Take any number of cocky Cagney features from Warner Brothers in the 1930’s and change the locale from the military or the world of car racing to the hockey rinks and you wind up with an enjoyable 55 minute “B” feature. All that’s missing is Cagney and best buddy Pat O’Brien.
Subbing for the “A” listers with skates and hockey sticks are Dick Purcell and Wayne Morris.
Purcell stars as Gabby Dugan. Fresh out of University where he was a budding Wayne Gretzky, Purcell, is approached by a pro-hockey team coached by Joseph Crehan to become his star center man. It’s here that we’ll meet Wayne Morris as the team’s goalie. Dick doesn’t figure to be a hockey player but sees himself as a can’t lose business man on Wall Street. When those high hopes fade with each job opportunity going nowhere he takes up Crehan’s offer to play for the New York Violets based in Madison Square Garden.
The first match up we’ll see is Purcell’s Violets taking on the Canadian Leafs. The Leaf’s will be easily identified by the L on the front of their jerseys. Purcell will become a fan favorite and is quickly noticed by a local gambler, George E. Stone. The underworld figure will approach Purcell and if he can shave a goal here or there or spend a fair amount of time in the penalty box then he might find himself on the gangster’s payroll. I think we can all see where this is headed. Or at least that’s what I thought.
Time to introduce the ladies. Morris has a bubbly blonde on his arm played by Marie Wilson. As Morris puts it, she’s a “daffy dame” but he likes her. It’s while out chasing girls at the local skating rink that Purcell eyes Anne Nagel and her kid sister, Ann Giles, enjoying an afternoon skate. Purcell launches into his smooth talking playboy style letting Nagel know just who he is and invites her to see the next hockey match with a pair of seats “ringside.” Of course it’s little sister who is playing Cupid and convinces Anne to accept. Now here’s just how cocky this 1930’s athlete is. The two seats he has set aside are right next to the penalty box. Best way to flirt with the gal your chasing is to break the rules and be awarded two minutes in the box.
O.K. Can’t help myself with a Strother Martin quote from Slap Shot …. “I was coachin’ in Omaha in 1948 and Eddie Shore sends me this guy who was a terrible masturbator, you know, couldn’t control himself. Why, he would get deliberate penalties so he could get over in the penalty box all by himself and damned if he wouldn’t… you know…”
Hey when you live and breathe hockey here in Canada you know the dialogue of Slap Shot inside and out and sometimes you just gotta cut loose.
Anyway, back to our story. Dick gets those deliberate penalties to do some heavy duty flirting as opposed to the hockey player that Brother Strother was trying to recall. Now this all plays right into the hands of gangster Stone. He believes that Dick has taken him up on his proposition without actually saying it aloud so as not to arouse any suspicion. It may be all innocent but that doesn’t stop Morris from watching closely with his goals against average trending upwards and when a $1000 payoff arrives at the hotel where the pair room together, he’s convinced that Purcell is throwing games for the easy cash.
Off the ice Purcell is making progress with Miss Nagel but as she’s a prim and proper gal he shouldn’t get too fresh and when he does she lands a Joan Crawford haymaker on his kisser. Flowers, begging and apologies are soon to follow but all this will prove to be futile when Morris and Purcell get into a fight of their own on the ice and it’s Purcell left with a cracked skull after we see Morris bringing down his goalie stick like a tomahawk on the star player’s head.
What I expected to transpire was Purcell refusing to cooperate with Stone only to find his girlfriend kidnapped pending his throwing the championship game. I mean that’s right out of the plot device playbook. No this went in a different direction due to the injury Purcell sustained and his being considered a player involved with gangsters. I’ll not go any further in that direction but will leave it for you to discover the next time the film turns up on TCM which is how I discovered it.
The screenplay for King of Hockey was penned by George Bricker who toiled in “B” films for a number of years with some real gems and cult favorites among them. They include The Devil Bat (1941), Pillow of Death (1945), Roadblock (1951) and a nice find I featured previously The Whip Hand (1951). Journeyman Noel Smith handled the director’s duties. Smith covered everything from silent shorts to a Torchy Blane film before retiring flowing a standard 1952 Dennis Morgan western, Cattle Town.
1936 was the first year in films for the likable Wayne Morris and he’d do well in the late thirties early forties at Warner Brothers and would move from the ice rink at the Gardens to the boxing ring as 1937’s version of Kid Galahad.
Now onto the observations of a born and bred hockey fan.
Loved a quote in the film that seems more akin to baseball then hockey, “We’re a cinch to win the pennant.”
Secondly I couldn’t help but chuckle at the equipment the boys wear and you’ve just gotta feel sorry for Morris as the team goalie. Thin knee pads and no mask. No wonder Montreal Canadian netminder Jacques Plante went out of his way to protect himself with a custom made mask of his own design unveiling it for the first time November 1st, 1959. How about the players bench, 2 rows deep! Then there’s the referee in the dress sweater our Grandpa would show up wearing for Christmas dinner accompanied by a tie. Now in order to give the appearance that Dick Purcell is a fast puck handler the backlit projection was enlisted to make it appear as though Dick was skating faster and easily passing his opponents. Worked slightly better in westerns with horses I felt. Of course the players are so much smaller and the absence of our modern armor like equipment only adds to miniaturizing them versus todays boys.
One other bit of play on the ice caught my eye so I snapped a picture to share. When the players lined up at center ice for a faceoff the centermen weren’t lined up facing the opposing goalie but rather shifted to line up along the center ice line. See below. I’ve no idea if this was the regular style of play at the time. Historians feel free to enlighten me.
Lastly in case you’re wondering, Lord Stanley’s Cup was won by the Detroit Red Wings in 1936 under the guidance of coach Jack Adams. Nowadays the Jack Adams trophy is awarded each year to the NHL’s Coach of the Year.
…. And now back to you Dick….