Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema

By Dan Streible | Go to book overview

5 Fight Pictures in the
Nickelodeon Era
Miles Bros. of New York &
San Francisco, 1905–1912

The fortunes of the prize ring are apparently interwoven with those
of the moving picture. Without the moving picture your modern
prize fight would be shorn of most of its financial glamor and
possibilities; without the prize fight the moving picture would not
appeal to so many people as it apparently does.

                                                 “Pictures and Pugilism,” Moving Picture World,
                                                      December 18, 1909

After the lull in production in 1904, fight pictures began a comeback with the lucrative Nelson-Britt Prize Fight, shot in San Francisco on September 9, 1905, by three cinematographers from the local Miles Bros. company. The Miles operation led a return to the exploitation of fight films over the next seven years. For the first three, it was the only company to shoot bouts in the United States. Others followed suit. Production increased each year in both America and Europe, peaking in 1910 with a flurry surrounding the interracial heavyweight battle between Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson. More than fifty fight pictures were made between 1905 and 1915: at least two dozen in the United States, nearly as many in Britain, and a half dozen more in France. An unknown number of other bouts were recorded for nontheatrical or clandestine screenings. Some survive in private hands, with one noted collector claiming to own recordings of fifty other prizefights from before 1915.1 Whatever the quantity, a federal ban on their interstate transport caused American fight-picture production to all but cease by 1914.

The genre thus underwent remarkable transformations between 1905 and 1915—from dormant to hot property and back again in a single decade. This was also a period during which cinema was transformed from a small-scale commercial operation open to many enterprising producers to a large-scale, studio-based oligopoly.2 Motion pictures became a massively popular and influential part of everyday life, with millions of people attending the thousands of movie shows that proliferated after 1905. Throughout this transition, producers, exhibitors, and, for the first time,

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