Sometimes when you’re relentlessly researching a particular topic, odd little sub-themes will start to emerge, accumulations of facts that you don’t quite know what to do with. A couple of these emerged when I was working on No Applause, and didn’t wind up in the book because they were blind alleys. No place to put them. They didn’t fit in the book, they’re not compelling enough for books in and of themselves, and I have no idea who’d publish them as articles. But they’re still interesting. I guess they’ll wind up as blog posts.
One of these little sub-topics has emerged over the past few months as a result of a play I’m writing, and from working on this very blog. It’s the historical relationship between the American theatre and boxing.
It’s really not a new thing. Ancient Roman arenas, for example, much like our own Madison Square Garden, presented all sorts of spectacle from sports resembling boxing and wrestling (and much bloodier combat) to trained animals and acrobats to exhibitions of dancing and related theatrical productions (the ancient equivalent of Disney on Ice).
Naturally, the theatre/saloon culture that emerged in the U.S. in the 19th century presented a similar mix. In entertainment strips like New York’s Bowery, exhibitions of bare-knuckle boxing (the only kind they had back then) happened right in the back room of the corner bar, alongside the cock-fights, clog dancers, Irish fiddlers and sultry, singing waiter girls. One of the most popular sheets in 19th century New York was the New York Clipper, which covered both theatrical and sports news, including boxing. It was this intermixture that allowed the then-champ John C. Heenan to meet his lover and wife (briefly) Adah Isaacs Menken. The very earliest well-known American boxers like John L. Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett came out of this saloon scene.
But the scene was changing rapidly. Both boxing and variety were to get a considerable cleaning up. Boxing was to get a whole new set of gentlemanly rules, courtesy the Marquess of Queensberry, although to theatre fans, the man remains a villain. It was his intolerable insults that drove Oscar Wilde to a self-destructive doom. On the variety side, saloons were replaced with vaudeville, although this platform remained curiously hospitable to boxers too. When boxers achieved fame in the ring, they could pursue lucrative second careers as monologists, talking about their experiences and even becoming half-assed stand-up comedians. In the vaudeville era, almost all the top boxers did this: not only Sullivan and Corbett but Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, and Max Baer. Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom was too late for vaud so he went straight into films and started his own night club.
Others had started out as boxers, but went on to find greater fame and success in vaudeville and show business. Among these: George Fuller Golden, Rags Ragland, and George Raft. Ed Sullivan had been a boxer, then a sports writer, then a columnist, then a variety show producer. Marty Forkin had been a boxing manager and promoter but found greater success managing his wife Rae Samuels and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. And a sometime Irish puglist and bouncer named “Battling Jack” was the father of a performer named Mae West.
I’ve always found it telling that the big three silent film comedians all made comedy boxing pictures. It’s a tailor made comic situation: a small, frightened man in the ring with a killer. Charlie Chaplin played a referee in Keystone’s The Knockout (1914), but he got to be the center of a hilarious boxing set piece in his Essanay film The Champion the following year. And of course, there’s the classic boxing scene climax in City Lights (1931), probably best known of all. Buster Keaton’s entry in the sweepstakes is Battling Butler (1926), one of his least distinguished features and (if I recall correctly) one his biggest box office hits. Harold Lloyd’s key boxing film comes in the talkie era, the hilarious and unjustly overlooked 1936 comedy The Milky Way (later remade by Danny Kaye as The Kid from Brooklyn in 1946). (Another intriguing “might have been” is Bert Lahr’s 1929 stage hit Hold Everything. Unfortunately they recast Joe E. Brown in Lahr’s role when they filmed it in 1930. But can you imagine Lahr as a prizefighter? The mere thought has me in hysterics).
Lastly I just want to mention a couple of my favorite boxing dramas. Obviously there are a hundred boxing movies; I’d like to plug three that are such perfect classics that everyone ought to see them:
1931’s The Champ stars Wallace Beery (himself a former silent comedian) and Jackie Cooper in what is essentially a boxing world adaptation of Chaplin’s The Kid (with a much more tragic ending). The story has that streamlined simplicity that all the best films of the era have (King Kong springs to mind as another example). This is one of the few movies that never fails to make me bawl.
Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy (1937) technically speaking has its most perfect realization as a stage play. Odets’ strength is as a writer of dialogue. Formally, his plays tend to be messy. But Golden Boy, the tale of a young man forced to choose between classical music and the ring, and the corruption that warps his decision, is easily his best structured work. The 1939 film with William Holden and Lee J. Cobb has too many writers, who of course, messed it up, but it still packs a punch.
Lastly, there’s Rod Serling’s1956 teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight. Serling is one of my favorite American dramatists, whose medium just happened to be television. (I appreciate his work far more than that of the vastly over-rated Arthur Miller, for example, whose bland, conventional morality and tepid style make him seem like a transplant from some non-existent foreign country: decaffeinated America). In Requiem, Serling, who’d been a boxer himself in the army, basically hijacks Death of a Salesman and transplants it to the seedy underworld of professional boxing. The result is far more compelling, because whereas Willy Loman is an unlikeable jerk, one actually feels pity for the washed up boxer Mountain McClintock (Jack Palance). If you can, see the more compact television version. The 1962 film version, while it has its virtues, pads and dilutes the story to deleterious effect.
That’s all for now. Me for the locker room.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.