Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema

By Dan Streible | Go to book overview

8 Bootlegging
The Clandestine Traffic in Fight Pictures,
1916–1940

Fight film suppression keeps a person dizzy.
The pictures can’t be seen for love or money.
One judges Mr. Dempsey’s friends are busy—
Or can it be the friends of Mr. Tunney?

         L.H.R., “These Days,” New York Times,
            October 16, 1927

Following the legal suppression of prizefight films in 1915, ring promoters continued to record big matches, but fight pictures were never again integrated into the mainstream American film industry. Hollywood loved boxing and star boxers, but the major producer-distributors left the handling of bouts to others. The sport itself continued to grow, even with limited movie replays. The emergence of live radio broadcasts of bouts in the 1920s (and the televising of them in the 1940s and 50s) significantly displaced the fight film. However, theatrical screenings did not disappear. Instead the topical prints arrived in theaters without organized promotion or marketing and through clandestine distribution methods. Fight pictures also had significant nontheatrical exhibitions in clubs, casinos, rented halls, and private venues. Even amid the prohibition of interstate commerce in any film “of any prize fight or encounter of pugilists,” Tex Rickard and Fred Quimby’s film of the 1921 contest between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier earned six-figure profits. By the end of the decade, film bootleggers had overwhelmed attempts to suppress prizefight films. Hundreds of people were involved in the making, copying, pirating, selling, distributing, and exhibiting of dozens of films, short and long. After movies of the 1927 rematch between the champion, Gene Tunney, and the ex-champ Dempsey flooded the market, the American press and public deemed the prohibition of fight-picture transport a failure on par with the contemporary federal prohibition of the “transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Yet it took another full decade to legalize what became, throughout the 1930s, a routine form of film production. When Congress decriminalized prizefight recordings in 1940, independent producerdistributors, itinerant exhibitors, and some Hollywood units revalued and

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