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In one of his more popular vehicles from his 1940s heyday at Warner Brothers, Errol Flynn took a jab at biodrama with Gentleman Jim (1942), the fanciful portrait of 19th century heavyweight boxing champ James J. Corbett (1866-1933). While it's no secret that the screenplay took a surfeit of dramatic license regarding the details of Corbett's life, Flynn took extraordinary pains to replicate the groundbreaking fighter's fleet ring style, and the supporting performances ensured an engaging entertainment.
Corbett was the first champion to have won the title fighting under Queensbury rules, and his quiet respectable manner, uncharacteristic around the ring game, earned him his sobriquet. The screenplay, very freely adapted from his autobiography The Roar of the Crowd, opens in San Francisco circa 1887, where the young natty Corbett (Flynn) enjoyed gainful employ as a bank teller. After helping a prominent judge escape unnoticed from his attendance at an illegal bare-knuckle fight, Corbett is suddenly on the fast track at his workplace, and he wangles an invitation to the city's prestigious Olympic Club.
Once inside, Corbett earns a membership on the strength of his boxing skills. It isn't long before the club establishment wants to humble the brash youngster by arranging a fight with a pro. Once Corbett wins the contest by knockout, however, his professional career takes off, culminating in 1892 with his title confrontation against John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond).
Much of the film's substance was made out of whole cloth, with Corbett's 1886 marriage being conveniently shunted aside for a romance with a bank client's beautiful but standoffish daughter (Alexis Smith). Corbett's home life is broadly depicted as a roistering Irish household anchored by ebullient patriarch Alan Hale, sidestepping the murder/suicide that claimed Corbett's parents in real life. If accepted as Hollywood gloss, the film still entertains on the strength of the lead players, as well as those of the supporting cast such as Jack Carson in one of his patented wiseass-best-friend roles, and William Frawley as Corbett's ring man.
Behind the camera for Gentleman Jim was Raoul Walsh, who vividly recounted in his autobiography Each Man in His Time having the opportunity, as a boy, to meet the real Corbett. Walsh's father had taken him to watch a workout for then-current champ Jim Jeffries, and introduced him to Corbett, with whom he was acquainted. "I remember poking around the camp while they talked, inhaling the smells of sweat and leather and embrocation and deciding then and there that I would become a champion boxer," Walsh wrote. "It was just as unimaginable, of course, that one day I would film Corbett's life..."
Flynn was rarely doubled for in the fight sequences, consulting frequently with welterweight champ Mushy Callahan and boxing authority Ed Cochrane in his determination to replicate Corbett's approach in the ring style. Callahan's remembrances were documented in Charles Higham's Errol Flynn: The Untold Story. "Errol tended to use his right fist. I had to teach him to use his left and to move very fast on his feet...Luckily he had excellent footwork, he was dodgy, he could duck faster then anybody I saw. And by the time I was through with him, he'd jab, jab, jab with his left like a veteran."
The famously hard-partying Flynn had been wracked with assorted health problems in 1942, and it all culminated with his collapse during the filming of one of Gentleman Jim's fight sequences. While the studio had publicly chalked it up to fatigue, the doctors diagnosed a mild heart attack. Alexis Smith recounted in the biography, The Two Lives of Errol Flynn by Michael Freedland, how she took the star aside and told him, "'It's so silly, working all day and then playing all night and dissipating yourself. Don't you want to live a long life?' Errol was his usually apparently unconcerned self: 'I'm only interested in this half,' he told her. 'I don't care for the future.'"
Producer: Robert Buckner
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: James J. Corbett (autobiography), Vincent Lawrence, Horace McCoy
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Film Editing: Jack Killifer
Art Direction: Ted Smith
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Errol Flynn (James J. Corbett), Alexis Smith (Victoria Ware), Jack Carson (Walter Lowrie), Alan Hale (Pat Corbett), John Loder (Carlton De Witt), William Frawley (Billy Delaney).
BW-104m. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg