Gentleman Jim and John L., on the Big Screen

Gentleman Jim (1942), directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn as Jim Corbett and Ward Bond as John L. Sullivan, is a movie long on charm and short on historical accuracy or dramatic seriousness. It’s a hard-to-dislike boxing picture, because it’s funny, its boxing scenes are surprisingly good, and its leading man is an irresistible charmer—even as he plays a character you’d like to throttle, if you encountered him in real life. The first time I saw Gentleman Jim, some years back, I wasn’t very impressed; Walsh’s desire to play the Corbett story mostly for laughs rankled me. The second time around, I was more willing to accept the movie as a romantic comedy—and on these terms, it’s a triumph, especially for Flynn, who not only excels as a leading man but also shows pretty impressive footwork, and a believable left jab, in the boxing scenes. His chemistry with Alexis Smith, who plays Victoria Ware, the upper-class woman whom Corbett woos, never fails to be entertaining, as the two enact a kind of Beatrice/Benedick dynamic that culminates, as in Shakespeare, happily.

Considering the final product, Walsh’s comic take on the Corbett story is hard to fault, but the real-life story is not nearly so filled with laughs. James J. Corbett (1878–1933) was something of a dark prince: he had an edgy, cruel side, which some of his opponents experienced. For all his dash and flair, his personal life was more than a little stormy: he left his first wife, Ollie, for Jessie Taylor, a young widow who may have become a prostitute before meeting Corbett and who once stabbed a girlfriend for denigrating him. Jessie, who began calling herself Vera Stanwood, proved to be the love of Corbett’s life, though theirs was a relationship shot through with angry passions and, sometimes, flying objects. Vera even denounced Corbett in public for his infidelities, called him a “human brute,” and said that he had threatened to kill her. Finally, Corbett’s parents—portrayed as happy-go-lucky Irish arrivistes in Walsh’s film—died in a brutal murder-suicide.

Naturally, this is not the usual fare for a biopic, especially in 1942, so Walsh can't be faulted too much for avoiding it. Still, one might imagine some deeper choices in a film treatment about the driven son of Irish immigrants whose ascent to fame took him from San Francisco’s poor side of town—“south of the slot”—to wealth, fancy clothes, and a life in the theater. To get there, he had to beat another Irish hero, John L. Sullivan, the Irish hero of this time and the man who effectively created the role of heavyweight champion.

 Sullivan (left) and Corbett

Sullivan (left) and Corbett

Ward Bond is terrific as John L., especially when he bounds into a bar and makes his famous announcement: “I can lick any man in the house!” He is utterly convincing as a man invariably described as “larger than life.” Bond captures Sullivan’s gusto and Vesuvian temperament, though in a scene when he and Corbett nearly come to blows, he probably overdoes it. My favorite moment is the shot of Sullivan walking down a city street with a crowd of kids following him—a scene memorably etched by Charles Dana Gibson.

Bond’s triumph is even more telling when put up against the only other film portrayal of Sullivan of which I’m aware: Frank Tuttle’s The Great John L. (1945), in which the novice actor Gregg McClure plays Sullivan. (I don’t recall how I found out about The Great John L., and it is not easy to obtain. I purchased a DVD copy from a website called New Dog, Old Flicks, which may not be operating anymore; the company apparently did its own digital transfers of films not in general release. So the copy I have, slightly blurry in parts and washed out generally, is not the cleaned-up version one might find if a major studio ever decided to bring The Great John L. out on DVD, which seems highly unlikely.)

My DVD case notes that Bing Crosby produced the film. Tuttle was a director of some prominence; he had done a bunch of films with Crosby and also directed This Gun for Hire, a noir that helped make Alan Ladd a star. But The Great John L. is a pale and lifeless effort that wouldn’t make any filmmaker’s highlight reel (it isn’t even cited on Tuttle’s Wikipedia page). It fails above all because McClure, who got the part for his Adonis-like physique, cannot bring the character to life whatsoever—a fatal flaw for any movie about such a vibrant personality. And it’s not all McClure’s fault: no event in Tuttle’s plot seems more important than any other. We never really get a sense of who Sullivan is.

In Ward Bond’s hands, by contrast, the Sullivan character is as big and consequential as Teddy Roosevelt (with whom the real-life Sullivan was friendly). Some viewers’ favorite scene in Gentleman Jim comes at the end, when the beaten Sullivan crashes Corbett’s victory party to congratulate him—even graciously offering that Corbett might bring something to the fight game that he, John L., couldn’t. It’s well played, a bit hackneyed but affecting, and its sentiments are true enough: Corbett really did represent a new evolutionary step for boxing. No such scene ever happened, though—in real life, the two men were bitter enemies to the end of their days, with Corbett always showing a particular contempt for Sullivan. I don’t know the source of it, but my sense is that Corbett looked down on Sullivan, in the same way that the “lace curtain Irish” did—having newly arrived to a position of comparative prosperity and respectability, they did not wish to be reminded of the crudity and often embarrassing public behavior of the Boston Strong Boy. Corbett consciously modeled himself as a different kind of boxer, in the ring and out. The model he was rejecting was Sullivan’s, and perhaps that accounts for the tension.

Had Sullivan and Corbett lived to see their lives portrayed on film, it would no doubt have been another source of discord that here, too, Corbett had the upper hand.

All in all, Gentleman Jim is entertaining and winning, but I sense a hint of condescension here, as if all of this—this prizefighting world that Corbett mastered and Sullivan defined—is best understood as a kind of burlesque. If that were really true, though, Walsh’s characters would never have risen to sufficient prominence to justify making a film about them.

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