As with many of Errol Flynn's films, "Gentleman Jim" is probably more fantasy than it is historical biography. That doesn't stop it, though, from being a splendid entertainment, any more than it stopped "Robin Hood" or "The Sea Hawk" or "The Charge of the Light Brigade" from embroidering reality enough to create superb, fictional movie epics.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, James J. Corbett (1866-1933), "Gentleman Jim," was an "American world heavyweight boxing champion from September 7, 1892, when he knocked out John L. Sullivan in 21 rounds at New Orleans, until March 17, 1897, when he was knocked out by Robert Fitzsimmons in 14 rounds at Carson City, Nevada. Corbett was a quick and agile boxer, and he led the movement toward what came to be called scientific boxing.
The first fully successful fighter under Queensberry rules, Corbett was one of the most analytic boxers in the history of the sport. He was a master of defensive tactics rather than a heavy puncher. His attack consisted of sharp quick punches that were timed to keep his opponent off balance. Corbett's tasteful dress and personality made him popular and contributed much to public acceptance of prizefighting."
It was a role tailor-made for Flynn, whose charm does much to sell the film. But Flynn takes it a step further, making Corbett more of a swaggering braggart than he really was. The fact is that Corbett was apparently more of the "gentleman" than in Flynn's portrayal. Which might not have translated as well to the screen. So, in Flynn we get a cocky, self-assured young dynamo who is on top of the world and wants everyone to know it.
Loosely based on Corbett's autobiography and directed by Raoul Walsh ("High Sierra," "Objective Burma," "White Heat"), "Gentleman Jim" begins in San Francisco in 1887, where Corbett is working as a bank clerk. It was a time when many people considered boxing disreputable, and the police raided illegal matches. It was also a time when the sport was just beginning to clean up its act by introducing the Marquis of Queensbury rules and professional championships. Jim Corbett came along at just the right moment to help legitimize the fight game.
Corbett gets his start with prize fighting at San Francisco's Olympic Club, where he finds himself quite by accident while pursuing a young lady, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), daughter of a Comstock miner who struck it rich. This involvement with Ms. Ware develops as the film's romantic subplot, a romance as rocky as any match Corbett has in the ring. Once at the club, and in the club's gym, Corbett finds himself fascinated by boxing, and within a short time he has given up the bank and taken up the gloves. According to the film, Corbett had a natural talent for fighting, given the boisterous and pugnacious inclinations of his family, whose youngsters found themselves brawling much of the time in the barn.
Contrary to everything we know about the real James J. Corbett, who was essentially quiet and soft-spoken (thus, the nickname "Gentleman"), in Flynn's portrayal Corbett is a flamboyant fast-talker, as fast a talker as he is a fighter. Flynn later said that "Gentleman Jim" was his favorite film role, and one can see why. The character provides Flynn with a chance to be more than a pretty face flourishing a saber. His Jim Corbett has spirit and depth, enough to show us that Flynn could really act, not just pose for the camera but project a genuine charisma.
"Gentleman Jim" turns out to be a most delightful film, with not only Flynn and Alexis Smith at their best but featuring a strong ensemble cast of supporting players as well. These include Jack Carson as Corbett's best friend Walter Lowrie, Carson playing his usual role as a comical, happy-go-lucky sidekick; Alan Hale as Pat Corbett, Jim's rowdy, often tipsy father; John Loder as Carlton De Witt, Victoria's rich, snobby boyfriend; William Frawley (later of "I Love Lucy" fame) as Billy Delaney, Corbett's always flustered manager; and Arthur Shields as Father Burke, the parish priest so keen on fighting, the same kind of gentle boxing fan Shields would reprise in John Ford's "The Quiet Man."
But perhaps best of all is Ward Bond as John L. Sullivan, "the Great John L." as everybody knew him, in a bigger-than-life depiction that almost steals the show from Flynn. Sullivan was the first modern heavyweight champion, a Boston Irishman whom all the country worshipped. He boasted he "could lick any man in the world," and for almost a quarter of a century he mostly did. Bond is wonderful as the big lug whom crowds followed along in the streets like any modern superstar. After Jim's father meets the great man, he returns home, lifts his arm into the air, and says to the family, "You're gazing at the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan!" The champion was young Jim Corbett's idol, and Corbett's fight with Sullivan forms the climax of the film.
Walsh stages the boxing scenes as well as any you'll see, in some ways more realistic than in later movies like "Rocky," with their exaggerated punches and overemphatic sounds of punches. Under Walsh's direction, the boxing is exciting and enthralling, the camera work emphasizing Corbett's footwork, hand speed, and agility more than his pure punching power.
However, there are a few weaknesses to the film that any boxing fan will notice. The story suggests that Corbett was able to knock out the former boxing champion of England without more than a week's training in his life, and, further, that Corbett was able to knock out a succession of fighters without our ever seeing him spar or practice. Then, when the climactic fight with Sullivan arrives, Walsh stages the first few rounds almost humorously. Still, it's fun, and the story line's compression of time does move the action along at a brisk pace.
The movie's ending is just as sweet as it could be, too, and if you're at all sentimental, well, Sullivan's gracious final speech to Corbett after his loss to him is as close to a genuine tearjerker as you're going to find. It's a fitting conclusion to as good a sports biography, hyperbole or not, as you'll find.
Trivia notes from John Eastman's "Retakes" (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989): "Despite his glowing appearance, Flynn was in wretched health. Even the wartime army wouldn't take him. His heart and lungs were in such bad shape that doctors gave him only two years to live. (Hardly modifying his lifestyle, however, he lived until 1959.) His illnesses frequently interrupted this production, and he suffered a mild heart attack on the set, requiring much time off. Raoul Walsh filmed all the boxing scenes last in case Flynn collapsed or received a black eye. Flynn trained six weeks for these scenes with welterweight champion Mushy Callahan. While he rarely used a stunt double in the ring, he could only spar for a minute at a time before becoming exhausted, to the intense frustration of Walsh and Ward Bond. As the most strenuous film of Flynn's swashbuckling career, it remained one of his favorites."
The film's beautiful black-and-white footage couldn't be better in this excellent Warner Bros. 1.33:1 transfer. I doubt that the studio did anything like a complete frame-by-frame restoration, yet whatever touching up they did is remarkable because the results are as good any B&W film around. Contrasts are strong, backgrounds are clear and clean, and object delineation is as good as standard-definition gets. Obviously, there are no scratches, no lines, no age marks, no fades of any kind.
I'm also sure the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio is as good as the WB audio engineers could make it, which for six-decades' old sound is pretty good. Although there are limited bass and dynamic responses, of course, and nothing but the single, center channel working, the midrange is excellent--smooth and natural--and there is no noise or hiss to interfere with one's enjoyment of the dialogue and music.
As they so often do on their discs of older films, the folks at WB offer up a Warner Night at the Movies, a collection of features that the average moviegoer of the era might have seen on any given night. Things begin with a theatrical trailer for "The Male Animal," followed by a vintage newsreel. Then, there's a eight-minute, Technicolor short subject called "The Right Timing" and a ten-minute Technicolor short called "Shoot Yourself Some Golf," with Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman. The "Warner Night" concludes with a classic Merry Melodies cartoon, "Foney Fables," also in color.
In addition to the "Night at the Movies," the disc includes an audio-only bonus: The 1944 "Lady Esther Screen Guild" radio show adaptation of "Gentleman Jim," with Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, and Ward Bond. Then, there are twenty-four scene selections (but no chapter insert); a theatrical trailer for "Gentleman Jim"; English as the only spoken language; and English and Spanish subtitles.
As a biography, exaggerated or not, "Gentleman Jim" has all the exuberance, excitement, romance, and high good humor that is missing in many of today's so-called inspirational sports films. More recent sports movies are so intent on being serious and uplifting, they forget to be entertaining. And entertainment value is what "Gentleman Jim" has in spades, thanks to Flynn's lively performance and Walsh's affectionate direction. I liked it from beginning to end.
Prospective buyers will find "Gentleman Jim" available separately or in a box set, "The Errol Flynn Signature Collection," Volume 2, which also includes "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936), "The Dawn Patrol" (1938), "Dive Bomber" (1941), and "Adventures of Don Juan" (1948).