Warner’s difficult side was most definitely not exclusively reserved for his female stars.
There’s no doubt that Robinson’s Broadway career pre-Hollywood helped his contract negotiations at Warner Bros.: Eddie was established on the stage before he signed his first contract with the studio in 1930, and his treatment at Warner’s always benefited from the fact that he came to Hollywood with an impressive stage resume behind him.
There was also a unique, mutual respect between Robinson and Warner: as Jack Warner himself told Eddie, he recognized the fact that Eddie was a private individual, who kept any disagreements the two men had over the years out of the press. Warner appreciated Eddie’s discretion, and rewarded him with the “mutually agreeable” script approval provision in his contract.
Bogie's Unappreciated Talent
So Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson clearly had very different degrees of stardom and respect at Warner Bros. by the time Kid Galahad went into production.
How about Humphrey Bogart?
Well, Bogie had yet to make his mark in films.
Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his stellar film performances had yet to be appreciated by his studio or the public. By 1937, Humphrey Bogart was still not a box office name. And with the notable exception of his lauded performance in The Petrified Forrest (1936), more often than not, Bogart found himself playing supporting roles to the other male stars at Warner Bros.—such as Robinson and Cagney—who enjoyed greater success and seniority at the studio.
How would Bogart ever get the chance to show he was more than capable of carrying a film when the leading roles were always offered to the bigger name actors first?
Bogie eventually got the chance to show what he could do in 1941, with his iconic performances in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, becoming one of the most respected super stars in Hollywood. But at the time of Kid Galahad, Humphrey Bogart actually considered leaving Hollywood to go back to New York and the stage.
And can you blame him? In Kid Galahad, Bogart got fourth billing, behind Robinson, Davis, and Wayne Morris.
Just to put Bogie’s position at Warner Bros. into perspective, for Kid Galahad, Robinson earned a whopping $50,000, Davis a respectable $18,500, and Bogie a paltry $3,185.
Yeah, no wonder Bogart debated leaving Hollywood. (But thank heavens he didn’t.)
Bette and Eddie: No Love Lost on Kid Galahad
Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson may seem like an unlikely film pairing, but in Kid Galahad , it works: these two stars, who made careers out of predominantly playing hard boiled characters, somehow manage to soften each other on screen in the film.
Even though Robinson and Bette were an effective screen team, and undoubtedly two of the great actors of their generation, each did not recognize the other’s talents. In fact, when Eddie discovered that Bette was cast opposite him in Kid Galahad, he didn’t think she was capable of effectively playing the role. As Robinson said of Bette Davis in his autobiography [aff. link],
“It was impossible for her to play a waif because there was too much steel in her; it was absurd for her to play a creature over whom men swooned because there was nothing about her to make you swoon. She was far too independent and self-assured to be a convincing whore, though she brilliantly played some unconvincing ones. The fact is she was not an ingénue or a comedienne or an inconstant wife when those were the roles reserved for actresses.”
Eddie’s words may sound a little harsh, but Bette had some hurtful things to say about Robinson, who she called “mush mouth” behind his back. Bette also said of working with Eddie that
“All of us girls at Warners hated kissing his ugly purple lips.”
Now that’s just cruel.
On set, Bette made a point of praising Paul Muni—Eddie’s only true competitor at Warner Bros., and probably the actor he got along least with at the time—which got on Robinson’s nerves. So much so that he was unwilling to contribute to Bette’s canteen for British emigres when she asked him. It was one of the few times Eddie refused to donate to a cause related to the war effort.
And it’s hard to believe that Eddie’s refusal wasn’t based on his personal feelings for Davis.
Hal Wallis, the producer who worked closely with Robinson and Davis during their years at Warner Bros., lamented in his autobiography [aff. link] over the failure of the two stars to appreciate each other:
“We costarred Eddie with Bette Davis in Kid Galahad. After the first day’s work, he said to me, ‘this Davis girl. She’s hopeless. Shes an amateur. She’s totally out of place in this picture.’ I assured him that she would give a fine performance, but he did not warm to her, nor she to him. Neither recognized the other’s talent.”
Wallis may have been right that Robinson and Davis didn’t respect each other’s talent during filming, but in his autobiography [aff. link], Eddie shares that he did come to appreciate The Davis in time:
“When I played with her in Kid Galahad, I did not admire Bette Davis; I admire her now.”
The Robinson & Bogart Charade in Kid Galahad and Beyond
In his autobiography [aff. link], Robinson makes an incredibly fascinating observation about himself and five-time co-star Humphrey Bogart. It seems that often enough in their film pairings, one of, or both Eddie and Bogie, end up dead by the end of the film. And the question of who died first was always answered by who the bigger star was at the time. In Robinson’s words [aff. link],
“Bogie and I carried on a charade in each picture. Almost inevitably both of us would get killed at the end of the films in which we worked together…the charade followed a precise pattern. When I was the reigning star, Bogie would be slain first, and I’d live another reel before I got it. As the years passed and Bogie became the reigning star and I was demoted to character roles, I’d get the bullet first and Bogie would live out another reel…Check that one out, film historians!”
What an awesome film insight from Edward G. Robinson.
Kid Galahad: Another Sucessful Robinson Film
Kid Galahad was another successful film for Edward G. Robinson, earning $1.5 million at the box office, proof that Eddie did not have to play a gangster to bring audiences into theaters.
Robinson’s respected standing at the studio was firmly in place. And with that new contract he negotiated with Jack Warner just before Kid Galahad also came a raise:
“The new Warner contract was so arranged that I would have a certain degree of financial probity. Any sane man with a family to support…would have done the sensible thing: save the money and look forward to a nice old age on a country estate with time for golf and tennis and no pressure to have to make a buck. Such an idea never entered my mind.”
The lesson from Eddie’s father to live beyond his means to inspire hard work is so apparent in Eddie’s words, despite his tongue in cheek tone.
Robinson and his wife Gladys knew exactly what they would do with their increased earnings: tear down the badminton court on their Beverly Hills property, and build a gallery to house their growing art collection. Renown architect Sam Marx was brought in to design the gallery.
Hints of Gladys’ mental illness that eventually spelled the end of the Robinson marriage nearly two decades later were first apparent to Eddie at this time, when the stress of having their initial building plans disapproved by the Beverly Hills City Council and Zoning Department “plunged Gladys into a severe depression…a melancholy out of all proportion to the problem,” as Eddie recounted in his autobiography.
But the Robinsons finally had a beautiful place to display their impressive art collection, which now included Cezanne’s Black Clock, the piece that Eddie always said he “wanted more than any other in the world.”
And on the career front, Eddie was taking full advantage of his contractual right to turn down film roles he was not interested in.
Most of the best roles of his career were ahead, and Edward G. Robinson knew it.
More Robinson Next Week!
And that’s it for Kid Galahad.
Be sure to join me next week for one of Eddie’s personal favorites, a Robinson film that was so controversial at the time, Eddie received death threats during production. It’s 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy.