After defeating Jess Willard to become boxing’s World Heavyweight Champion, Jack Dempsey headed to Hollywood to star in the fifteen episode serial Daredevil Jack. Returning to the ring in 1920, he successfully fought six contenders over three years before taking another break during which time he starred in the ten episode Fight and Win series, married actress Estelle Taylor and co-starred with her in the feature Manhattan Madness.
It’s a world away from the hardscrabble life Dempsey leads when we first encounter him outside Salt Lake City in 1911. Leaving behind his supportive brother, loving mother and indifferent father, Dempsey hits the road, eking out a living with the only skill he has, fighting. After taking on all comers in hundreds of saloon fights, he stands in for his brother, assumes his ring name Jack Dempsey, and defeats veteran boxer George Copelin. Now attracting some attention, Dempsey’s reputation begins to grow but his bank balance remains the same. That is until wily promoter Doc Kearns takes him under his wing.
With nice period detail and skilfully staged fights, this fine TV movie regularly punches above its weight. Treat Williams impresses in and out of the ring, portraying a Jack Dempsey whose driving force is that he will never go hungry again. He is lent good support by Sam Waterson as Doc Kearns, whose own inspiration consists of dames and dough. As half of this equation, Sally Kellerman makes the most of her time on screen, though her character’s betrothal to Dempsey feels as rushed as the marriage’s sudden decline. Victoria Tennant, on the other hand, is a little too convincing as actress Estelle Taylor, of whom it is said “knows how to act… badly”.
For most of its running time Dempsey proceeds at a fair pace. It’s only towards the end that, like the count that greeted Tunney after he was knocked down by Dempsey, it goes on a bit long.
Demspey’s mother tells him that she used to read John L. Sullivan’s book ‘The Modern Gladiator’ while she was pregnant with him. Jack Dempsey was born in 1885. The book was first published in 1889.
Biopic features some brief behind the scenes action from Dempsey’s film debut Daredevil Jack and Estelle Taylor’s The Alaskan. However, there is no mention of the married couple’s only film together Manhattan Madness.