Friday, January 22, 2016

NFR Project: 'The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight'


The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight
Dir: Enoch J. Rector
1897
90-100 min. original; fragments survive

It doesn’t seem crazy now, in our sports-obsessed nation, that the movie of an athletic event would ever have been something people wanted to see. In 1897, there was no guarantee that anyone would pay money to see an hour-and-a-half-long film of a boxing match, especially one the outcome of which was already known.

That’s precisely what happened, though. The contest between heavyweight champion James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nevada on March 17, 1897 was processed, copied, and shown by 11 touring companies across the country, complete with live speakers who contributed commentary throughout the bout (history’s first play-by-play men). By all accounts, it made lots of money, starting a new subgenre of sports actualities that remained popular with the public as special events, never merging into the mainstream, disappearing when television took over the function.

The director Enoch Rector was a former Edison employee who made the film using the first big technological breakthrough in film, the Latham Loop. This loop, invented in fact by Eugene Luste and developed by him and W.K.L. Dickson while in Woodville Latham’s employ. The Loop enabled both the movie camera and projector to maintain enough slack to keep the celluloid film from tearing while rapidly ratcheting from frame to frame. Longer films could at last be made and shown.

Thinking big, Rector shot with a large-format 62mm film stock to capture the action (he tried to cut the ring down, too, but the ref stopped him). That makes Corbett-Fitzsimmons the world’s first widescreen film as well. He brought 48,000 feet with him, exposing 11,000. The result is 14 rounds resulting in a knockdown punch to Corbett’s gut by Fitzsimmons.


O A.J. Liebling, that you were here to enlighten us as to the significance of what we are seeing! He and fellow scholars of what was once termed the Sweet Science could interpret these stuttering scraps of film, not me. Thank goodness for Jean A. Le Roy of New York City, who sometime in the 1980s transferred the only known fragments onto 335mm via a specially designed optical printer.

Cinematically, there’s not much to write home about. The camera is bolted stolidly in place, and the technology is so new that neither the boxers nor the onlookers seem aware of the camera at all – a naivetĂ© we associate now only with Amazon tribespeople. The two pale combatants – Fitzsimmons balding, slouched back in stance, hands held low, and Corbett, dark-haired and using a more classic technique, with his boxing trunks pulled high up on his butt – circle, dance, strike, clinch, repeat with variation, a hostile tango.


Whatever fascinated us about boxing waned. Shadier than ever, it resembles the sketchy, carnival-challenge demeanor of other, now more popular, blood sports such as pro wrestling and the MMA. That Corbett’s sobriquet was Gentleman Jim reminds us that boxing’s practitioners once enjoyed universal adulation, their might literally gentling their condition. They had an air of savage nobility about them.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Register, in chronological order. Next time: 'Westinghouse Works, 1904.'