GENTLEMAN JIM —dandy audience-pleaser 1942 biopic of the first Heavyweight Champion of the World under the current Marquis of Queensbury rules, the dapper James J. Corbett. The chipper gent with a chopping jab is perfectly incarnated by Errol Flynn, 33 here, at his fittest and most charming. Raoul Walsh did a crack job directing one of his favorite wild men. *
Corbett’s fast footwork, innovative fist-work (like introducing the left jab) and it-looks-easy style were diligently studied and practiced by Flynn, who thought this his favorite role, and the results in the ring sequences are persuasive and delightful. Physical prowess and good looks aside, Errol’s overall characterization is winning. Saying the Tasmanian devil was “at his fittest” is rather a white lie. On one hand he worked out strenuously and trainer Mushy Callahan gave him high marks for aptitude and skill: “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”. Beneath the exertion was a body that had just been turned down for military service due to recurrent malaria, a heart murmur and TB. During filming he collapsed from a mild heart attack.
The screenplay from Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy took some material from Corbett’s 1925 autobiography “The Roar Of The Crowd”, then invented a lot of whole cloth romantic stuff with leading lady Alexis Smith.
Secondary players are your basic Warner Brothers Irish stereotypes, done up vigorously by Alan Hale, Jack Carson and a solid lineup. Period atmosphere of the 1890s spills across in the props, sets, costuming and music, and the package is hard to resist. Lots of fightin’, with the two most exciting sequences taking in legendary bouts Corbett sported with Joe Choyski (on a barge in San Francisco Bay) and the legendary John L. Sullivan. Ward Bond is superb as the colorful Sullivan, part brag, part mush. His scene where he hands over his fabled belt to Corbett is classic Hollywood mist-making. **
104 minutes, with William Frawley, John Loder, Minor Watson, Dorothy Vaughan, Rhys Williams, Arthur Shields, James Flavin, Pat Flaherty, and Mike Mazurki. Gross was over $4,400,000, coming in 42nd place among releases from 1942, a year that needed as much relief from dismal reality as it could get.
* A dozen productions with the whipcracking of director Michael Curtiz left Flynn and that harsh Hungarian taskmaster unable to handle each other again. The Errol/Raoul dynamic took over; their mutual friendship and devilish attitude mixed with respect resulted in several of the actor’s best-played roles. This was the third Flynn-Walsh picture (and hit) in a row, following They Died With Their Boots On and Desperate Journey. Their other team-ups: Northern Pursuit, Uncertain Glory, Objective Burma! and Silver River. When Flynn died in 1959, Walsh was a pallbearer, joining Mickey Rooney, Jack Oakie, Mike Romanoff, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams and Otto Reichow.
** Along with knocking out John L. Sullivan, Corbett famously duked it out with Peter Jackson (aka “The Black Prince” and “Peter The Great”) for a staggering sixty-one rounds before a draw was declared. Still, even that donnybrook didn’t go as long as a Sullivan vs. Kilrain brawl that went for 75 (John L. battled through more than 450 bare-knuckled contests). A sample Corbett quote: “You become a champion by fighting one more round. When things are tough, you fight one more round.”