Gentleman Jim (1942)
By all accounts, James J. Corbett was a bit of a showman in and out of the ring, so it would seem only natural for him to try his hand at acting once he hung up the gloves. After touring the States and England in a number of successful plays, Corbett starred in four movie serials (The Man from the Golden West, The Burglar and the Lady, The Other Girl and The Midnight Man) and a feature film directed by John Ford (The Prince of Avenue A). His first appearance in a film though was in Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph. Filmed in the Edison Manufacturing Company’s Black Maria studio, this actual bout took place two years after Corbett challenged John L. Sullivan for the title of boxing’s Heavyweight Champion.
Gentleman Jim starts five years before that match, at a time when boxing was illegal. After a bareknuckle contest is broken up by the police, all manner of society find themselves rubbing shoulders in jail, including spectators Judge Geary and bank teller James Corbett. A mutual love of the sweet science and some fast talking from Corbett soon sees him sponsored by San Francisco’s Olympic Athletic Club as their local pugilist. However his cockiness not only puts the members offside, it also infuriates the beautiful Victoria Ware. Despite their combined best efforts, Corbett continues to win his bouts.
This role was Flynn’s personal favourite, and it’s easy to understand why. The easy-going, devil-may-care Corbett who thinks nothing of gate-crashing the Olympic Club and playing pranks on his friends fits Flynn like a glove. Effortlessly transferring the agility of his swashbucklers to the fleet-footedness of a boxer, Flynn gives one of his most confident performances in a role that relies on his physical and verbal acuity equally.
Raoul Walsh, directing the third of his eleven films with Flynn, provides a biopic that bounces along with all the nimbleness of Corbett’s fancy footwork. Ward Bond, as the Great John L, heads a cast of familiar faces that includes Flynn’s regular co-star Alan Hale. The period detail also serves as a nice backdrop for this depiction of boxing’s progression from illegal activity to popular sport.
Not that it was legal everywhere. Despite being one of the most popular films of the nineteenth century Corbett, Courtney and Edison were hauled before a grand jury for their involvement in the 1894 short. No convictions were recorded.
Though this film is set between 1887 and 1892, there is no mention of Corbett’s marriage to Mary Higgins, who was his wife from 1886 to 1895.
Victoria Ware is a fictional character.
Though biopic does feature both James J. Corbett and John L. Sullivan performing in stage plays, the film concludes before Corbett's film career started.