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Vintage: Boxing and Sunday

With the DVD release of Rocky Balboa coming up next Tuesday, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the late 1920s' perspective of boxing films -- not movies about boxing, but actual filmed boxing matches. They were actually quite controversial at the time.

And just to drive home the point of how the times have changed, we'll also take a look at how exhibiting movies on Sundays was also controversial.

Fight Films
This snippet, and the page that follows, are extracted from a section of The Film Daily Yearbook that sums up important legal cases in the film industry. This first snippet, an extract from the bottom of a page, and the first few sections of the following page, talk about the legality of "fight films," or filmed boxing matches, specificially the manner in which they are distributed.

It's hard to imagine that there would be any restrictions on such a thing. Sure, boxing is violent, but it is (and was) a sport accepted into the culture. So why, if you can go watch a boxing match live, would there be such a big deal about filmed footage of boxing matches? A quick skimming of the article shows how this wasn't just an uproar in a few isolated communities. There was a federal ruling restricting the distribution of fight films. And Canada, too, had its own version of the controversy going on.

Fight Films
Why the fuss? One, a prominent historical incident that people wanted to make sure didn't happen again. Two, undoubtedly the uncertainty over this new medium of film and how it would affect our culture. By the late 1920s, people were well aware of the power of film to change society. But they weren't necessarily all sure about how it would change things. That happens with any new medium that bursts onto the scene with a sudden pervasiveness. Television did it in the 1950s, and the Internet is doing it today. We still don't know how to adjust to the Internet. In 80 years, perhaps people will look back at the DMCA and other Internet-related court cases and marvel at our uncertainty of how to accommodate the Internet into the way we govern ourselves.

The historical incident is mentioned by the article in passing: "the agitation which followed the Johnson-Jeffries fight." Jack Johnson was an African-American boxer that some call the best of his generation. But the road to the World Heavyweight Championship was hard won, as much of the battle fought outside the ring against a racist society. Although blacks were allowed to fight whites in the ring, blacks were kept out of the championship matches, because they were not seen as worthy to compete for it. So he was never allowed to fight the then world champion, James. J. Jeffries. Instead, he fought a former world champion, Bob Fitzsimmons, and knocked him out in two rounds.

Jeffries would retire undefeated, and Johnson fought one of Jeffries' successors for the title. It was a brutal fight, ultimately stopped by the police, but Johnson had a clear victory and became the official world champion. This in itself was scandalous for the day, a black man holding the championship title. But this motivated Jeffries to come out of retirement to face Johnson in the ring, saying, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro." Numerous media figures championed Jeffries as "The Great White Hope," and this is where this expression comes from. The publicity for the match was huge and ignited racial tensions that just exploded when Johnson beat the living daylights out of Jeffries. Riots occurred as the news of Johnson's victory spread, which caused whole towns to pass rulings banning the filming of Johnson's victories over whites. Ultimately, as this article says, in 1917 a more general ban of fight film distribution was enacted on the federal level.

That's what the article means when it says "agitation."

The film The Great White Hope (1970) stars James Earl Jones as a boxer loosely based on the life of Jack Johnson.

Anyway, the article describes some of the amusing ways in which people tried to sidestep the new law. I particularly like the idea of setting up a camera on the United States side of the border with Canada and using it to photograph the projection of a fight film on the Canadian side. The courts were probably right not to let that slide, but it seems like they should have gotten a free pass simply by virtue of their ingenuity.

Well, moving down the second page, note the section on Sunday Closing. (The article continues on the following page, which I haven't posted here, but the missing piece is just a few lines and contains nothing of note.) There isn't a whole lot to comment on, except that it really drives home how much society has changed. Note that we're not dealing with a federal ruling here; rather, a pervasive number of laws in various local communities.

Today, Sunday is the third best day for movie exhibition. There are four business days in the week of a movie theater: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday-Thursday. I don't know what the weekly moviegoing patterns were of 1920s audiences, but clearly theater owners of the day were eager to circumvent the Sunday closing laws.

I am amused by the reports of exhibitors finding it economical to pay a fine every week, rather than close on Sundays. It reminds me of a story from college, where parking was notoriously limited. Not only did the University steadfastly refuse to fix the problem, but for a while they kept turning parking lots into new academic buildings, further exacerbating the problem of parking availability. So, typically, a commuter had two choices: park in the big huge parking lot a mile away, or park in one of the town's metered parking lots.

I knew a guy who discovered that the cost of feeding a meter with a full day's worth of quarters was actually more expensive than the ticket for not paying the meter at all. So every day, he pulled into a metered spot, left it unfed, and paid his ticket that evening.

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