Modern Gladiators

I am poorer but richer. I have forked out for Antonia Lant’s Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema, as already promoted here. It is full of riches. The notes alone are a map to a marvellous world, with a host of tempting pathways down which to travel.

There’s so much that one could say about the texts in the volume, but the first thing to catch my eye was two pieces written by women who saw the film of the World Heavywieght Championship bout at Carson City, Nevada, between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, on 17 March 1897. One is a short, anonymous piece, ‘The Matinee Girl’, from the New York Dramatic Mirror, 12 June 1897; the other is a longer piece by Alice Rix, ‘Alice Rix at the Veriscope’, from the San Francisco Examiner, 18 July 1897, which is about women spectators of the film.

Corbett v Fitzsimmons

The film was made by the Veriscope Company, which employed three cameras in parallel, housed in a wooden cabin, so that when the film ran out of one the next door camera started (as the picture above shows). The result was a seemingly continuous, single-position record, which ran for well over an hour (there were fourteen rounds). The film was 63mm wide, giving a ‘widescreen’ effect which was shaped to the size of the ring:

Corbett v Fitzsimmons film strip

The film was widely shown and enthusiastically watched by audiences worldwide most of whom had never seen a boxing match (boxing was illegal in every American state except Nevada). There was clearly a number of women who went to see the film. And another of them wrote about the experience. Lady Colin Campbell, who wrote a column in The World, on 20 October 1897 wrote about seeing the film at the Aquarium in London (using the pen name Véra Tsaritsyn), under the title ‘Modern Gladiators’:

In spite of all that the humanitarians may say or the Peace Society may preach, the love of fighting will endure to the end of time … it is with satisfaction that I note the number of people who are crowding into the theatre of the Aquarium to see the cinematograph version of the great fight between Corbett and Fitzsimmons, which took place last March in Carson City, Nevada.

It certainly was an admirable idea to have got up this historic encounter for the sake of the pictures to be obtained of it. It is given to comparatively few to see a real prize-fight; but these pictures put the P.R. ‘on tap,’ as it were, for everybody. It is the real thing: the movements of the men, the surging of the crowd, the attentive ministrations of the backers and seconds, are all faithfull represented; only it is so bowdlerised by the absence of colour and noise that the most super-sensitive person, male or female, can witness every details of the fight without a qualm. Evidently the fair sex appreciate such an opportunity, for there are plenty of those tilted ‘coster-girl’ hats adorned with ostrich feathers that would delight the heart of a ‘donah,’ which are fashion’s decree for the moment, to be seen in the theatre … The five-shilling ‘pit’ (which are the lowest-priced seats for this peep-show) is soon filled up; the half-guinea stalls are not long behindhand; and the only part of the auditorium which remains partially empty is the back row of the stalls, which, for some mysterious reason, is thought to offer such exceptional advantages that the seats are priced at a guinea. The seats being exactly the same as the half-guinea abominations in clinging red velvet, and the point of view being precisely similar to that of the front row of the pit (which is only divided off by a rope), we ponder over the gullible snobbishness of the world, while a well-meaning but maddening lady bangs out ‘The Washington Post’ out of an unwilling and suffering piano in the corner. We have nearly arrived at the point of adding our shrieks of exasperation to those of the tortured instrument when the show begins and the ‘Washington Post’ is mercifully silenced.

We are first gratified with a little slice of statistics; the two miles of films on six reels, containing one hundred and sixty-five thousand pictures; the prize of 7000l. which went to the victor; the names of the referee, the timekeeper, and various other details, to which the audience listens with ill-concealed patience … [T]he first picture is thrown upon the sheet, and, having wobbled about a little to find the centre of the canvas, settles down into an admirably distinct view of the platform, with the two champions wrapped in long ulsters, each surrounded by his backers …

Here she goes on to describe the fight in great detail, commenting on the odd effect of the silence, complaining about clinching, and describing the dramatic end where the defeated Corbett in a rage tried to attack Fitzsimmons, causing mayhem in the ring.

The two miles of pictures have taken an hour and a half to pass before our eyes; but though we leave the theatre with aching heads, we regret that so little that we determine to return as soon as we can, to witness again this combat of modern gladiators.

And though here at the Bioscope we’re wary of pointing people to stuff published illegally on YouTube, you can see edited highlights of the bout from a 16mm print probably dating from the 1960s. The intertitles are an obvious modern addition, as is the use of slow motion where they repeat the shot of the knockout blow, where the original film has been damaged. About a third of the film survives today – disappointingly, the scenes showing the uproar at the end of the fight are missing.

2 responses

  1. I have been reading “A million and one nights;: A history of the motion picture” by Terry Ramsaye. It was written in 1926, so it’s perspective is wonderful for cinemaphiles looking for great stories of pioneer cinema. I don’t have the page reference but the story of the Corbet/Fitzsimmons fight is laid out in detail. great story. Someone should write a script.
    Thanks for the photos.

  2. Terry Ramsaye’s “A Million and One Nights” is one of the key works of film history. A lot of what he writes has since been challenged by later film historians, and in some cases he falsified history (particularly over the prominence given to Thomas Edison), but it’s still a great work – very readable, observant, and with stuff that just would have been forgotten had Ramsaye not been around to take note of it.

    The story of Corbett v Fitzsimmons is covered in several other places e.g. Leo Miletich’s “Dan Stuart’s Fistic Carnival”, Patrick Myler’s “Gentleman Jim Corbett” and, on the film side, by Charles Musser in “The Emergence of Cinema”. Alas, Dan Streible’s long-promised book “Fight Films”, on early boxing films, doesn’t look like it is ever going to get published.

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