James J. Jeffries: The Boilermaker

Pugilist James J. “Jim” Jeffries (1875-1953) is better known to posterity by his other nickname “The Great White Hope”, but we disdain to endorse the concept by enshrining it in the title of this post. “The Boilermaker” was another of Jeffries’ handles, after a job he had once had prior to becoming a professional boxer. Jeffries became “The Great White Hope” when he emerged from retirement in 1910 to take on African American champ Jack Johnson. Jeffries had been considered the greatest heavyweight boxer ever; the hype was cooked up in a racist spirit, the men battled to uphold the dignity and worth of their races. The event very much presaged the concept of the Max SchmelingJoe Louis bouts of 1936-38. By definition, the concept was racist, crudely Darwinian in spirit. We hasten to point out, there were many “Great White Hopes” who fought against Johnson. Jeffries was thrust into the role at a key moment and it was built up by promoters, the press, and the public. He was a willing participant, but it should be pointed out that this orchestrated drama was an all-encompassing machine, in which the whole society played a part.

At any rate, that’s what Jeffries is best known for, but that’s not our main focus. We only write about athletes on Travalanche for the roles they played in show business, and like many other boxers, Jeffries had a stage and screen career. Managed by William A. Brady, Jeffries first stepped on stage as an actor in Boucicault’s After Dark in 1889. He was in widely watched motion pictures as early as 1899; movies of Jeffries’ training and fighting were some of the earliest exhibited films. In 1909, he toured the big time vaudeville circuits; he did so again in the late ’20s, often with fellow champ Tom Sharkey.

In 1913 Jeffries appeared (as himself) in the Kalem comedy Too Many Cops. Two years later, he could be seen in Metro’s drama Pennington’s Choice with Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne. In 1924 he costarred with Charley Chase in the Hal Roach comedy short Jeffries Jr. That same year he had a bit role in Larry Semon’s two-reeler Kid Speed. In 1927, he played the title character’s dad in One Round Hogan with Monte Blue, The following year he was cast as one “Gunner O’Brien” in Beau Broadway starring Lew Cody. In talkies, he almost always played himself, a boxer or a referee. His pictures of the ’30s and early ’40s include Mickey’s Sideline (1931) with Mickey Rooney; The Champion (1931) with Kane Richmond and Sam Hardy; The Fighting Gentleman (1932) with Bud Collier; The Midnight Patrol and They Never Come Back (both 1932 with Regis Toomey); The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) with Max Baer, Myrna Loy, Walter Huston, Primo Carnera, and Jack Dempsey; Jealousy (1934) with Nancy Carroll and George Murphy; Big City (1937) with Spencer Tracy; Republic’s Barnyard Follies (1940) with Mary Lee, Rufe Davis, Jed Prouty, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, et al; the all-star Mr. Celebrity (1941) and a 1942 Hedda Hopper newsreel. He was also a crowd extra in Joe Cook’s Rain or Shine (1930).

When he wasn’t making screen appearances, Jeffries worked primarily as a trainer during his later years. Today his old training barn is part of the Knott’s Berry Farm amuseument park in Buena Park, California.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film and classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.