Film History Essentials: The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897)

What it’s about:

James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett defends his World Heavyweight Champion title against challenger Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nevada.

Why it’s essential:

During the early days of motion pictures, there was perhaps no one else with as much purity of vision and purpose as Enoch J. Rector (see below). The man just wanted to make boxing films. In 1894, he was one of the members of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company who lobbied Edison to modify the kinetoscope so it could be used to exhibit an entire boxing match (and he may even have helped modify it). Then, in 1895, he was part of the Lambda Company when they exhibited a boxing match as the first film ever projected for a commercial audience. But as Lambda succumbed to bad management and technical problems, he was one of the first to jump ship and pursue a new course, knowing he still had not achieved his singular goal of filming and then exhibiting an actual prizefight.

Woodville Latham had patented the “Latham loop” used by the Lambda company to allow for filming with larger film reels, but it had been developed collaboratively with William Dickson, Eugene Lauste, and Rector. Once all these men had gone their separate ways, it became a matter of some dispute (involving several years of litigation) as to who was most responsible for the device. But regardless of whose claim was the most valid, there’s no doubt that Rector put it to its most ambitious use. The Latham loop would be key to his ability to film and then project an entire official boxing match. All he needed to do was arrange one.

This proved to be an incredibly tricky problem, even without the technological difficulties of a year before. All of the filmed fights to this point had either been “re-enactments” or unofficial sparring matches. They were staged for the camera in venues that were set up to facilitate filming rather than to satisfy sporting regulations regarding things like ring size or round length. An additional benefit of this was that it apparently didn’t count as an actual boxing match for legal purposes, which was important as boxing was illegal in most states. Due to such restrictions, most champion boxers leveraged the celebrity that came with winning a title into a career on the stage in order to actually make a living. But a film of a boxing match, which was not illegal, offered the potential to profit from a match more directly, if it could be arranged.

James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett

Rector and his associates spent the summer and early fall of 1895 arranging a fight between Corbett and Fitzsimmons in Dallas, Texas. A legal challenge went their way in September when the Texas chief justice ruled that the fight would be allowable under state law. However, within two weeks the governor of Texas, Charles Culberson, had called a special session of the legislature and passed a new bill outlawing the fight. An attempt to move the fight to Arkansas met with the same result. No state, it seemed, wanted to be the one to allow the fight to happen within its borders. Plus, a powerful and vocal anti-fight lobby managed to wield considerable influence as it followed the fight promoters from state to state.

When they tried instead to move the fight into the New Mexico territory, the anti-boxing crusaders simply took their case to the US Congress, which outlawed fighting in all federal territories in a bill passed in early February of 1896. The federal bill was modeled after the Texas bill by Governor Culberson’s father, a member of the House. By then, Corbett had dropped out, announcing his retirement, which passed the heavyweight title to Peter Maher. A few weeks after the bill passed, on February 21, an illicit bout between Maher and Fitzsimmons took place, just across the Mexican border from the little town of Langtry, Texas, about 200 miles west of San Antonio.

With authorities closing in, the fight was forced to go ahead on schedule, but Rector couldn’t film it because the day was completely overcast. It wouldn’t have made a great film, anyway. Maher went down in the first two minutes. Rector offered a prize of several thousand dollars if they would fight again for the camera the next day, but Fitzsimmons wanted too much. After months of planning and effort, the entire enterprise was a complete wash.

Still, Rector wasn’t ready to give up yet. News of Maher’s defeat brought Corbett out of retirement, and Rector began to work on a plan for the original match between Corbett and Fitzsimmons that he had wanted to begin with. Finally, after several more months, things began to come together. At the beginning of January, 1897, Corbett and Fitzsimmons signed an agreement to fight, with both to receive an equal percentage of the profits from the exhibition of the film. About three weeks later, Nevada came through for boxing fans everywhere, and passed a law legalizing boxing in the state over the loud objections of many of the nation’s political and religious leaders.

The Carson City arena, with a clear view of the shed housing the film cameras at ringside.

The fight was to be held in Carson City on March 17, in an arena specially built to accommodate Rector and his filming apparatus. Rector constructed three new cameras, which he called “Veriscopes,” especially to film the event, all with a high capacity for film stock. The film he used was also wider than the Edison standard so that he could capture the full view of the ring. A special wooden shed was built at ringside, with its back to where the sun would be during the fight, and arrangements were made for other fighters to be on standby to give spectators a show in case the main event had to be postponed for filming due to weather.

Meanwhile, those opposed to the fight had not been idle. They got a bill before the US House of Representatives that stated no images or written descriptions (including in a newspaper) of any boxing match could be transmitted across state lines. To get a general idea of the tone taken by the bill’s proponents, this was a speech given on the House floor by Massachusetts representative Elijah Morse on March 1:

Mr. Speaker, I want to say that I believe in this bill. I believe it is a just and proper bill, and I hope it will pass both Houses and be signed by the President and become a law. Every State in the Union, save three, makes prize fighting a crime, and the suppression of the details and of pictures of this degrading, brutal, aud disgusting business is in entire harmony with the laws of the States, with the laws of United States, and with the sentiment of our people. The brave stand taken by Governor Culberson, of Texas, whose father, Judge Culberson, has been an honored member of this House for many years, won for him the praise of all the right-minded people throughout this great country.

For a year or two past two big brutes named Corbett and Fitzsimmons have been looking for a place to pound one another. Up to this time they have done most of their fighting with their mouths. One after another, where they have attempted to have a meeting, the States have taken action to prevent it. In Louisiana, in Mississippi, in Florida, in Minnesota, in Texas, in Arkansas, and New Mexico. Then it was proposed to have the fight outside the country, in Mexico. The Mexicans are not particularly pious. They do not object to a bull fight, but they drew the line on these brutes, and the Mexican Government said their country should not be disgraced by this brutal exhibition. Now, to the everlasting shame and disgrace of the State of Nevada, the legislature of that State has passed a bill, and the governor has signed it, to legalize this brutal, disgusting exhibition. My district contains 200,000 inbabitants, and has the misfortune to be represented on this floor by so humble an individual as myself, and has only a piece of a Senator at the other end of the Capitol; while the State of Nevada, with 40,000 inhabitants, has one Representative in this House and two Senators at the other end of the building.

If there was any constitutional method by which Statehood could be taken away from that State, which is little less than a mining camp, I am sure a vast majority of the people of this country would favor such action, and would be glad to remand the State back to the condition of a Territory, especially since this last disgraceful, humiliating, and shameful act of the legislature of that State.

A 1910 political cartoon frames the opposition to boxing films with a familiar cry.

Ultimately, Morse and his allies were sunk by their own zeal. The wording of the bill was deemed far too broad, and opponents worried that it would have unintended consequences (such as preventing newspapers from reporting on crimes). With only a few days left in the legislative session, they failed to amend the bill sufficiently to gain the necessary support, and it failed. A new Congress, along with president William McKinley, was sworn in on March 4, and Morse returned home to Massachusetts, having not stood for re-election. The fight would go forward as planned, and without a new federal law in place to prevent the distribution of Rector’s film.

All the stars had finally aligned in Rector’s favor. On the appointed date, he achieved his dream of filming an entire boxing match from start to finish. The fight lasted 14 three-minute rounds, with one minute rests in-between, plus several minutes of introduction at the beginning, and several more minutes of footage of activity in the arena after the fight’s end. All in all, the final film was between 90 and 100 minutes long, making it the first-ever feature length film in movie history.

Corbett seemed to dominate Fitzsimmons for much of the fight, but it was Fitzsimmons who finally landed the knockout blow, a devastating strike to his opponent’s solar plexus, to become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion. However, there was some controversy over whether Fitzsimmons had landed a second punch to Corbett’s jaw as he was going down. If so, the foul should have invalidated the win. The ambiguity was yet another selling point in Rector’s favor, as audiences would have to pay to see the fight with their own eyes if they wanted to judge what had really taken place.

But Rector’s headaches hadn’t ended yet. After the US Congress failed to pass its bill banning dissemination of the film across state lines, a number of states attempted to ban the film itself from being shown. In an effort to forestall any legislation being passed before the film could be shown, Rector publicly claimed that the film’s negatives had been ruined. And some generous, under-the-table “lobbying” may have taken place as well. In the end, only a few places banned the film. It played to packed houses on tour in major cities throughout the United States, as well as in London, and was still continuing to circulate in less populated areas as late as 1900. It was every bit as profitable as Rector had hoped, earning the equivalent of several million dollars in today’s money. Unfortunately, he ended up having to sue the fight’s organizer for his share.

As far as I can tell, Rector did not follow up the success he had finally achieved with any future efforts to film or exhibit boxing matches, though others certainly did. By this time, he was likely tied up in the patent dispute over the Latham loop, but even without that, I suppose it isn’t surprising. Considering everything he had gone through to achieve his goal, and everything he continued to experience afterwards, maybe walking away made the most sense. Although he lived for another 60 years, whatever else he may have done, he seems to have completely vanished from film history after this point. His film was added to the National Film Registry in 2012.

Bob Fitzsimmons

Fitzsimmons continued an illustrious career in boxing for another ten-plus years. He was the lightest boxer to ever win the heavyweight championship, and one of only two men in history to win titles in three different weight categories. Corbett’s best years as a boxer were behind him, and he had a somewhat less-illustrious record for several more years before returning to show business. He was the pioneer a new kind of boxing that relied on technique rather than brute force, and his training regimen became the standard for the entire sport. Both men are remembered as boxing legends.

Why you should see it:

Only around 20 minutes of the film survives. You can see about three minutes of it from the Library of Congress, in quite good condition, below. If you are so inclined, you can watch the rest of it, in extremely poor condition, here. Corbett is the darker-haired fighter with the shorts that seem to be riding way up. Fitzsimmons is the lighter-haired fighter who appears to be balding. At the film’s premier, an expert in boxing stood by to offer commentary on the fight throughout, but about halfway through the fight, the audience, in its excitement, got too loud and no one could hear what he was saying. Perhaps most of them could tell what was going on, but the exercise is more challenging for a modern audience.

Notice that, although it is obscured for most of the fragment that we have, the bottom of the ring reads “Copyrighted The Veriscope Company 1897.” This presumably kept competitors from cutting the owners of the footage out of profits with duplicates of the film, but it didn’t stop anyone from filming their own “re-enactment” of the fight and presenting it in a way that suggested a closer kinship with the real thing than was strictly honest. One company had their knock-off Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight film out on tour a week before the real thing debuted. Veriscope couldn’t do anything legally to stop it, but audiences who felt duped by the deception were harder to ignore.

It is no surprise that films of the fight attracted audiences who had never, and never would have, attended a live boxing match. This included many members of the upper-classes, but most especially it included women. In some locations it was reported that women made up more than half of the audience—a fact that both shocked and baffled many men at the time. For women, of course, this represented a socially-acceptable opportunity to experience something that had previously only been acceptable for men, and perhaps also to appreciate a couple of athletic men wearing very little clothing (one of whom, Corbett, was already something of a sex symbol). With this increased exposure came a decrease in the calls for restriction, and at least for a time, the anti-boxing movement found far less purchase for their efforts.

Although Rector had shown that it was possible to make a film of feature length, no other filmmakers at the time had a vision yet that could fill that space. The majority of films were still actualities, and the growing genre of narrative fiction had not yet moved past the stage of stringing a succession of simple gags or tricks together for a few minutes. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was almost ten times the length of the longest film made by any other filmmaker in the 19th century (aside from a few other boxing films), and it would be another decade and a half before feature film production began to outpace shorter films in motion picture programs.


~ by Jared on March 1, 2023.

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