An over-romanticized biopic of 19th century boxer James J. Corbett, Gentleman Jim is a light nostalgic story from director Raoul Walsh—a fan of the real Corbett since childhood. Errol Flynn stars as Corbett, who works his way up from lowly bank teller to boxing world champion. While the film is well crafted on a technical level, especially by cinematographer Sid Hickox and editor Jack Killifer, the story lacks any kind of truly engaging conflict or character arc.
Flynn’s Jim works as a bank teller in San Francisco until he charms his way into the elite Olympic Club, and is chosen as their sponsored boxer. The club quickly grows tired of his brash personality and tries to knock him down a peg, setting up a fight for him against a former world champion. The club members are certain the fighter will destroy him, yet Jim surprises them all and triumphs. This happens over and over throughout the film, all the way to his championship fight against famed Irish boxer John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond). Jim is set up against impossible odds and overcomes them easily. He has no lowpoint, no comeback, just a constant rise. There is no reason the audience should root for him except that they are expected to. Yes, Jim is handsome, funny, and confident, all the makings for a likable hero, but by modern standards he is too simplistic. He has no serious flaws or driving forces, he has nothing to make the audience think twice about him.
While sold as a biopic, the writers took great artistic license in depicting Corbett’s life, erasing his wife from the picture so as to add a love interest (Alexis Smith) and creating a fictitious, caricature of a family for Corbett. Conflict could have come from the rivalry between Jim and Sullivan, as they did not respect each other like the movie portrays, but instead despised each other.1 As Variety reviewed it at the time, “This is so far removed from fact that it’s ludicrous.”2
Despite lacking a strong basis in reality or an interesting story arc, the film’s technical achievements are impressive. Known best today for classic films such as High Sierra and The Roaring Twenties, Raoul Walsh was a talented director whose career lasted decades. The fight scenes in the film are innovative and fun. Flynn did his own stunts and the camera follows his light dancer-like fighting style around the ring in a rough handheld shots, drawing the viewer in. Combined with Killifer’s fast cuts, the quick and violent nature of boxing is constructed. This stylet most likely comes from Walsh’s love of boxing as a child. Despite its accomplished director and strength technically, the film garnered no awards. Yet, it was successful at the box office, most likely owed to its star.3
Flynn was a charmer, a true Hollywood sweetheart, beloved by all. Famous for his partying and interest in young women, Flynn got away with just about anything. Literally, anything. In October 1942, a month before the film’s release, Flynn was charged with not one, but two accounts of statutory rape. Both accusers were under the age of 18. There have been many articles written on the trial, but Flynn’s guilt will never truly be known. The treatment of the charges and his trial, though, was almost grotesque. Audiences reportedly laughed as Flynn delivered his last line in Gentleman Jim, “Darling, that gentleman stuff never fooled you, did it? I’m no gentleman.”4 They knew Flynn was nowhere near being a gentleman but it didn’t matter; they loved him for it. While Flynn’s onscreen charisma is great and the technical achievements are impressive, neither sets Gentleman Jim apart from any other Hollywood film yearning for the past.
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References [ + ]
|1.||^||Thomas McNulty, Errol Flynn: The Life and Career (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2004).|
|2.||^||“Review: Gentleman Jim,” Variety, October 1942.|
|3.||^||Glancy, H. Mark. “Warner Bros Film Grosses, 1921–51: the William Schaefer ledger” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television Vol. 15 (1995): p 23.|
|4.||^||Thomas McNulty, Errol Flynn: The Life and Career (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2004).|