Charlie Davis: (yelling to Shorty) Shorty! Shorty, get me that fight from Quinn. I want money. Do you understand? Money, money!
Anna Davis: I forbid, I forbid. Better buy a gun and shoot yourself.
Charlie Davis: You need MONEY to buy a gun!
[John Garfield to Anne Revere “Body and Soul” (1947)]
Boxing is a popular subject in motion pictures as much as breathing is an element in our actual lives. Sometimes, a good old-fashioned boxing match can be an emotional high and an audience pleaser. It can also be a painful, horrible, brutal, and difficult to view experience which can have the exact opposite effect for the viewer. However, boxing matches as a specific form of visual violence have never been anything that movie or television censors really concerned themselves with. In the past, censors were more likely to be interested in curbing such truly awful stuff from our sensitive eyes like swearing (Golly-Gee!), SEX (Oh, the horror), nudity, bigotry, or anything questioning any flaws in our current system of government along with anything questioning or mocking religion for example. Speaking of mocking religion, maybe the greatest movie I ever saw unintentionally mocking religion (and also on my Top Ten Worst Movie List of all time) has to be C.B. DeMille’s God-Awful “The Ten Commandments” (1956). After watching Charlton “Chucky” Heston as Moses vs. Yul “Mr. Clean” Brynner as Pharaoh Rameses (Hmmm? I wonder what brand of latex rubbers he uses…) I felt a strong urge to start practicing Paganism instead! However, once again, I am getting off track so let me steer this month’s post back to what I will actually be discussing this month. Namely, I will be discussing for the art of self-defense what British sportswriter Pierce Egan in 1813 called the ‘sweet science’ or basically, boxing in films!
Numerous boxing films have been made throughout the entire history of motion pictures. Such films were also prime vehicles for actors to be both nominated and winning Oscars. Some early examples were “The Patent Leather Kid” (1927) with Richard Barthelmess nominated for Best Actor and “The Champ” (1931) with Wallace Berry winning the Oscar for Best Actor. A number of other boxing films were made during the 1930’s but maybe the two best were “Kid Galahad” (1937) and “Golden Boy” (1939) even though those two were not exactly exceptional either. “Golden Boy” was based on the Clifford Odets’ stage hit and starred a young William Holden as Italian Joe Bonaparte, who becomes a prize fighter due to financial need despite his original intent of wanting to be a violinist co-starring Barbara Stanwyck as his love interest. “Galahad” starred Edward G. Robinson as Nick Donati, a boxing promoter who finds, by accident, a naive young farmer turned hotel bellhop (Wayne Morris) who he develops into a possible heavyweight title contender. The movie also starred Humphrey Bogart (in his salad days) as a gangster, and Bette Davis in a throw away role as Nick’s big city girlfriend. Neither star distinguished themselves here and the movie as seen today does not hold up well either. Unfortunately, “Golden Boy”, just like “Galahad”, is also really dated too. The boxing scenes like other boxing scenes in movies of the thirties are not very good, and Holden is about as Italian as Micky Rooney’s Japanese “Mr. Yunioshi” (a walking and talking ethnic slur) in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. It was not until the late nineteen forties that things really started to change.
However, before I continue any further, here is another useless but interesting…
Fun Fact: Although Wayne Morris was just an average actor, he wasn’t average as an active member of the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II. In actuality, he served with distinction in the Pacific Campaign. After becoming a Navy flier in 1942, he flew 57 aerial sorties in the Pacific shooting down seven Japanese Zeros, sinking an escort vessel and a flak gunboat and helping to sink a submarine, damage a heavy cruiser, and damage a mine layer. For his actions he won four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two air Medals. After returning to acting at the end of the war, he later gave the one great performance of his career acting against type as the weak, cowardly Lieutenant Roget in Stanley Kubrick’s great World War I anti-war film, “Paths of Glory” (1957). Although in “Glory” he may have played a coward, in real life, Wayne Morris was a real, World War II hero! And now, back to the Blog Post!
Three boxing movies made in the late forties were exceptional examples of this genre and they still hold up very well today along with each being much more than just a simplistic boxing film. These films were “Body and Soul” (1947), “Champion” (1949) and “The Set-Up” (1949). “Soul” starred John Garfield as Charley Davis, a current middleweight boxing champion who, as the movie begins, is estranged from both his mother and girlfriend and is taking a quick nap in his dressing room before meeting a dangerous challenger for his title. At that point the movie, in flashback, reveals the origins of Charley’s upbringing in poverty, his father’s early death, his decision to be a fighter, and his boxing triumphs culminating in his winning the championship. However, at the same time it also shows how his pursuit of the almighty dollar changes him, so much so, that he turns his back on everyone who once either loved him or cared about him while allowing himself to be constantly used over and over again by others who don’t really care about him at all.
When I first saw this film many years ago I didn’t like it much at all because I couldn’t believe how anyone could be so dense as to not see how they were constantly being used and really treated and how those that cared about him suffered and even died because of his actions/non-actions. Also, the boxing storyline of the young challenger losing his moral compass during his climb to a championship was redundant even then (see “Golden Boy” for example). However, ultimately, I realized I was dead wrong! My opinion changed when at long last, I finally understood why Charley acted the way he did throughout the entire movie: It was because Charley was Not The Sharpest Pencil in the Box… AKA He Stupid! Once I realized that fact, it also changed the entire way I viewed the rest of the film.
I now noticed other things that stood out here which were different than other previous boxing films. One, was from the Oscar nominated screenplay by Abraham Polonsky (who would later be blacklisted along with Director Robert Rossen for being Communists) which took jabs at capitalism itself inferring that it was a system which promoted material wealth above all else even if it corrupted an individual in his attainment of it. Two, was Charley’s friendship with the former African American champion he defeated, Ben (Canada Lee) which might have been a first for a boxing film. Three, was the incredible film editing which won an Oscar and the spectacular Oscar nominated black and white cinematography by the great James Wong Howe (he should have won). “Soul” had some of the most exciting boxing scenes ever filmed thanks to Howe, on roller skates, holding a hand-held camera, skating around the fighters during the fight sequences. Four, and last, was the powerful and raw Oscar nominated performance by Garfield (it was his only one for Best Actor). Garfield had an intensity in his performances that was spellbinding. From 1945 till his death in 1952, his performances in such films as “Pride of the Marines” (1945), “The “Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946), “Force of Evil” (1948), and “The Breaking Point” (1950) were some of the best by any actor ever seen. When at the end of “Body and Soul” where he is bloody and losing his final fight to his mobbed-up opponent that he finally realizes that he has had enough, and in a raw almost animal rage says, “I’m going to Kill Him! I’m going to KILL HIM!”… and then proceeds to just about do exactly that, I dare you to not want to jump up and scream, “YEAH!!!” even if you’ve seen this film a dozen times (which, by the way, I have, and which, by the way, I did!).
“Champion” starred Kirk Douglas (in his star making performance) as Midge Kelly who, after hitch-hiking across the country to California to start a new life with his brother (Arthur Kennedy), finds that they are swindled out of a share in a restaurant. Desperate, Midge takes up an offer by a boxing trainer named Haley (Paul Stewart) to come to his gym and start to really train to become a professional fighter. As he develops, Midge starts the slow methodical climb up the ranks to get a chance to fight for the championship. Although at first it seemed similar to “Body and Soul”, (it even started with him having a flashback to his beginnings just before his championship defense) “Champion” told a far different tale about boxing than “Soul”. Midge is not an innocent ready to be corrupted. Here, from the get go, he’s already corrupted and ruthlessly willing to use anyone to achieve success including his own brother. His cruelty is also profound in his openly callow treatment of women. It’s a dark character study and Douglas grabs the part by the throat and never lets it go. Maybe the only thing darker than the storyline was Douglas’s facial scowl throughout the entire picture, whether in the ring or out, which could scare even Frankenstein! Douglas, who in real life was a serious iron pumper and gym rat, got into incredible shape for the role and there is a sequence in the film of him working out that makes you want to just say, “Wow!” The boxing sequences by Oscar nominated cinematographer Franz Planer were also outstanding. They are some of the most brutal boxing scenes ever filmed and were probably not surpassed until the movie, “Raging Bull” was made. Although the movie was made on a shoe string and shot in just 23 days it was nominated for six Oscars winning just one also for best film editing (same as “Body and Soul”) and with one of the nominations going to Douglas as Best Actor.
“The Set-Up” was an entirely different movie than the prior two boxing films. Unlike the others, it was only 72 minutes long and shot in real time taking place during one dark night. Also released in the same year as “Champion”, it starred Robert Ryan as “Stoker” Thompson, an aged, past his prime boxer in the fictional two-bit town of Paradise City about to fight a late-night undercard against a much younger and much better fighter. Stoker never came close to being a champion of anything and he has lost his past number of fights. Living in near poverty with his long-suffering wife (Audrey Totter), he hopes that if he wins, he can just use the meager winnings to maybe buy a cigar stand, or invest in another boxer, or even to box a little more. It’s almost a sure thing that he’ll probably lose this one badly so his manager doesn’t even bother to mention to him that he’s already arranged with a mobster for Stoker to take a “dive” so the mobster’s fighter will win. Why bother! Stoker doesn’t stand a chance, does he? Right? Wrong!
Two-time Oscar winning Best Director, Robert Wise directed this early gem of a film. Wise started his career as a film editor (he edited both “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Andersons”) and this film is a master class using editing to not only capture the ring action, but also other individuals in the crowd or outside the arena or back to Totter (a fine actress), silently walking the streets nearby while either tearing up her fight ticket rather than see Stoker fight or to watch children on the street play at boxing with a couple of puppets until she realizes what that possibly foretells for her husband. Wise is ably assisted by future Oscar winning cinematographer Milton Krasner whose black and white cinematography captures a seedy and poverty-stricken urban neighborhood full of despair and potential menace. However, above all, the film is anchored by the towering performance of Ryan as Stoker.
In real life, Ryan, who graduated from Dartmouth College, was the heavyweight collegiate boxing champion there for four years in a row and it shows in the film’s boxing sequences. His fine portrayal of Stoker is natural and realistic. Stoker is a common man, not necessarily smart, but honest, tough, resilient, with integrity, and still able to have hope despite everything. The sad thing is, this film was ignored and never got nominated or won anything at the Oscars that year unlike “Champion”. Howard Hughes, the head of RKO, which produced “The Set-Up” previously filed a lawsuit for plagiarism against “Champion’s” production company, United Artists, for similarities between the two films. Ultimately, Hughes won his lawsuit, but it was alleged that United Artists retaliated by ensuring that “The Set-Up” would be snubbed come Oscar time. Also, speaking of being snubbed, Robert Ryan was all too often, snubbed too! He was only nominated once for best supporting actor [“Crossfire” (1947)] and this film, along with his performances in “On Dangerous Ground” (1951), “The Iceman Cometh” (1973), and his other supporting roles [“Lonelyhearts” (1958), “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), etc.] were not recognized the way they should have been. If you want to see a great performance in a great movie (whether you like boxing or not), see “The Set-Up”!
There has also been a number of great films made where ex-boxers played a critical role in a movie’s storyline. Some of these films were:
- “The Killers” (1946): Insurance investigator Edmond O’Brien investigates the murder of ex-boxer “Swede” Anderson (Burt Lancaster) who’s mysterious doom-laden backstory is slowly revealed via flashback. Oscar nominee for Best Picture.
- “The Quiet Man” (1952): Romantic comedy drama of ex-boxer Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returning to Ireland to buy his family’s former home where he romances and weds Mary (Maureen O’Hara) while having to deal with her bullying brute of a brother Will (Victor McLaglen) culminating in the longest comic slobber-knocker brawl across the entire Irish countryside in film history. Oscar nominee for Best Picture.
- “From Here to Eternity” (1953): Ex-boxer and career solder Montgomery Cliff, after transferring to Schofield Barracks on Oahu, is harassed by his Captain and the Captain’s subordinates when he refuses to box on the Captain’s regimental team (and there’s slightly more than just this going on in the picture). Oscar winner, Best Picture.
- “On the Waterfront” (1954): Washed up ex-boxer now longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) working under a mob-connected waterfront union boss has a crisis of conscience when he fails in love with the sister (Eva Marie Saint) of a man whose death, Terry was partially responsible for. Also, Oscar winner, Best Picture.
Another type of boxing film that was popular with the general public were dramatizations of famous historical fighters. Two early ones were “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) which chronicled the hard scrabble life of middleweight champion Rocky Graziano with Paul Newman giving a winning performance in the role, and “Monkey on My Back” (1957) starring Cameron Mitchell as 1930’s fighter Barney Ross who became a world champion in three different weight divisions, a decorated veteran of World War II, and also overcame a serious drug addiction. Good story but cheaply made, poorly directed, and Mitchell was no Paul Newman! Pass! Other better film dramatizations were “Ali” (2001) with Will Smith as Muhammad Ali covering a ten year period of Ali’s life (1964-74) from his winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston to recapturing the title after beating George Foreman, and “The Fighter” (2010) with Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward who ultimately won the welterweight title despite having to deal with his dysfunctional family’s influence consisting of his mother (Melessa Leo) and his former championship contender half-brother (Christian Bale) now a near hopeless crack addict. There have been and will continue to be other movie biographies of famous fighters made, but perhaps the all-time best one is Martin Scorsese’s film about the life of fighter Jake LaMotta, “Raging Bull” (1980), starring Robert De Niro who won the Oscar for Best Actor.
De Niro was so obsessed to play LaMotta that he tried for years to convince Scorsese to direct a film version of his life. Despite the fact that Scorsese didn’t (and still doesn’t) like boxing, he was finally convinced to do the film. De Niro, in preparing for the role, got into incredible boxing shape for the film (he did as many as a thousand rounds) and, with the help of LaMotta actually training him, De Niro even entered three genuine Brooklyn boxing matches (winning twice). LaMotta also felt that De Niro could have had the ability to be a serious contender if he continued. Scorsese had Oscar nominated cinematographer Michael Chapman shoot the film in black and white for period authenticity and also because he didn’t want to depict all of the blood in a color picture. He also had the boxing scenes filmed after months of carefully choreographed movements with a single camera in the ring. He was inspired by some of Wong Howe’s previous work in “Body and Soul” and it showed by how exciting, and also how brutal the scenes really were. To show the physical ravages of time on the older Jake LaMotta, De Niro famously gained an additional sixty pounds which startled Scorsese so much that he feared for De Niro’s health (Talk about suffering for one’s art!).
However, although “Raging Bull” was “technically” classified as a boxing film, barely ten minutes of the entire movie’s length was devoted to boxing. This movie was really a character study of a man with deep-rooted misogyny, jealousy and rage in both his public and private life who almost destroys everything around him including himself. Scorsese brilliantly presents LaMotta as both a despicable human being and, at times, a likeable one sometimes both at the same time. Supposedly, when LaMotta first saw the movie it made him realize for the first time just how awful he really was. His aggression and explosions into verbal and physical violence against his wife, Vickie (supporting Oscar nominated actress Cathy Moriarty), his own brother, Joey (supporting Oscar nominated actor Joe Pesci) along with others culminate by the end of the movie with an older LaMotta formerly incarcerated in prison, now obese, broke, alone, and reduced to doing a one night stage show reciting Brando’s lines from “On the Waterfront”… “I could’ve been a contender, I could’ve been somebody… instead of a bum, which is what I am.” If you can stand it, “Raging Bull” is a classic!
To close, the last film I want to highlight is based on the combining of three short stories by deceased former boxing cut man and writer F.X. Toole from his book, “Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner” (OK, I’ve read the book and loved it so I’m giving it a plug here! Deal with it!). This boxing film is also different, in that the boxer is female (Ladies, I didn’t want to exclude you!). The movie is “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Hilary Swank. Swank stars as “Maggie” Fitzgerald, a poor waitress who wants Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), an old trainer who owns a boxing gym, to train her to be a fighter. Dismissive at first, Dunn changes his mind after seeing her work out tirelessly day after day at his gym and later, after being set up in her first fight by another manager to lose to a much better fighter, Frankie jumps in to coach her mid-bout to an unexpected upset win. From that point on, Frankie becomes her manager (and substitute father figure) as she begins a relentless climb up the boxing ladder to attain a chance at a welterweight championship match.
“Baby” is not your typical stereotypical boxing movie of a young challenger fighting their way to a championship and not just because the main character is a female rather than a male. For one thing, Maggie is not young, and for the other thing, “Baby” takes an unexpected turn midway through the film which swings it into a completely different and heart-wrenching direction. I intensely dislike Clint Eastwood as a person, but I’ll give him his due both as an actor, and especially, as a director. As an actor, Eastwood has a limited emotional range and is more of a star than an actor. However, he knows it, unlike too many actors, and he doesn’t try to do something that he is completely unsuited for (Could you see Clint doing Shakespeare? There are not enough drugs to ever convince me of that!). As a director, he has done some terrific and varied movies and it’s no surprise that he has been nominated for Best Director four times and has won it twice with “Baby” being his second, Best Director Oscar as well as being his second, Best Picture Oscar. Maybe one of the best things that he does really well as a director is in selecting the right actor for the right role which is a talent all by itself. No better example is this film with his casting of both Morgan Freeman as Eddie Dupris, Dunn’s long-time gym assistant, and especially, Hilary Swank as Maggie and who both won Oscars for their performances. Swank, like De Niro, had a relentless work ethic and worked out five hours a day to gain 19 pounds of muscle for the role. She also deeply identified with the role since Swank had an upbringing similar to the character, and it showed in her giving Maggie a combination of grit, dogged determination, and pathos. It’s a great performance and she definitely deserved her Oscar. “Baby” just might be the saddest boxing film ever made, but, like some of the others that I’ve previously mentioned, it’s one of the best!
So, to conclude, if after seeing these films, and if you ever get into a situation where you think you can fight your way out of it, my best advice to you is…
RUN LIKE HELL, YOU IDIOT!