Friday, June 15, 2012

Gentleman Jim

Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh, 1942) It's all background in this Errol Flynn vehicle, as the audience focuses on Flynn portraying boxer "Gentleman" Jim Corbett as he serves as point-man (chin variety) for the gentrification of the pugilistic sport.  As we fade in the first rule  of the fight game is "nobody talks about the fight game." Not in polite society anyway.  As it is, floating boxing matches are staged hectically before the police can find out and they regularly end, not with the sound of a bell, but the sound of a gavel in a courtroom.  Once "Johnny Law" gets wind of the fight (or hears the sound of one, they're fairly rambunctious affairs), they descend, the crowd scattering as they round up fighters and fans alike.  It's all strictly word-of-mouth, grudge matches, really, the only civility being those of the Marquis of Queensbury—and anybody who's seen Wilde knows what a toad he was.

But Corbett brings some civility to the hammering blows, even to the point of impressing heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond), who goes so far as to meet up with Corbett at a post-match soiree to congratulate him for being the man who took him down.  

Walsh contrasts the match fighting (which takes up relatively little screen-time) with Corbett's efforts to rise in the ranks of Society, as well as in the ring standings, learning to exploit his victories to promote himself to the hoi polloi as well as fight promoters.  It's the burgeoning of the age of sports figures as superstars, and not thugs, rising above gutter tactics and championing their skills as valuable commodities to the elite, giving the rich a taste of the hard-scrabble competition they've left behind.

It's a natural extension of Flynn's persona as a cavalier, being the winking bad boy who's naughty to all the right people, but especially to the really bad ones—the jaunty trickster with a gleam in his eye, who'll find a way to get left hook or by crook, the competent high-wire artist in marked contrast to buddy Walter Lowrie (Jack Carson, one of my favorite character actors), the lovable schlub who plays pilot-fish to Corbett's shark, never ablt to achieve success, but omnipresent to enjoy it for him.

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