Gentleman Jim (1942)

Raoul Walsh | 1hr 44min

Raoul Walsh takes a loose approach to historical accuracy in taking on the story of boxing legend James J. Corbett, often opting for comedy where other directors might have preferred serious drama, but Gentleman Jim simply does not possess the self-seriousness that more modern biopics have developed a reputation for. This is the man who turned the sport from illegal street brawling into serious competition by way of sophisticated fighting techniques that overcame the brute force of more traditional boxers, and Errol Flynn’s dashing screen persona makes for a wonderfully unconventional fit. The physical disparity is notable as he sizes up against larger, more muscular men, especially when Ward Bond’s towering world champion, John L. Sullivan, is set as the final boss in Corbett’s rise to the top. “I can lick any man in the world,” Sullivan loudly boasts in noisy bars, and though he is not quite a villain, Gentleman Jim is clearly on the side of the underdog here.

In place of heavy themes and personal character struggles, Walsh imbues this biopic with a whimsical lightness, entering the world of 19th century San Francisco through a photo album that turns a still frame into a busy cobbled street of storefronts, police officers, and horse-drawn carriages. The splendid deep focus photography he uses to shoot his splendid period décor even more importantly extends to his giant boxing set pieces, using the ropes of the rings to frame the adversaries inside, and even foregrounding the audience themselves in wider shots to crowd the scenery.

A strong opening shot, opening up a photo album and then bringing it life as we are transported into 19th century San Francisco.

Whether he is lining hundreds of extras along the docks and masts of shipyards to view illegal matches or tightly packing them into closed-off arenas, Walsh’s sweeping establishing shots fill every square inch of space with bodies, bringing tremendous spectacle to competitions that seemingly have the whole world watching. He takes even greater pleasure too in seeing these extras scatter when the police arrive, setting the camera far back to capture the playful chaos unfold as they escape into the ocean.

Raoul Walsh is a crafter of incredible set pieces, making Gentleman Jim the perfect fit for him in gathering these hundreds of extras around boxing rings.

Perhaps the most innovative piece of Walsh’s style here is the fast-paced editing he uses inside the ring, clearly bearing an influence on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull some forty years later. Where Jake LaMotta fights like a bull though, Jim is light on his feet, and the constant cutting to his agile footwork serves to underscore his ground-breaking fighting technique. Walsh navigates these scenes with equal nimbleness, punctuating hits with cutaways to the audience’s reactions and weaving in splendid long shots as breathers between each round.

What could have been conventional montages become displays of inspired editing. Especially impressive is the shot which starts on the two men, tracks forward on the still photo behind them, unfreezes it to move Jim into the shot, and then tracks back out to the two men – editing with the illusion of one long take.

Even when he uses montage editing for the more conventional purpose of bridging gaps in time, Jim’s rise to success is rendered in long dissolves, freeze frames, and point-of-view shots that see him knock us right out, pushing the formal boundaries of a relatively simple device. Though Gentleman Jim lacks the layered storytelling that might have made these characters more compelling than they are, Walsh’s exploration of boxing’s evolution still tells us something about the raw, primal nature of our sporting passions, and the concerted effort to reconcile those with our refined humanity.

Walsh vigorously editing these boxing scenes 40 years before Raging Bull – obviously not quite up to the same remarkable standard, but the achievement is still there.

Gentleman Jim is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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