A Boxing Movie Countdown, Part 2: The Melodrama

Today being the 100th birthday of the recently late Jake LaMotta, and he (and his sport) having been the topic of my first (and so far only) New York Times piece as a journalist, we thought we would mark this occasion with this follow-up to our original post on boxing and show biz, and this more recent survey on the history of boxing comedies. The account below is far from all of the Hollywood boxing dramas, there are surely scores of others. I just included a few I thought were classics or otherwise significant; I may add some others as well over time.

Please know also that for the next few weeks the Criterion Network streaming service is showcasing 16 boxing films, several of which we discuss below (the ones we haven’t included are documentaries). Learn about the selection, called In the Ring: Boxing On Screen, here.

And for some boxing posts that don’t necessarily have to do with cinema, go to the Travalanche boxing section here. Now, on with our show!

The Heart Punch (1915)

Jess Willard was billed as “The Pottawatomie Giant” and (when he fought against Jack Johnson) “The Great White Hope” (make of that what you will). He is remembered for KO’ing Johnson in 1915 for the title, which he then lost in 1919 to Jack Dempsey. In The Heart Punch (1915), he plays a dad in desperate financial straights who leaves his sick baby alone for a few hours so that he can win a badly needed purse in a boxing match. This was back when films were only a reel or two long, so that’s the whole movie.

The Ring (1927)

No, no, not the Wagner one! Believe it or not this one is Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s eighth film, and one of his last silent pictures. It is obviously from the period in Hitch’s career when he was not zeroed in on suspense. The Ring is basically a story of a love triangle between Lillian Hall-Davis and two sparring partners played by future star Ian Hunter and Danish actor Carl Brisson, who had been a prize fighter in his youth. Do the men settle the dispute by duking it out in the ring? What do you think? It’s not titled Two Men Shake Hands and Talk Over Their Differences.

The Count of Ten (1928)

Charles Ray plays a boxer who gets distracted when the family of his wife (Jobyna Roylston) start sponging off of him. (Get it, sponge? Like in a bucket of water!) James Gleason is his manager, of course and the relations are played by Arthur Lake (Dagwood), Charles Sellon and Edythe Chapman. A silent picture, released by Universal.

The Champ (1931)

Directed by King Vidor , this perfect Hollywood movie includes 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, later borrowed by The Wrestler). The story has that streamlined simplicity that all the best films of the era have (King Kong springs to mind as another example).

Iron Man (1931)

Believe it or not, horror master Tod Browning directed this in between Dracula and Freaks! It’s not as strange a fit as it might seem, for Browning was also a poet of the gritty underworld. Lew Ayres plays a boxer who is distracted by a floozy (Jean Harlow). When she dumps him he gets his mind back in the game, but then she comes back…and throws a monkey wrench back in the works again. Robert Armstrong of King Kong is the mug’s manager. It’s not surprising to find Ned Sparks in the cast. And for some sports world stunt casting, Turkey Mike Donlin plays a role! Remade a few years later (below).

Winner Take All (1932)

Good title for an ABBA song! Boxer James Cagney is at the apex of a love triangle, caught between wholesome single mom Marian Nixon (Dickie Moore is her son) and fickle socialite Virginia Bruce, with Guy Kibbee as his manager and Clarence Muse as his trainer. A very special aspect of this film is that it reuses a portion of the now lost Queen of the Nightclubs, featuring Texas Guinan and George Raft, allowing us to see it!

The Heart Punch (1932)

This independent, low budget film is not a remake of the 1915 picture above. In this one former silent star Lloyd Hughes plays a boxer who accidentally kills his sister’s boyfriend in the ring. He promises to quit the game for good, but re-enters it later in order to raise funds for his own girlfriend’s murder trial. Now THAT is melodrama! With Mae Busch.

The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933)

This may well be the boxingest of all fictional boxing films, with Max Baer as our hero, fighting Primo Carnera, and Jack Dempsey as a promoter. Walter Brennan plays a manager named “The Professor” who lures sailor Baer into the fight game. He gets involved with nightclub singer Myrna Loy who is unfortunately also attached to gangster Otto Kruger. The same old story, but the point is the ride!

Police Call (1933)

In this low budget independent, Nick Stuart plays a mug out to quit the fight game and go to college, but gets drawn back in when his sister (Merna Kennedy) gets involved with hoodlums.

Kid Galahad (1937)

Humphrey Bogart as a gangster named Turkey Morgan, Edward G. Robinson, as a boxing promoter, and Bette Davis as his fancy lady “Fluff”. The titular knight of the ring is played by Wayne Morris. You may be familiar with its remake starring a certain king (below).

The Spirit of Youth (1938)

The first of several race films starring Joe Louis, with a cast including Clarence Muse, Edna Mae Harris, and Mantan Moreland.

Golden Boy (1939)

Adapted from the Clifford Odets stage play, Golden Boy is one of two great American works of dramatic literature with a boxing backdrop (the other should be obvious, I hope and will be mentioned below, as well). the story of Joe Bonaparte (William Holden). Joe is faced with a stark choice…either make easy money as a boxer…or be a violinist — a much riskier financial proposition. Though he is talented at both, he can’t be both because the boxing will ruin his hands. The boxing folks all connive to convince him to choose boxing – because it is in their own financial interest to do so. And so, music is sacrificed, and materialism wins out. When Joe accidentally kills a man in the ring he vows to get out, despite the opposition of interested parties like his manager Adolphe Menjou and girlfriend Barbara Stanwyck. Lee J. Cobb is his father, who wants him to continue with music. Joseph Calleia is a ruthless gangster of course, and it’s also got great character actors like Sam Levene and Edward Brophy.

Knockout (1941)

In what sounds awfully like a Golden Boy knock-OFF, Arthur Kennedy plays a mug who tries to quite the ring at the bidding of his new wife (Olympe Bradna). A crooked manager played by Anthony Quinn tries to thwart him at every turn. With Cliff Edwards, Cornel Wilde, and Virginia Field.

Gentleman Jim (1942)

Tasmanian-American star Errol Flynn as pioneering Irish-American boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett. Flynn relished this role, performing most of the boxing scenes himself. This is Hollywood, if Flynn was nothing like the real life Corbett (whose autobiography this film is based on), he simply transforms Corbett into an Errol Flynn star turn and the movie does have a kind of magic because of it. William Frawley plays his manager. The gist of the film is about Gentleman Jim’s role in the adoption of Marquess of Queensberry rules to boxing and the resulting public acceptance of pugilism as a sport.

The Great John L. (1945)

Following the formula of Gentleman Jim, this picture purports to tell the story of “Boston Strong Boy” John L. Sullivan, only star Greg McClure is no Errol Flynn. His name is invariably listed third in the credits behind Linda Darnell and Barbara Britton. It was made by Bing Crosby productions.

Body and Soul (1947)

A consolation prize for John Garfield, who had originated the part of Joe Bonaparte in the original production of Golden Boy, but was passed over in the film for up and comer William Holden. The plot of Body and Soul is also loosely based on the Odets play. It featured Lilli Palmer, William Conrad and Canada Lee in the cast.

The Big Punch (1948)

Though third billed Gordon MacRae is the actual star of this film, which concerns a mug framed for murder after he refuses to throw a bout. Wayne Morris, the original Kid Galahad, plays a reverend who helps him.

The Fight Never Ends (1948)

Joe Louis plays himself in his second feature length starring vehicle, with Ruby Dee as his fictional love interest and a fictional plot about him working with Harlem youth to keep them out of trouble with criminals.

The Set-Up (1949)

Classic noir by Robert Wise starring Robert Ryan as an over-the-hill plug-ugly who accidentally wins a bout no one bothered to tell him he was supposed to throw. It’s based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, the same guy who wrote The Wild Party, and features delightful character actors like George Tobias, Percy Helton, and Wallace Ford. Audrey Totter plays his wife.

Champion (1949)

Melodrama master Mark Robson directed this adaptation of a Ring Lardner short story, featuring Kirk Douglas as a character not worlds away from the one he would play in The Bad and the Beautiful three years later: a ruthless SOB who steps on everyone around him on his way to the top. His final victory proves Pyrrhic. Terrific ensemble includes Marilyn Maxwell, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman, and Lola Albright.

Iron Man (1951)

Jeff Chandler stars in the first talkie remake of the Tod Browning picture mentioned above with Evelyn Keyes, Rock Hudson, Jim Backus, and James Arness also in the cast.

The Joe Louis Story (1953)

Heavyweight fighter Coley Wallace plays the Brown Bomber in this bio-pic, supported by Paul Stewart, et al.

Killer’s Kiss (1953)

Stanley Kubrick’s second feature is a low-budget but naturally beautifully shot affair starring unknown Jamie Smith (who’d worked with the likes of Jose Ferrer and Orson Welles) as a middleweight on the ropes who has the bad judgment to fall for the moll (Irene Kane) of a gangster (Frank Silvera) with naturally violent results. Though an obscurity at the time of its release, the boxing scenes were every bit as influential on Scorsese’s Raging Bull as lots of better known Hollywood classics. Previously Kubrick had made the documentary short Day of the Fight (1951), an elaboration on a still photo shoot he had done in 1949 for Look magazine. The man knew how to shoot boxing.

The Square Jungle (1955)

I’ve included two posters from The Square Jungle as an indication of how badly the studio publicity department clearly wanted to advertise Pat Crowley‘s breasts. Nothing square about those! More…bullet-like. Tony Curtis plays her boyfriend, who becomes a boxer initially in order to bail his drunken father (Jim Backus) out of jail. As will happen, he becomes a big jerk in the process. Also in the cast, Ernest Borgnine and Paul Kelly.

The Harder They Fall (1956)

This is almost like a boxing picture veteran’s convention, directed by Mark Robson of Champion, and starring Humphrey Bogart of Kid Galahad, with Rod Steiger of On the Waterfront (which is full of boxing references). It also happens to be Bogart’s last film, and it feels like a poignant passing of the torch to newcomer Steiger (this was only his sixth film). Bogart plays a former sportswriter/now boxing promoter, who is forced to take a job setting up rigged bouts. Steiger is the crook. Real life boxer and wrestler Mike Lane plays the principal hitter, with Max Baer and Jersey Joe Walcott also in the cast, along with great characters like Edward Andrews, Nehemiah Persoff, Jack Albertson, and Joey Faye.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

Robert Wise, who directed The Set-Up, returns to the ring with this bio-pic of middleweight pugilist Rocky Graziano. Paul Newman is crazy casting for the role, but its still one of his best performances, I think. Italian star Pier Angeli plays his wife, with a cast that includes Everett Sloane, Eileen Heckert, Sal Mineo, Robert Loggia, and young stars of the future Steve McQueen and Angela Cartwright.

Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

This of course is the other “great work of boxing themed American dramatic literature” I alluded to above. Penned by Rod Serling it began life as a 1956 teleplay starring Jack Palance was washed-up punch drunk boxer Mountain McClintock, with Keenan Wynn as his manager, Ed Wynn in one of his first dramatic roles, Kim Hunter as a social worker and real life boxers Max Baer and Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. The movie version replaced nearly everybody: with Anthony Quinn playing the down and out boxer, Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney replacing the Wynns, Julie Harris in the Hunter role, and young Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Jack Dempsey, and Haystack Calhoun as themselves, with Stanley Adams, Madame Spivy, and Herbie Faye also in the cast.

Kid Galahad (1962)

Elvis stars in this musical remake of the 1937 original, making it perhaps the first boxing musical, as it is two years before the Broadway musical version of Golden Boy. Supporting the king we have Gig Young, Charles Bronson, Lola Albright (of Champion), Ned Glass (who’d been in tv version of Requiem for a Heavyweight), Ed Asner, and Sonny and Red from the Memphis Mafia.

The Great White Hope (1970)

It may not have escaped your attention that we are now a long ways since the last previous boxing film. I think through most of the ’60s it was regarded as a moribund genre. The world was rapidly changing, and boxing must have seemed primitive, much associated with the time when all men wore hats and ties and the movies were in black and white. But The Great White Hope, based on a 1967 play, is a fictionalized account of the story of Jack Johnson and thus contains a message about racism, making it timely. Directed by Martin Ritt it starred James Earl Jones in his breakout role, with Hal Holbrook, Moses Gunn, Jane Alexander, and, in a nod to the past classic Hollywood veteran Chester Morris.

Fat City (1972)

John Huston (a former boxer himself) refreshed his own directing style AND the Hollywood boxing picture with this remarkable film. I saw it for the first time just a couple of months ago and I liked it so much I watched it twice in a row. It updates the gritty realism that had always been a hallmark of the genre with modern on-location shooting techniques redolent of the New Wave. Stacey Keach plays a broken down mug, Jeff Bridges as a promising newcomer, with Candy Clark in one of her first roles, and Nicholas Colasanto (Coach from Cheers!)

Hammer (1972)

Hammer was Fred Williamson‘s football nickname, now employed as his character name in the inevitable blaxploitation boxing picture, featuring other stars of the genre as D’Urville Martin, Mel Stewart, and Bernie Hamilton.

Rocky (1976) and sequels

Sylvester Stallone single-handedly revived the boxing movie as a Hollywood genre in this blockbuster (Fat City and Hammer not faring nearly as well at the box office). More on the film and its star here.

The Greatest (1977)

Muhammad Ali plays himself in his own bio-pic, and its hard to discredit with a cast that also features Robert Duvall, Ernest Borgnine, David Huddleston, Ben Johnson, James Earl Jones (as Malcolm X), Dina Merrill, Paul Winfield, Malachi Throne, et al. Roger Mosely (later of Magnum P.I.) plays Sonny Liston.

The Champ (1979)

On paper this remake of the earlier classic doesn’t sound bad necessarily. Franco Zeffirelli was a bit of a hack of course but he usually knew how to please a crowd, and Jon Voight at that stage was one of Hollywood’s top stars, coming off such movies as Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance, and Coming Home, aided by Faye Dunaway of Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown and Network . But critics panned it as an overwrought exercise in manipulation that was ironically not as effective as the very simple original. Today both Voight and child star Rickie Schroder are Trumpheads. I’d sooner watch Max Schnelling mentor a Hitler Youth than give either of them the satisfaction of watching them in anything! There are terrific supporting players in the film though: Jack Warden, Joan Blondell, Arthur Hill, Strother Martin, and Elisha Cook Jr.

The Main Event (1979)

Ryan O’Neal had been an actual boxer and was originally meant to star in The Champ; Zeffirelli balked when he was adamant that his son Griffin O’Neal be the so-star as Tatum had been in Paper Moon. Griffin was okay in The Escape Artist; so I suspect that that would have been a better film than the one we just mentioned above. The Main Event, which reunited him with Barbra Streisand of What’s Up Doc? was about equally panned but was nonetheless one of the more popular films of the year. It’s a comedy about a perfume magnate (Streisand) who goes broke but discovers a contract with former boxer O’Neal as one of her last remaining assets, so she forces back to the ring to earn money. Cast also includes Whitman Mayo, Paul Sand, and James Gregory.

Raging Bull (1980)

I saw Raging Bull in the theatre with my brother when it first came out. I’m pretty sure its my first Scorsese film with the possible exception of of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and it’s definitely my favorite Scorsese movie, with the possible exception of Hugo. Drawing on so many of the old black and white boxing classics we have already mentioned, Scorsese tells the story of the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta, while avoiding the pitfall of letting technique intrude upon organic storytelling as he frequently does. In addition to Oscar winner Robert De Niro, who initiated the project, the film gives us Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent (in their Scorsese debuts) , Cathy Moriarity, Nick Colasanto from Fat City, and Coley Wallace playing Joe Louis for the second time.

Homeboy (1988)

This one is meta, meta, meta. Mickey Rourke, who had been a serious amateur boxer during his teenage years, wrote and starred in this tale, and then three years later left acting and boxed professionally (and with a surprising amount of success). This is a man with skin in the game. The movie also has a lot in common with his later triumph The Wrestler (2008) as well as The Champ, as it is about a man engaging in a violent sport with a health condition that could kill him at any moment. In this one, his character doesn’t know it though. Also in the cast: Christopher Walken, Kevin Conway, Jon Polito, Antony Alda, Reuben Blades and Stephen Baldwin also in the cast. And look at the poster — he’s still got his face! (Another cautionary tale from the world of boxing: Mickey’s Rourke’s pie pan).

Gladiator (1992)

Don’t get your hopes up, this is the OTHER Gladiator, although the other one fits too. What is boxing but gladiatorial combat with gloves on? This one concerns two youngsters (Cuba Gooding Jr and James Marshall) who are exploited in the world Chicago illegal underground boxing by crook Brian Dennehy. Robert Loggia, and Ossie Davis also in the cast.

Tyson (1995)

Bio-pic of Iron Mike starring Michael Jae White, with Paul Winfield as Don King, and featuring George C. Scott, Malcolm-Jamal Warner of Cosby, James Sikking of Hill Street Blues, and Tony Lo Bianco.

The Boxer (1997)

This is the third installment in the “Irish trilogy” directed by Jim Sheridan and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, following My Left Foot (1989) and In the Name of the Father (1993). Now, I hold Day-Lewis to be second to none on this earth as an actor, but I do detect in him a certain worship of someone else he may secretly hold to be greater, and that’s De Niro. He practically BECAME De Niro in Gangs of New York. In this one, much as De Niro had for Raging Bull, he trained in boxing for a year. The film is about a former IRA member who emerges from prison and attempts to “reform” via the Sweet Science, but winds up in hot water again. With Emily Watson as the love interest and Brian Cox as her father.

The Hurricane (1999)

Denzel Washington as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, based on his autobiography, directed by Norman Jewison. With Liev Schreiber, Dan Hedaya, Clancy Brown, David Paymer, Harris Yulin,Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore, and Rod Steiger!

Ali (2001)

Before Will Smith became the most famous slapper since George S. Patton, he showed the world he could also punch in this bio-pic of Muhammad Ali. With Jamie Foxx and Ron Silver some serious stunt casting: Jon Voight as Howard Cosell, Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X, and LeVar Burton as Martin Luther King.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Clint Eastwood garnered multiple Oscars for this downright brilliant idea for a film, which revitalizes the genre by being about a FEMALE boxer (Hilary Swank). In addition to directing, Eastwood plays her trainer, aided by his magical black assistant (Morgan Freeman). It grossed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide.

Cinderella Man (2005)

An appropriate role for the star of the other Gladiator. Russell Crowe stars in in this bio-pic of Depression era boxing hero James J. Braddock, who defeated the arrogant Max Baer to become the heavyweight champ of the world (though he would lose the title again to Joe Louis, and wound up returning to manual labor at the same waterfront docks where he had started). Ron Howard directed, with Renee Zellwegger, Paul Giamatti, and Bruce McGill.

Rocky Marciano (2005)

Yet another boxing bio-pic. Imagine the chutzpah of retelling the Rocky Marciano story in a world that already has Somebody Up There Likes Me! Jon Favreau plays the title character in this made-for-tv movie, with Penelope Ann Miller, Judd Hirsch, Tony Lo Bianco, and George C. Scott.

Poor Boys Game (2007)

The world’s only boxing drama set in Halifax, Nova Scotia!

The Fighter (2010)

Mahky Mahk as real life Massachusetts boxer Mickey Ward; Christian Bale as his crack addicted brother, an even more successful boxer, Dickie Eklund. With Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, et al. Bale and Leo won Oscars for their performances in this labor of love on Wahlberg’s part.

The Bronx Bull (2017)

Can you imagine the CHUTZPAH it would take to make another movie about Jake LaMotta? As it happens, this movie was originally intended as a prequel/sequel to Raging Bull to be called Raging Bull II, which raised an interesting legal point that was actually duked out in the courts. LaMotta (who was still alive when this film was made, and was involved with it) actually was called by that nickname, yet movie studios owned a film by that name. So who owned the name? As you can see the makers of this movie finally caved and tweaked it to avoid further costly litigation. William Forsythe played the Bull, with an all star cast that included Paul Sorvino, Joe Mantagna, Tom Sizemore, Penelope Ann Miller, Ray Wise, Cloris Leachman, Bruce Davison, Harry Hamlin, and Juliet Landau.

Thus the world of this post ends as it began — with Jake LaMotta. Ya wanna make something of it?