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James J. Corbett: A Biography of the Heavyweight Boxing Champion and Popular Theater Headliner – by Armond Fields

thW4DJPVVSI recently saw the 1942 movie Gentleman Jim, with Errol Flynn as the boxer, James J. Corbett. It was a rip-roaring good movie with an excellent performance from Flynn and full of well enacted boxing matches. I was inspired and set out to find a good biography of the man. However, there are not many biographies written about Corbett, but I finally settled on Armond Fields’ James J. Corbett: A Biography of the Heavyweight Boxing Champion and Popular Theater Headliner, published in 2001. I noticed that many of the books written by Fields were about vaudeville performers from Corbett’s time, like Lillian Russell and Eddie Foy, which puzzled me until I read about the life of Corbett. It turns out that he was nearly as accomplished a vaudevillian as he was a boxer, though perhaps he was more innovative and game-changing as a boxer.

Boxing was not a respectable sport in the eighteen hundreds. In the eyes of polite society, it was more like brawling. Pugilists (which seems to be what professional boxers were called; amateurs were boxers) didn’t wear gloves, rules during the matchs weren’t fixed and often bouts would end in a bloody, brawling mess. People were shocked and boxing was outlawed in many states.

1-james-j-corbett-grangerHowever, James J. Corbett changed that…or, at least, he helped. He began as an amateur boxer at the Olympic Club in San Francisco (a reputable club for gentleman, though he was only the son of the owner of a livery). He would give exhibitions, though he could not earn money from it, and he would also teach pugilism. However, he really wanted to make a career out of boxing, much to the dismay of his father. His father thought he should be a respectable bank clerk.

In fact, there were many people who disapproved of his decision to go professional, though he soon laid everyone’s doubts to rest (save his father’s) by defeating the great John L. Sullivan in 1892 to become the heavyweight champion of the world. His family apparently made a killing through various bets on the match. His brother ran a pool room and also handled much of the sports betting transactions in San Francisco and his sisters, brothers, and even his father did very well out of his win.

And right after he become heavyweight champion is when Corbett’s second career began; a career that would actually last far longer than his boxing career. To capitalize on his huge popularity, his manager put him in a play, a play that was more boxing exhibition than actual drama, but Corbett acquitted himself adequately and people flocked to see him, standing room only at all his showings, and he toured the country. He next moved on to another show, this time more of a play than exhibition, and his acting had improved some. He was making far more money acting than he was boxing and he even allowed his championship to lapse by refusing to meet another boxer who had challenged him. He regained his title later, but when he came up against Bob Fitzsimmons, he lost. His family felt it was because he had allowed himself to be distracted by his acting.

240px-James_j_corbettThis did not diminish his popularity, however. He seems to have remained all his life a great popular figure. Even his attempts to regain the title when he was past his boxing prime were seen as gallant and endearing. He never completely left boxing behind and his acting steadily improved. His plays become actual plays instead of about boxing and he was taken seriously as a performer, always to sold out crowds.

Fields shows how Corbett demonstrated a remarkable ability to move with the times. Earning money always seems to have been a prime object with Corbett and he did quite well at it. Not only did he act in plays, but he became quite adept on vaudeville. Many boxers seem to have done two things after they were done boxing: open a saloon and turn to vaudeville. Corbett was unique in that he was actually successful at both, though he sold his saloon to focus on acting. He began by giving boxing exhibitions and also started talking about boxing on stage, doing what is called monologues. Monologuing was an art form and he was quite good at it. He had a friendly, down-to-earth style and would talk about boxing, his experiences acting, his travels, even his appendectomy and stay in the hospital and when the vaudeville tours he was with were reviewed, he was always mentioned approvingly.

Later, he was part of several comedy teams, playing the straight man reacting to the antics of the other and he was considered one of the best in the business. He also made several silent movies. An interesting bit that Fields also brought out was how the heyday of vaudeville was in the early nineteen hundreds but was essentially killed, during Corbett’s lifetime and all vaudevillians knew it was coming, by the advent of silent pictures. Vaudeville had begun as one of the only ways for working class men to entertain themselves (the rich went to operas and plays and concerts), but movies took their place. Musicals (such as those written by Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern) also became big in the ’20s.

th2ZQ1PY3AJames J. Corbett seems largely forgotten today, but Fields shows he really was important in both vaudeville and boxing. He helped make both respectable. Women and the upper classes did not attend either, but with his all-American, friendly, pleasant and dapper persona, he was a reassuring presence in both areas and soon boxing and vaudeville gained a much wider audience because of him. He is also considered one of the first scientific boxers, using art and good footwork instead of simply charging in and swinging, relying on brute force.

Fields also fills the biography with fascinating facts. For example, whenever someone wanted to arrange a boxing match, there was the inevitable problem of trying to find a legal location in which to hold the match. As soon as a city was selected then the governor would come out against it, some churches and societies would protest, and lawmakers would move to prevent it, though the city council would usually want it because they felt it would bring in revenue. One governor even threatened to send the militia to stop the match and Corbett and his opponent must have tried at least three different cities before finding one, though the governor did send the militia. The militia ending up hanging around and were never called on, however.

Boxers were perpetually being arrested for participating or intending to participate in the illegal sport. Boxing was like a quasi legal sport, subject to the vicissitudes of state and city. Once, the managers of several boxers got involved and helped get lawmakers to pass legislation so it would be legal to have their match.

The book was very engaging and gave a wonderful sense of the times from the 1890s-1920s, describing both the boxing matches and his vaudeville performances, and Fields shows how Corbett was almost a hero in his era, always respected, who gave a good deal of respectability to everything he participated in.

In 1894, Corbett and boxer Peter Courtney participated in a six round bout that was filmed by one of Edison’s kinetographs (early movie camera). It was only the second boxing match ever filmed, though it is not a proper match. They only had film for 6 rounds, so the match was somewhat staged and there was no doubt Corbett was going to win, though he wasn’t supposed to win too soon. Corbett is the man in the very short shorts, which apparently were often worn by boxers in those days, though I am glad they don’t wear them anymore. Courtney is in the tights.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Biographies

 

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Gentleman Jim (1942)

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I don’t know why he has a mustache in the poster, because he certainly doesn’t have one in the movie

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!).

Alan Hale and Errol Flynn

Alan Hale and Errol Flynn

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.

thO7QRZF3AThe 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.

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Flynn with John Loder and Alexis Smith

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.

Ward Bond and Errol Flynn

Ward Bond and Errol Flynn

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.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Movies

 

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