I think the best word to describe this movie is boisterous. Boisterous, infectious, rowdy fun. Directed by Raoul Walsh, Gentleman Jim was reportedly one of Errol Flynn’s favorite movies and he worked hard at it, working to master the footwork and left hook of James J. Corbett, boxing heavyweight champion from 1892-1897.
Not necessarily historically accurate, it is an incredibly fun film and it’s hard for me to fathom why it’s not better known. I was inspired, however, to research the truth about Corbett. In the film, there’s no villain, melodrama, or angst; it maintains the same tone throughout, with one, nice reflective moment at the end, when Corbett has defeated the great John L. Sullivan and become the new heavyweight champion of the world. Sullivan, who is another one of those boisterous characters, played colorfully by Ward Bond, had been striding confidently through the streets surrounded by excited fans and adoring children, banging on saloon counters and declaring that he can beat anyone in the world. Now that he has lost and his emotionally lost – though Corbett admits that he beat Sullivan when no longer in his prime – he retires gracefully and Corbett is touched by his demeanor and takes a moment to reflect what it will mean to Sullivan that he is no longer at the top.
But apart from that moment, the film is relentlessly fun and upbeat. Errol Flynn’s Corbett is one of four children in an Irish family who all have broad Irish accents except him (he has a precise Australian accent). His father is a cabby and his brothers are longshoreman, but he is a bank clerk (which might account for his accent – perhaps he tried to polish his accent to get a good job, but picked an Australian to teach him how to speak). His brothers like to make fun of his tie and his stiff collar, but he defends himself by fighting them in the barn (as the neighbors like to say “The Corbetts are at it again!).
His father is played by Alan Hale Sr., who appeared in 13 movies with Errol Flynn, most famously as Little John in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Usually, he was his buddy or pal, once he was his enemy, but this time he’s his ‘Pop,’ proud as punch of his son, his boxing prowess, and his fancy clothes. Flynn’s Corbett is a bit of a social climber, opportunist and definitely a dandy. He even has his trainer smooth down his hair between boxing rounds.
Professional boxing was considered highly disreputable and in many states was illegal, so when Corbett runs into a Supreme Court Judge at an illegal boxing match, a judge who happens to be on the board of the bank where Corbett works, he comes to his rescue when the police raid the place. He also manages to finagle his way into the Olympic Club, where all the gentleman congregate, and is sponsored by the judge and by another banker and his daughter (Alexis Smith). The judge wants respectable young men to learn boxing so that they can change the perception of boxing in the public eye.
The film traces Corbett’s rise from bank clerk to social climber at the club (much to the annoyance of the members – among other irritating habits, he is always having himself paged) to professional boxer. The fights are very well staged and Flynn rarely used a body double for the fights.
One great match takes place on a dock, with people from both the lower and upper classes lined up to watch. At one point a policemen tries to shut down the match, but he is tossed into the water. Corbett’s opponent has conveniently lost his gloves and is boxing with bare knuckles. It’s almost a brawl. Corbett is hit and falls out of the ring and into the water, only to climb back up and knock the guy out. Then more police come running in and people scatter, many jumping into the water. The film captures a wonderfully carefree and rowdy time in San Francisco.
There is a romance, though it is not based on actual fact. Alexis Smith plays a wealthy miner’s daughter who would like to see him lose, just to take him down a peg. Of course, in romantic tradition, she’s just kidding herself and is crazy about him.
If Corbett was the first respectable boxer, John L. Sullivan was the last boxer to fight before the Marquess of Queensbury Rules was generally accepted by boxers; rules like using gloves during a fight, three minute rounds with a minute rest in between, a man on one knee is considered down and cannot be hit, and so on. The rules got their name because they were endorsed by the Marquess of Queensbury, John Douglas. The rules marked the beginning of a degree of respectability for boxing. James J. Corbett also helped make boxing more accepted by his soften spoken and gentlemanly behavior, which is how he got the nickname Gentleman Jim. Flynn’s Corbett is perhaps less soft spoken and very brash and cocky, but it’s probably more entertaining that way.
Corbett also performed often on vaudeville and practically made a second career of it. This was usual for sporting celebrities, though often they were lousy actors, but Corbett was a step above the rest. We never get to see Flynn actually performing, though it is clear that he is doing so, at one point reading a Shakespeare play and demonstrating how he would act it. He doesn’t get much beyond “Hark,” however.
Corbett is also considered the first scientific boxer, using more strategy and fancy footwork, as opposed to charging in and swinging. They tried to capture this to some degree in the film, focusing often on Flynn’s feet and having him dance around while Sullivan and other opponents charge him.
The entertainment factor is high in this film, with the fights and the colorful cast of supporting characters and the late 1880-90s fashions and setting. Jack Carson appears as Corbett’s friend and fellow bank clerk and William Frawley is his cigar chomping manager. Alan Hale is always wonderful and Ward Bond is suitably larger than life, but with a poignant dignity at the end. But I have to say, I believe this is my favorite Errol Flynn movie of all. He’s so cocky, but never irritating, a blatant social climber who never forgets his shanty Irish background and is always capable of a rueful grin. I never thought he was more appealing.