Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Gentleman Jim

Errol Flynn was Star of the Month last year if memory serves; I recorded several of his movies to watch later. Among them was Gentleman Jim, which is back on TCM tomorrow (Feb. 9) at 6:00 AM.

The Jim in question is James J. Corbett, a name you might recognize as one of the early heavyweight boxing champions of the world. In many ways he was the first modern heavyweight champion, as this was the time the Marquess of Queensbury was codifying new rules to make the sport less unsafe. Also, Corbett was one of the first boxers to train the way modern boxers do. As you can probably surmise, Flynn is playing Corbett, since it's tough to imagine Flynn not being in a starring role at this stage of his career.

The movie opens up in San Francisco circa 1887, which was before Corbett's boxing career. In fact, with no standardized boxing rules and bare-knuckles boxing being the thing, the sport was illegal in a lot of places in much the same way that it took a long time for certain jurisdictions to legalized mixed martial arts. San Francisco was one of the places, at least according to the movie, an Corbett, who works as a bank teller when that was considered a moderately good job for people who want to move up in the world, goes to an illegal fight together with his best friend Walter Lowrie (Jack Carson). The fight gets raided by the police and a bunch of the spectators arrested; this even includes a judge. Corbett's quick thinking when everybody's in custody together gets them off as the judge plans to institute amateur boxing at the Olympic Club.

The judge is also on the board of the bank, so Corbett thinks he's going to get fired, but no. Indeed, the judge and another Olympic Club member help Corbett get a membership too. Buck Ware's daughter Virginia (Alexis Smith) comes to the bank to get some silver currency for Dad's poker game, which Corbett takes over to the bank. There, he sees the gym and gives an impromptu training session to some of the would-be boxers. It's also the start of a love Corbett has for Ware that takes a long time to be requited, but since Flynn and Smith are the two leads, you can expect them to wind up together at the end of a movie like this.

Corbett's boxing skill takes him places, as does his drinking. He and Walter wake up one morning in Salt Lake City seemingly not remembering how they got there. Corbett meets boxing manager Delaney (William Frawley), who gets Jim a fight in order for Jim to be able to pay his way back to San Francisco. Corbett wins, and this among other fights turns him from a banker to a professional boxer.

Corbett rises through the ranks, and when the more-or-less recognized champion of the world at the time, John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) shows up in America, you know that Corbett is going to fight Sullivan. (Of course, this happened in real life.) But negotiations between the camps were difficult then as now, perhaps even more so then since the challenger had to come up with financial banking. It's not as if they could expect a windfall from pay-per view as that simply didn't exist in the early 1890s.

I have no idea how much of Gentleman Jim is based on the truth. Supposedly, it's based on a serialized autobiagrphy Corbett wrote at the height of his fame in the 1890s, although who knows how much of that is true, either. (I haven't read the autobiography.) It's definitely got all of the hallmarks of a studio-era biopic, with as much if not more emphasis on a good dramatic story than on the unvarnished truth.

But Gentleman Jim also has all the character actors Warner Bros. could bring to a movie like this, and that only serves to add to the entertainment value. It also calls for the sort of bravado and charisma that Errol Flynn was quite adept at displaying; I can't imagine anybody else in Hollywood at the time taking on the role.

So despite any issues with accuracy, Gentleman Jim is a fine example of early-1940s Hollywood entertainment.

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