Boxing movies and biopics are a mainstay of Hollywood. It’s an established fact so naming names is all but unnecessary. The affable brilliance of Gentleman Jim is its agile footwork allowing it to sidestep a myriad of tropes attached to biopics and the schmaltz that Old Hollywood was always capable of serving up.
Certainly, a great deal of credit must be heaped upon Errol Flynn who seems to relish the very opportunity to portray such a magnetic man as James J. Corbett — always perceptive and driven with a bevy of tricks at his disposal to get ahead. I can’t help but hear Butch Cassidy’s words in my ears, “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.“ Corbett could live by that credo too.
Authenticity is to be trodden upon softly and so there is a sense Flynn has taken the “gentleman” moniker of his namesake and fashioned the role around his own roguish charm, good looks, and irrefutable charisma. Thus, it becomes almost second nature for him to play the part because there’s this sense that he’s playing what he knows best, and loving every minute of it.
He’s meant to come from hardy Irish stock with a jovial father (Alan Hale), two boisterous older brothers, an awestruck sister, and the ever maternal mother figure. Around all these types Flynn and Jim feel like outliers. They’re not meant to fit into this family and yet it somehow manages to work — Marty McFly anyone?
The script, co-written by Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy, begins by drawing up the story in a most agreeable fashion that takes into account our hero’s life but also considers any number of stray antecedents that led to his rise in the boxing world.
Boxing in its most barbaric forms is being outlawed across the nation. Jim and his hapless buddy Walter (Jack Carson) spy the prominent higher-up from their bank at a fight only to have the police raid the event. Soon they’re all in prison with their prominent friend and Jim sees it as the perfect opportunity to earn some favor. Soon Judge Geary has brought on his young protege as a new brand of fighter: one with class.
Being a fast worker, Jim gets himself into the elitist Olympic Club doing his best to look the part of a well-to-do gentleman, despite hardly having a dollar to his name. Concurrently he begins annoying the gentleman around him with his constant stream of boys sent around paging him.
It becomes quickly apparent that Gentleman Jim exists in a world, not unlike that of Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde (1941), where America seemed to have acquired a newfound propriety. Nasty pugilism had been replaced with marquess Queensberry Rules and someone like Jim Corbett was able to become something.
He soon is acquainted with Ms. Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith) who along with her family are members of the social elite and patrons of the bank. I must admit that the Canadian actress has all but slunk under my radar aside from her part in Conflict opposite Bogart.
But I have rectified the oversight because she gives a lovely turn opposite Flynn allowing the sparks to fly in the most vehement way possible. High-class respectability can only get you so far. Sometimes you just want to see someone get wailed on for their own good.
She has just about enough of his conceited ways finding him utterly infuriating with his faux polished manners and overblown head. He has the gall to criticize her idol worshipping of such an eminent legend as John L. Sullivan. Corbett being an utter nobody himself. But he’s got ideas and the fancy feet to go someplace.
Upon leaving their little tiff, he dances his way back down the street zigzagging through oncoming passerby. He’s got John L. Sullivan (an impeccably cast Ward Bond) on the mind now. Because there was no bigger national hero, icon, and legend than John L. Sullivan. The film even evokes the famous phrase, “I just shook the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan!” He was that big of a celebrity.
Backed by William Frawley in his corner, Corbett is soon on the rise taking on anyone who will get him some visibility. In the ring, the suave-looking Irishman is a model of agility and impeccable footwork. Though Flynn, to his credit, stood in for most of the scenes his flying feet were spotted by world-class former welterweight Mushy Callahan.
Many of the sequences capture the immersive even suffocating atmosphere of a boxing match through fairly furious cutting, especially for an old film. Inserting shots of the ring, mincing feet, and a flurry of audience reactions throwing together a swirling experience.
The most frenzied is a back and forth river barge slugfest with haymaker after haymaker flying through the air. Corbett and his hulking opponent wind up decking each other flat again and again. Flynn takes a plunge into the water only to lay out his competitor for good minutes later.
The victor is finally raised as the police arrive on the scene to crash the proceedings and all the spectators jump ship in the most tumultuous and mayhem-filled denouements to a fight you’ve ever witnessed. The beauty is we get an almost birdseye view of the madness from the cheap seats and we see on what a large scale everyone is frantically escaping. Jumping into the drink. Screaming and shouting. It’s the kind of bedlam that’s contagious and a real enjoyment from reel to reel for some inexplicable reason.
Surely the fight to top them all is Jim Corbett against John L. Sullivan. But just as important as the actual bout is the skirmish going on outside the ropes. As the telegraph lines are flooding the country with news round after round, Corbett’s clandestine backer watches expectantly for him to get clobbered.
Meanwhile, Ms. Ware’s father with a glint in his eye eggs her on very tenderly toward the most antagonistic man in her life and subsequently the most important. In the movies at least, the people who detest each other the most wind up making the most passionate romances.
Aside from love, Gentleman Jim is refreshingly light on heart-wrenching drama or needless sentiment for that matter. It slips up in one solitary moment where a gracious Sullivan looks back wistfully at an illustrious career and pays his respects to Gentleman Jim. If anything it shows that Flynn can play genuine just as he can slather on the charm.
For contemporary audiences, it no doubt carried a sardonic edge as the actor was simultaneously embroiled in a scurrilous court trial that all but ruined his reputation for months on end.
Regardless, standing on its own merit, Gentleman Jim might just be one of my new favorite boxing exhibitions and the key is that there’s seemingly no agenda. It ebbs and flows around a life and characters without concerted realism or a need for continual heightened drama. And yet we still find it compelling and jovial with all sorts of moments worth telling the folks at home about.
In fact, that might just be Raoul Walsh’s finest attributes making every scene, action, brawl, what-have-you, totally immersive, effectively involving the audience through his array of shots. While Flynn and Smith are finally in each other’s arms, Jack Carson makes one final call straight to the camera shouting that the Corbett boys are at it again, duking it out in the parlor. Some things never change and the beauty is that we’re in on the joke as much as anyone within the frame. What a delightful biopic. Shamelessly fun to the very last word.