Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema

By Dan Streible | Go to book overview

3 Under the Lights
Filming Ringside in the Jim Jeffries Era,
1899–1904

The machinery for taking the moving pictures attracted much
attention. … It was a picturesque scene, this twentieth-century
arena, this machine-age gladiatorial contest. The house in darkness
and the ring a white blaze of light … and under the clustered arc
lamps, in the blinding glare, the two battling elemental males.

                                                 Jack London, “Gladiators of the Machine Age,”
                                                     San Francisco Examiner, November 16, 1901

After the bonanza of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, boxing promoters and motion-picture manufacturers continued to record important bouts. For filmmakers, the pursuit of a fight picture with six-figure profits remained an important sideline. For matchmakers, the role of motion pictures became prominent. Realizing that recordings could mine huge veins of profit, ring managers made extra efforts to accommodate movie cameras. Boxers tolerated the intrusion, as they stood to rake in a large share of the receipts.

In the decade following Corbett-Fitzsimmons, both stars were eclipsed by another figure glimpsed in that film: James Jackson Jeffries. He had been Corbett’s sparring partner before winning the heavyweight title by defeating Fitzsimmons on June 9, 1899. Jeffries retained his crown for six years, undefeated in six title defenses, before retiring. When his title bouts were not recorded, reenactments were. And Jeffries himself was the subject of other early-century actualities filmed outside the ring. More than twenty movie titles featured his name during this period. His cinema-aided celebrity continued after he vacated the title. Other fight pictures captured him in his role as a referee of high-profile bouts. Later, the film of his return to the ring and ignominious defeat at the hands of Jack Johnson in 1910 became more widely discussed than any motion picture of its era.

The Corbett-Fitzsimmons pictures remained in circulation for more than three years, and new productions continually joined them on the market. Competing interests recorded dozens of boxing and prizefight subjects between 1897 and 1904, when motion-picture entertainment became a regular feature of commercial amusements. For the chaotic film-production

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