“The man who would have predicted…that an event of the prior month would be reproduced before the eyes of a multitude in pictures that moved like life, and that lightning would move them and light them, would have been avoided as a lunatic or hanged as a wizard.”–The Brooklyn Eye, 1897.
The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897) is exactly the sort of old film you might glance at briefly before moving on to something more exciting, like a charming Méliès picture or one of the eye-catching Serpentine Dance films. It’s footage of a boxing match, after all. They’re boxing, they’re wearing tights, gents in bowler hats are watching–what more do you need to know?
But as anyone who enjoys studying old films knows (the older the better if you ask me), even the simplest “actualities” or the crudest comic shorts have more history to them than meets the eye. Corbett-Fitzsimmons is both an interesting window into a time when society was starting to experience big changes and, in the minds of viewers at the time, a clear example of the miraculous nature of film.
In 1897 motion pictures had been shown to public audiences for only a couple years. We all know about the momentous first 1895 Lumiere screening in Paris and the subsequent flurry to bring motion pictures to the world. We’re probably less familiar with brothers Grey and Otway Latham and their father Woodville, who were the first to exhibit films in the U.S.–yes, beating the Lumiere screenings by a few months. And most people have also never heard of film technician Enoch J. Rector, their business partner. Their goal? To exhibit boxing pictures, tapping into the popularity of boxing matches at the time and the excitement around the most publicized prizefights.
Only a few hundred people in a given city would be lucky enough to see these matches in person, of course–everyone else had to make do with recaps in the newspapers. So the Latham brothers reasoned: why not film the most famous matches so hundreds more could see them days or even weeks later, at their leisure? They started small, working with Rector to form the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company and filming several one-minute boxing rounds for their Kinetoscope parlor. The next step was to film an entire boxing match–around a dozen rounds–in one go. The idea was an exciting one. For viewers, film would be acting explicitly like a time machine.
This goal was more ambitious back then than it sounds to us today. For one thing, Rector and the Lathams wanted the projected images to be very large, mimicking the experience of being at the arena. And it was tough for the current cameras to record long films without the film strip breaking. To solve this problem, they collaborated with Edison employee William K.-L. Dickson (who kept the collaboration a secret from his famous employer) and former Edison mechanic Eugene Lauste to create what’s now dubbed the “Latham loop,” a slack loop of film that reduced tension on the unexposed negative. This did the trick, and the loop survives in cameras using film negatives to this day (Dickson later said Rector had a heavy hand in its creation).
Some short “widescreen” films were first shown to interested audiences in May 1895, who were impressed despite the arc light not being quite strong enough for the new “Eidoloscope” projector (which, by the way, also had a Latham loop). The Latham brothers would continue tinkering with their inventions for a few years but partner Rector decided to strike out on his own, still determined to capture a full boxing match. It was his endeavors in 1897, combined with the seminal Latham loop technology, that would result in The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight.
The fight was held on St. Patrick’s Day, fitting since James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett was known for his Irish heritage. Corbett, called the “Father of Modern Boxing” for his scientific approach to fights, was famed for his bouts with Peter “Black Prince” Jackson and champion John L. Sullivan. He became the World Heavyweight Champion in 1892 and also appeared in plays, becoming a pretty well known matinee idol. He’d appeared in front of the Edison cameras once before for the 1894 Kinetoscope film Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph.
Bob “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons was from Cornwall, England, but mostly lived in New Zealand where he gained upper body strength by working as a blacksmith. He began boxing professionally in the 1880s and by 1891 he was World Middleweight Champion after knocking down Jack Dempsey no less than thirteen times. He then won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1896. One of his most famous matches was Fitzsimmons vs. Sharkey, refereed by legendary lawman Wyatt Earp.
The two famous boxers had squared off once before in Mexico and agreed to a rematch, to be held in Carson City, Nevada. The arena would be a wooden amphitheater erected especially for the occasion. Rector nabbed exclusive rights to film the match with film profits to be divvied up amongst himself, the boxers, and their managers. Rector had invented a new camera for the occasion which he dubbed the “Veriscope” which used 63mm film–almost twice as wide as the standard 35mm. Prepared for any mishaps, he brought nearly 50 reels of film with him to the arena and three Veriscopes, to place side by side in case one failed. He set up his equipment the night before the match and tried narrowing the ring from 24 feet wide to 22 so he’d have a better shot–the unamused referee fixed it the next day.
Filming on the big day went off without a hitch. Corbett and Fitzsimmons boxed 14 rounds, each around three minutes long with a minutes’ rest between them. This equaled about 90-100 minutes of film, including a ten-minute “finale” shot of the empty ring and milling, excited audience. Corbett was dominant throughout most of the fight, knocking Fitzsimmons down during the 6th round, but Fitzsimmons made a comeback at the end. Reportedly, Fitzsimmon’s wife yelled out “Hit him in the slats, Bob!” and Bob did, delivering his famed “solar plexis punch” in Corbett’s mid-torso area in the 14th round. Corbett stayed down for the count and Fitzsimmons was declared the new Heavyweight Champion.
The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897) was a big success, premiering at the New York Academy of Music on May 22 and going on to make a profit of over half a million dollars (by some estimates). Since boxing was considered by some to be rowdy, lowbrow entertainment mainly geared towards men, it tended to be advertised as a “sparring match” where “ladies are invited.” While few women attended prizefights at the time film showings were more democratic, and–dontcha know–the spectacle of the two muscular male athletes in physical combat attracted plenty of women to the screenings. It’s thought that audiences for the film in Chicago were around 60% female. Corbett’s status as a matinee idol was undoubtedly a factor as well (if you’re curious, there’s no contemporary mention of his boxing shorts, which revealed quite a bit).
Rector’s lengthy boxing film is thought to have given cinema a populist gloss, a gloss that it still has to this day. But to people at time, it was most importantly a source of cinema’s wonder. An event that happened months prior, in a city way off in Nevada, could be frozen in time and experienced again and again, potentially in any time and place in the world. It’s no wonder a contemporary reportor declared that in the past, if anyone had prophesied such an impossible feat he “would have been avoided as a lunatic or hanged as a wizard.”
Postscript: My grandpa and several uncles and great-uncles were professional boxers and wrestlers. My grandpa (who passed away a couple years ago) actually went by the nickname “Gentleman Jim” when he was young, which is a fun little coincidence–or maybe he’d heard of Corbett!
Cousins, Mark. The Story of Film. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004. Toulet, Emmanuelle. Birth of the Motion Picture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995. https://www.victorian-cinema.net/latham.php