21 June 2008

In the Corner Stands a Boxer

"I'm no gentleman."

"That's all right, I'm no lady."

The lines are spoken by Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith toward the end of Gentleman Jim, a totally and completely and unabashed fun film from smack in the middle of Hollywood's "Golden Age" and made by its best studio and by one if its best directors. And by God I mean it. It's rich full film making.

The film boasts a rich supporting cast featuring Alan Hale, Jack Carson, William Frawley, Arthur Shields and most notably Ward Bond. Bond's performance here is one of his best. As the bigger-than-life John L. Sullivan, he steals every scene he's in, particularly as the heart-broken but dignified loser. Shields plays a man of the cloth as he did on at least thirteen other occasions and is in Quiet Man he's a reverand who follows the sweet science. Talk about being typecast....

Also in the supporting cast is the ubiquitous Pat Flaherty.  Who? If you've seen more than a handful of films made between 1934 and 1955 you've come across Flaherty, who appeared on the big screen 198 times. You may forget his name but you'll recognize that square-jawed mug and deep voice.

Gentleman Jim, released in 1942, bears the Warners Brothers stamp. This was in the midst of a 25 year period in which the Brothers were outshining all other studios. And they weren't putting out technicolor musicals or cast of thousands epics. Warner was the studio of the Cagney gangster film, the Flynn swashbuckler, various Bogart incarnations, gritty dramas and movies like Gentleman Jim –  well-made fun.

Flynn plays the title character, Jim Corbett, a San Francisco lad who rose to be the heavyweight championship of the world in 1892. The movie traces his raise from bank teller, to club fighter to top of the boxing world. It's set against the backdrop of the Barbary Coast, the age of the Robber Baron and Corbett's own brawling, boozing Irish-American family.

There are a great many liberties taken with the real story of Corbett, but the movie's strength (in addition to entertainment value) is how it evokes the San Francisco of that bygone era where class distinctions were quite real and the town itself was wet and wild. The lovely Alexis Smith is the obligatory love interest. True, her acting range is limited but she's not exactly being asked to play Camille. Sassy and beautiful do nicely here.
At an hour and three quarters, this is a tad long for a Warners Brothers film but it never lags, flying from opening scene to closing with laughs, action and romance all the way. Moreover, the boxing scenes are among the better ones in cinema. There have been some right stinkers on screen (see Rocky) and some right beauties (see Raging Bull). These are good.

Flynn was perfect for the role as it so resembled some of the pirates he played in swashbucklers. He's athletic, charming and total wide eyed sincerity.

Gentleman Jim was directed by Raoul Walsh. There is a similarity between Gentleman Jim and a great film by Walsh from a few years before, Roaring Twenties. Both are centered on a big star surrounded by a whirlwind of characters with fast-moving events in a historical context keeping the production speeding towards an inevitable conclusion.

Gentleman Jim neither aspired to nor reached greatness but is a great example of all that was right about so many movies of its time -- it was a helluva lot of fun.

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