I do not think there is any denying that James Cagney was a splendid actor. The trouble with parts of his career, however, was that the studio did not treat him very well and often type cast him into gangster and tough-guy roles. Winner Takes All was his first comedy that also puts the actor in a rough role, and despite being a rather lousy picture, it was highly successful, thus proving to Warner Bros. that the best formula for a Cagney picture was a combination of a bully personality combined with light-hearted subject matter.
The only reason to watch Winner Takes All is Cagney’s performance in it; the plot and the acting of our main ladies really drag the show down. Our hero is Jim Kane, a boxer who at the film’s opening announces he needs a rest –and the cash to finance it– and receives a shower of money from a large boxing match audience. He takes off for a desert resort where he immediately meets young widow Peggy (Marian Nixon) and her son Dickie (Dickie Moore) and falls for her. He also anonymously pays for her stay at the resort where her son is recuperating. To get the dough, however, he had to enter a local boxing match and win, thus precipitating rumors he would be permanently returning to the ring.
Before leaving for Chicago to restart his career, Jim promises to marry Peggy, but after his first match he is approached by a blonde society girl Joan, played by Virginia Bruce. From here on out it is as if Peggy never existed as the beat-up Jim tries continuously to get affection from Joan, who, along with her friends, see the man as a mere amusement. Jim so blindly runs after Joan’s skirts, up to completing a match swiftly to prevent the gal from leaving on a boat, that he does not see he’s been played for a chump. Not until another man wanders into Joan’s cabin on the ship does he finally realize the effort is fruitless and returns to Peggy.
My largest complaint about the plot is that despite having some real emotional tie with good-girl Peggy, Jim convinces himself that he wants Joan and will marry her up until he finally realizes he’s been cast aside. Only then does he return to the previous girl and tell her his interest in another was a mere joke. Most stories with such a plot would have the protagonist realize the former girl is better than the latter, but here she is merely a consolation prize.
What makes Winner Take All tolerable, however, is the great character Cagney creates. From the very start we see the mug talking through a crooked mouth as his profession has created a damaged man. As he gets back into the game, Cagney’s makeup worsens his face with a crooked and mashed up nose and bloated ear with duck lips to boot. He talks as though he has cotton in his mouth and we see the downside of such a career. Most prize-fighting pictures up to this point shielded audiences from this reality but Cagney took it on with aplomb. He also makes a good show when acting in the ring. His dancer background allowed him to easily take on the fast footwork of a boxer, and the man studied how to take and give pulled punches, which results in a highly authentic-looking performance. I would recommend Winner Take All on Cagney’s merits but warn that one should not have high hopes for the plot or peripheral performances.
Source: James Cagney (Applause Legends) by Richard Scickel