Bob Hope – actor/comedian – “I was called ‘Rembrandt’ Hope in my boxing days, because I spent so much time on the canvas.
- Thousands of stories have been written and a number of movies have been made about boxers, and it’s not surprising, for no sport can quite match boxing for its drama, uncertainty and unusual happenings, nor its fascination.
It’s a sport that can rivet and stun an audience in the time it takes to blink. Why boxing has survived well over 2,000 years of man to man contact and remain an attraction in a world forever changing its tastes, is one of its fascinations. But it is a sport that has an unrivalled source of stories, characters and inspiration, and hundreds of remarkable events have happened over the years in the hardest game, that has always attracted larger than life colourful characters. So it’s understandable why, over the years, many movies have been produced about boxing and boxers’ life stories, in fact more than for any other sport.
Many famous film stars have played the part of boxers during the entire history of the silver screen going way back as far as 1914, when one of the legends of silent films, the immortal Charlie Chaplin used his art of mime and control of movement to make two very funny films with boxing themes, The Knockout and The Champion, followed by Buster Keaton using his comedy genius in the film Battling Butler in 1924.
They set the tone for a number of boxing comedies that would follow such as The Milky Way starring Harold Lloyd and much later Danny Kaye in A Kid From Brooklyn and The Main Event with Ryan O’Neal.
But there’s a more serious side to the boxing game and I remember as a youngster in the 1940s, going to watch the film Gentleman Jim, the story of James J Corbett who took the world heavyweight title from the great bare-fist fighter John L. Sullivan on the 7th September 1892. The fight made boxing history, for it was the first heavyweight championship in which the use of gloves was stipulated. I have not yet fallen over under the collected weight of my memories and, if I close my eyes, I can still picture very clearly the faces of the actors taking part, Errol Flynn as Corbett and Ward Bond as Sullivan, and many of the scenes in the movie.
A few years later, Paul Newman made his mark in films by portraying the former middleweight champion of the 1940s, Rocky Graziano, in the movie Somebody Up There Likes Me, as did Kirk Douglas in The Champion. These two excellent boxing films were later followed by the biography of former world middleweight champion, Raging Bull, Jake La Motta. The film which starred Robert de Niro, who deservedly won an Oscar for his outstanding performance, was considered by many American film critics as the number one film of the 1980s.
Raging Bull may have been a big success at the box office, but the fighter it portrayed, Jake La Motta, wasn’t too happy with the film in later years. The movie showed the fighter as being just as violent outside the ring as inside it, in fact a bit of a tin pot hoodlum. But when I had the pleasure of enjoying a drink and a chat with the boxing legend at a function in New York in 2005, and mentioned the film, he seemed more put out with the fact that the movie showed him to be an unfunny comedian, playing nightclubs after he retired from boxing. The then 83 year old told me, “I wasn’t that bad, and I want people to know that. I’m still trying to get them to do a sequel to that film to put things right.”Hollywood has always had a love affair with boxing and in more recent times after a lull, the sweet science found its way back into Tinseltown’s good graces with success in three films. The Hurricane starring Denzel Washington as Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the former world middleweight contender who served 18 years in prison for a triple murder, until being freed after a federal judge found that the prosecution case contained constitutional violations. Actor/Director Clint Eastwood received Oscar nominations for his film Million Dollar Baby then the latest contestant Russell Crowe portrayed the 1930s world heavyweight champion James J. Braddock in The Cinderella Man, a fascinating real rags to riches story set in the depression years.
However, over the years many boxers have starred in films, mainly from the heavyweight division, the likes of James J Corbett, Jess Willard, Jack Johnson, Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Billy Conn, Archie Moore, Max Baer, Primo Carnera and Muhammad Ali, without setting the world alight. Yet there were two who did have some success in both prize fighting and in Hollywood. When I was a kid in the 1940s, I was a fan of the Irish film star Victor McLaglen, a loveable character who starred in many Hollywood films of the period. I didn’t realise it at the time, but he had already had a boxing career, being good enough to take on the legendary world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.
However, the former boxer who had the biggest success in both is Jack Palance, who was born Vladymir Palahniuk of Ukrainian descent. Taking up professional boxing he fought under the name Jack Brazzo and fought mostly in coal-mining towns in Pennsylvania and quickly ran up a record of 15 straight wins, 12 of them by way of knockouts. This record earned him a fight in New York in December 1940 against the top world heavyweight contender, Joe Baksi, but Palance lost the decision on points. A few years later while serving his time in the U.S. Air Force as a bomber pilot, he was at the controls when his plane lost an engine and nose-dived into the ground. Lucky to survive the crash, he was left with severe burns on his face which required extensive surgery. hence his famous distinctive rugged look, witnessed by millions of movie fans after he took up acting in the 1950s.
Mostly cast as the villain in Westerns such as his part as the ruthless gunfighter Jack Wilson in the 1953 film classic Shane and playing immoral villain Curly in A Professional Gun in 1968 - a character name spoofed by Palance himself in the 90s comedy western hit City Slickers, he also put to good use his boxing skills in his portrayal of an ageing boxer in the TV drama, Requiem For A Heavyweight, in 1956, for which he won an Emmy award as best actor.
McLaglen and Palance may have achieved success in both boxing and movies, but there have been many who first tried their hands in the professional fight game and failed, but later found fame as film stars, including – would you believe – Bob Hope, and before him one of my favourite gangster movie stars, George Raft, who apparently almost had his brains belted out in several fights, losing more fights than he won. They soon discovered that boxing was the hardest game and found a future in another field.
As the saying goes – you ‘play’ football, you ‘play’ rugby, you ‘play’ cricket, but you don’t ‘play’ boxing.
By George Reed
This article appears in the print edition 606 of Island Connections