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Fight Pictures

Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 424
  • Book Info
    Fight Pictures
    Book Description:

    The first filmed prizefight, Veriscope'sCorbett-Fitzsimmons Fight(1897) became one of cinema's first major attractions, ushering in an era in which hugely successful boxing films helped transform a stigmatized sport into legitimate entertainment. Exploring a significant and fascinating period in the development of modern sports and media,Fight Picturesis the first work to chronicle the mostly forgotten story of how legitimate bouts, fake fights, comic sparring matches, and more came to silent-era screens and became part of American popular culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94058-1
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Charles Musser

    If one wanted to make a case for American exceptionalism, there would be no more compelling instance than the arrival of cinema in the United States. Its impact on every day life in the 1890s and 1900s was immediate, powerful and multifaceted, lacking equivalents in other Western nations. From the outset, cinema transformed American theater, religion, print journalism, photography, politics, visual arts, and sports. Culturally, socially, and (eventually) economically, motion pictures were a powerful disruptive force that played with fundamental contractions in the cultural gestalt. In the fall of 1896, presidential candidate William McKinley insisted on conducting his electoral campaign...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. Chronology
    (pp. xix-xx)
  7. Preliminaries: History, Prizefighting, Early Cinema
    (pp. 1-21)

    Late on the night of July 19, 1996, the opening ceremonies for the centennial Olympic games in Atlanta culminated with a stunning moment. A series of famous athletes relayed the Olympic flame to the enormous torch atop the stadium. The identity of the final torchbearer had been kept secret. When television cameras revealed it to be Muhammad Ali, humbled by the palsy of Parkinson’s disease, onlookers first gasped, then cheered and wept at the sight. The most celebrated athlete of his era, the irrepressible “Louisville Lip” had fallen silent, his famous powers of speech stolen by disease and the apparent...

  8. 1 The Sporting and Theatrical Syndicate: Boxing Pictures and the Origins of Cinema, 1891–1896
    (pp. 22-51)

    Thomas Edison’s direct address to “the sporting fraternity” as a prime audience for his forthcoming invention was not an idle remark. As moving-picture technologies developed over the next five years, boxing remained an important part of the earliest productions. Press and professional discourses often coupled them. When Edison introduced this general connection in 1891, theNew York Sunconcluded with a specific one. “With out-of-door athletic exhibitions and prize fights,” the paper said of the kinetograph, “its work will be just as perfect, and Luther Carey’s stride will be measured as carefully and reproduced as distinctly as the terrible blows...

  9. 2 The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight: Women at the Veriscope, 1897
    (pp. 52-95)

    On St. Patrick’s Day 1897, after three years’ anticipation, delay, and hype, James John Corbett and Robert Prometheus Fitzsimmons fought their heavyweight championship contest in Carson City, Nevada. The underdog Fitzsimmons dethroned the popular champion with a much-discussed “solar plexus punch” in the fourteenth round. Under the direction of Enoch J. Rector and the promotion of Texas gambler Dan A. Stuart, motion pictures of the entire event were successfully filmed and prominently exhibited across the United States and abroad. As the first feature-length film, theCorbett-Fitzsimmons Fightwas a cinematic landmark. Yet (its temptation of Quakers aside) its more important,...

  10. 3 Under the Lights: Filming Ringside in the Jim Jeffries Era, 1899–1904
    (pp. 96-125)

    After the bonanza of theCorbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, boxing promoters and motion-picture manufacturers continued to record important bouts. For filmmakers, the pursuit of a fight picture with six-figure profits remained an important sideline. For matchmakers, the role of motion pictures became prominent. Realizing that recordings could mine huge veins of profit, ring managers made extra efforts to accommodate movie cameras. Boxers tolerated the intrusion, as they stood to rake in a large share of the receipts.

    In the decade followingCorbett-Fitzsimmons, both stars were eclipsed by another figure glimpsed in that film: James Jackson Jeffries. He had been Corbett’s sparring partner...

  11. 4 Fake Fight Films: S. Lubin of Philadelphia, 1897–1908
    (pp. 126-163)

    InThe Great Cat Massacre, the historian Robert Darnton writes:“We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.” The best way to accomplish this, he says, is “to wander through the archives.” “When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem,” he continues, “we know we are on to something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel an alien system of meaning.” Darnton unravels an enigmatic anecdote about Parisians slaughtering house...

  12. 5 Fight Pictures in the Nickelodeon Era: Miles Bros. of New York & San Francisco, 1905–1912
    (pp. 164-194)

    After the lull in production in 1904, fight pictures began a comeback with the lucrativeNelson-Britt Prize Fight, shot in San Francisco on September 9, 1905, by three cinematographers from the local Miles Bros. company. The Miles operation led a return to the exploitation of fight films over the next seven years. For the first three, it was the only company to shoot bouts in the United States. Others followed suit. Production increased each year in both America and Europe, peaking in 1910 with a flurry surrounding the interracial heavyweight battle between Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson. More than fifty...

  13. 6 Jack Johnson Films: Black Exhibition and White Suppression, 1908–1910
    (pp. 195-238)

    Until recently, historians of early cinema neglected African American film culture. Considerations of movies and race typically began with the racist landmarkThe Birth of a Nation(1915). Most of the recent studies of African American cinema take the productions of Oscar Micheaux as their starting point. Less has been written about its production, exhibition, and reception before 1915—Jacqueline Najuma Stewart’sMigrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity(2005) being the stellar corrective.¹

    Fight pictures featuring the controversial heavyweight champion Jack Johnson serve as an entree into the social history of early black filmgoing. His screen presence...

  14. 7 Jack Johnson’s Decline: The Prizefight Film Ban, 1911–1915
    (pp. 239-265)

    Jack Johnson’s three title fights between 1908 and 1910 made him an international celebrity. The three resulting fight pictures added to his fame and wealth. With theJohnson-Jeffries Fight, the visibility and influence of the genre peaked. Yet the reaction to the film led to the demise of prizefight films in the United States. During the five years that followed, the films and Johnson himself met with censure and, finally, banishment.

    The victory over Jim Jeffries and its repetition on movie screens marked a high point in Jack Johnson’s career, bolstering his pugilistic reputation and his status in the African...

  15. 8 Bootlegging: The Clandestine Traffic in Fight Pictures, 1916–1940
    (pp. 266-290)

    Following the legal suppression of prizefight films in 1915, ring promoters continued to record big matches, but fight pictures were never again integrated into the mainstream American film industry. Hollywood loved boxing and star boxers, but the major producer-distributors left the handling of bouts to others. The sport itself continued to grow, even with limited movie replays. The emergence of live radio broadcasts of bouts in the 1920s (and the televising of them in the 1940s and 50s) significantly displaced the fight film. However, theatrical screenings did not disappear. Instead the topical prints arrived in theaters without organized promotion or...

  16. Filmography
    (pp. 291-304)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 305-368)
  18. Index
    (pp. 369-396)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 397-397)