History in the Movies/By Cathy Schultz
Boxing has long held a fascination for filmmakers. Consider “Raging Bull,” “The Champ,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Rocky” (though maybe let’s not think of its sequels.) There’s something of poetry in the pummeling and pain of boxing.
Or so I’m told. To be honest, I’m not a fan, either of the sport or of most boxing films. What matters to me as a moviegoer is the human story behind the pugilism. Why does this person fight, I want to know. And why should I care?
“Cinderella Man,” the new film about the actual 1930s boxer Jim Braddock (played by Russell Crowe) answers that. Braddock’s not fighting for respect, or sparring any inner demons. Quite simply, he’s fighting for milk for his kids. And like so many others, he’s battling poverty, despair and shame-the shadowy foes of the Depression threatening to swallow his family. “Let me take my punches in the ring,” the film’s Braddock tells his worried wife, Mae. “At least I know who’s hitting me.”
Washed up, in debt and struggling to find work, Braddock’s too-good-to-be-true comeback story is more amazing because it is true, and Ron Howard’s excellent film hews largely to real life, fictionalizing only minor details. Here’s something on the life and times of the real Jim Braddock.
Q. How popular was boxing during the 1930s?
A. It was huge-as popular as baseball, and maybe more so. Heavyweight champions were superstars, with a Michael Jordan-like fame. Fans by the tens of thousands thronged to see the big matches, with millions more avidly following by radio and through the colorful stories of newspaper sportswriters.
Q. How accurately is the Depression era shown?
A. Watching a recreation of painful historical episodes isn’t always fun. After all, the Depression was so depressing. But at the same time, historical films provide a time-capsule thrill of watching a long-past era spring to life. In brown and sepia tones, “Cinderella Man” perfectly captures the bleakness and the despair of the Depression-the dingy rooms, the Hooverville shacks, the hollow eyes and grim faces. It’s the next best thing to being there.
Q. Did Braddock actually fight with a broken hand?
A. He did. More than once in fact, and it was the constant hand injuries that ended his career for the first time. Braddock’s most celebrated quality as a boxer was his tenacity, and his ability to fight through intense pain. He took pride in being knocked out only once in his long career, by Joe Louis two years after the events of this film.
Q. Did the Braddock kids really get sent away?
A. Yes, and for a longer time than shown in the film. His inability to pay the bills and keep the family together during the bitter winter of 1934 was the final straw that sent Braddock to the relief agency, and in the film’s most poignant moment, literally begging for help.
Q. Did Braddock only have two days’ notice of his first comeback fight against Corn Griffin? And did he go into it without having eaten all day?
A. The two days’ notice is accurate. Braddock later said he would have fought on two hours notice, so badly did he need the money. As for the growling stomach-it’s a great moment in the film, but whether or not Braddock actually tried to gobble down hash that his manager Joe Gould brought him minutes before the fight is unknown. But after the fight, he did say, “I did this on hash, Joe. Imagine what I could do on steak.”
Q. Did Braddock give back the money he had gotten while on relief? Isn’t that a little too good to be true?
A. It is, but happened nonetheless. Like many people, he was intensely ashamed about the relief money he had received. Braddock took the first opportunity to pay it back with his fight earnings. Sportswriters discovered the story just weeks before his fight against heavy weight champion Max Baer, and to Braddock’s embarrassment, splashed the story everywhere. Yet it was this action, as well as Braddock’s improbable soupline-to-heavyweight-contender story, which endeared him to millions. By the time of the fight, seemingly the entire country stood firmly in Braddock’s corner, while betting on Baer.
Q. Did Max Baer really act so badly toward Braddock before their fight?
A. Poor Max Baer comes out here much worse than he really was. Every film needs a juicy villain, and fact-based films usually exaggerate the villainy of the token bad guy. Although Baer publicly disparaged Braddock as an unworthy opponent, he never taunted Braddock about killing men in the ring. In fact, the death of his opponent Frankie Campbell (in the newsreel clip shown in the film) haunted Baer throughout his life.
Q. Did Mae beg her husband not to fight Baer?
A. This is probably the most fictionalized part of the story. In reality, Mae shared Jim’s thrill at his opportunity to fight for the heavyweight title, and of course, his delight in the substantial purse money.
Yet Mae did worry constantly about potential injuries, and refused to watch Jim’s matches in person. As a viewer, I can certainly relate. It was tough to watch Russell Crowe’s mug getting so mauled. Boxing can be a sadistic sport, and the film doesn’t flinch from that
But despite that, this movie got to me. I cried. I cheered. “Cinderella Man” made me a fan. If not of boxing, then certainly of this boxing film.
Q. Where can I get more info on the real James Braddock?
A. See sportswriter Jeremy Schaap’s excellent book, “Cinderella Man.”
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her website at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies
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