Monday, December 3, 2012
Reeling Backward: "Gentleman Jim" (1942)
"Gentleman Jim" is a Hollywood hooey version of the life of "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, one of boxing's early heavyweight champions and a key figure in turning the backroom bloodletting into a legitimate sport. It was a star vehicle for Errol Flynn at the height of his fame, and everything about the iconic fighter's life is subject to be twisted around to align with Flynn's star persona, rather than Flynn trying to capture the man.
It's another example of the classic axiom about the difference between character actors and movie stars: Stars always play themselves.
For example, the central dynamic of the story (screenplay by Horace McCoy and Vincent Lawrence) is that Jim is a scrappy underclass Irishman who continually struggles to ingratiate himself with the San Francisco bluebloods, represented by the hoity-toity Olympic Club. They admit him as a charity chase to help legitimize boxing, but are irked by his overpowering personality and presumptuous behavior. They pick well-known boxers to give him a thrashing and wager heavily against him.
In fact, Gentleman Jim was a darling of the Olympic Club and worked there as an athletic instructor. Corbett was famous for his "scientific" approach to boxing, which involved fancy footwork and wearing down his opponent with quick jabs, rather than the bullrushing haymakers that were the standard of the time.
That standard, of course, was set by the current champion, John L. Sullivan. As played by Ward Bond, Sullivan is a towering, charismatic figure who's constantly the center of attention, shaking hands and buying drinks. "I can lick any man in the world!" he boasts repeatedly, until of course ... he doesn't.
Ward Bond is one of those archetypal supporting performers who seemed to be everywhere in the 1930s through the 1950s, including 16 films co-starring with John Wayne. Most people know him from his later roles, when he usually played the cantankerous middle-aged authority figure, or occasionally a thug. It was thrilling to seem him as a strapping younger actor.
Sullivan outweighed Corbett by more than 40 pounds, and few people gave the young challenger any chance of prevailing. The physical dissimilarity between Bond and Flynn is equally staggering, with the lithe, quick Flynn dancing around Bond, who flails like an angry rhinoceros.
The antagonistic exchanges between the two men leading up to their fight are amusing stuff, but much of the rest is a wearying ride. There's some stuff about Corbett's family life, a collection of moldy cliches about Irish immigrant families. "The Corbetts are at it again!" someone invariably shouts when Jim and his brothers are brought to blows again. Pop (Alan Hale) is an amiable drunk, mother is a paragon of homespun virtue and Jim is the social climber with the swelled head.
Most of the rest of the story is involved with Jim trying to elbow his way into the company of the high-and-mighty, and their subsequent pushback. Alexis Smith plays Victoria Ware, the daughter of a wealthy former gold miner who plays the classic romantic comedy dance with Flynn, barking and sniping and grappling with each other, right up until the moment -- conveniently parked at the end of the movie -- when they realize they're deeply in love.
(Pure poppycock -- Corbett was married long before he began contending for the boxing title.)
For 1942, the boxing scenes are decently shot by director Raoul Walsh. He focuses much on the footwork of Corbett, with (over)frequent cuts to his dancing limbs, but the punches look largely real, the knockouts sufficiently gripping. They go on a bit too long -- Walsh generally shows the first couple of rounds of his big fights in their entirety, before moving to the familiar montage leading up to the climax.
Boxing was a very different sport back then. Some men were still fighting barehanded in that era, and Corbett helped pioneer the use of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Fights went on much longer than they do today -- Corbett knocked Sullivan out in the 21st round, and one of his notable preceding fights was called a draw after 61 rounds.
That was against his crosstown rival Peter Jackson, whom Sullivan refused to fight because Jackson was black. Corbett was one of the first white boxers to take on opponents of other races. Unsurprisingly for its era, "Gentleman Jim" only alludes to this fight, and Flynn is never shown contesting anyone other than another Caucasian.
As much of a trial as I felt the non-boxing scenes were to get through, the film ends on a spectacular note. At a big party celebrating Corbett's victory, a surprise guest appears: Sullivan himself. His face battered and his over-proud manner punctured, the defeated champ comes to personally present Gentleman Jim with the championship belt.
It's an extraordinarily moving scene, with both Bond and Flynn at the top of their games. It's most effective because the moment is underplayed and subtle -- a sharp contrast with the bombast and cartoonish obviousness of the rest of the proceedings.
2.5 stars out of four