Gentleman Jim Blu-ray Review: Still Packs a Punch

Gentleman Jim (1943) directed by Raoul Walsh stars Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith in a biopic inspired by the life and career of boxer Jim Corbett, referred to by some as the ”father of modern boxing.”. This fictitious tale of a son of San Francisco takes us along for the ride as we watch young Jim rise from bank clerk to heavyweight champion. Jim excited the boxing world during a period of change in the sport that many thought would ruin it. 

It’s late 1880s San Francisco and young bank clerk James J. “Jim” Corbett has big plans that involve more than just knocking around town with his best friend Walter (Jack Carson), chasing pretty girls, and raising a little cane. One day at the bank, Jim manages to escort one of those pretty gals (Smith) to the local sporting club where he meets her father and gets a good look around. While touring the gym, Jim has a chance to put on the gloves and do a little boxing with the on-site trainer. Jim’s not too bad and that sets the old timers scheming and dreaming of his prospects. With them backing him and Walter in his corner, Jim is on his way to boxing immortality. 

Boxing was still bare knuckle at this point in time, mostly an illegal affair, dominated by one man, James L. Sullivan (Ward Bond), who stands larger than life as the reigning heavyweight king. That’s all about to change as the sport has adopted new rules that include timed rounds and the use of padded gloves. All this works in Jim’s favor as he steps into the ring as a professional and puts those additional rules to good use. He’s able to dance around and away from his opponent, peppering them with jabs before landing his powerful straight punch that will send many a man to the canvas including the legendary John L. during the movie’s climax. 

Gentleman Jim is a lighthearted affair that keeps you laughing and smiling for 104 minutes. Errol Flynn does a fine job portraying the young upstart looking to be more than a carriage driver or a  bank clerk. Standard Flynn fair really, bold and confident with a sly sense of humor; roles he’s damned good at. Alexis Smith holds her own as Jim’s love interest and verbal sparring partner while Ward Bond as Sullivan brings a swagger that only he can. The remaining supporting cast help keep this one moving at a pace to rival Corbett’s foot work with notable names such as Alan Hale, William Frawley, Dorothy Vaughn, and Jack Carson playing key roles in the life of the boxing champ. With names like those, one also knows this movie will land some solid laughs along the way. 

As far as the boxing aspect goes, it scores well with me for its depiction of what the sport was like in those very early days of the Queensbury rules. Coming out of the bare-knuckle era, fighters were mostly big lugs or thugs who could take a licking and give as good as they got for countless untimed rounds. Though early on, even under the new rules, a bout could still go 61 rounds, which is just crazy especially when you recall that Mr. Burns of The Simpsons once paid a nickel to watch Corbett go 113 rounds! 

Corbett helped usher in a new age in the sport: an age of footwork, hand speed, and the heavy use of the jab to set up devastating power shots. I found myself “oohing” and “ahhing” when Jim got knocked down or floored his foe with a power punch. It’s not the most technical boxing movie but it stands out in the time period that it was made. Walsh makes sure to tilt the camera down so we see Jim move those feet like a dancer way before Mr. Ali floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Also like Ali, Jim would master the mind game, getting in an opponent’s head and toying with their emotions. He enjoyed “getting their goat” before a fight to further throw them off in the ring; another example of the intelligence “gentleman” Jim Corbett brought to the squared circle in an effort to make popular boxing more of an exciting chess match than an all-out street brawl. 

Special features include three vintage Warner Brothers “Merrie Melodies” cartoons, two in color and one in black and white. The First is The Dover Boys at Pimento University which finds the titular brothers playing hide and seek with their fiance Dora, while attending “old P.U.” and thwarting their foe Dan Backslide at the end of the short. The second cartoon short Foney Fables retells popular fairy tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” with a punchy unexpected twist. The third Hobby Horse-laffs is a “Looney Tune” that explores the world of hobbies in a wacky, silly way featuring an amateur magician, a gardener, a dog trainer, and some glider enthusiasts; the gliders had me rolling. There’s also a Screen Guild Radio Broadcast of Gentleman Jim that runs half an hour and gives a condensed yet funny version of the movie featuring Flynn, Smith, and Bond reprising their roles. 

Gentleman Jim is a lighthearted drama that packs a punch and has some good laughs. A biopic of its time that takes many liberties as it tells the tale of a young man who would change the boxing world with his wits as well as his fists. I’ve appreciated Gentleman Jim since I was a boy who loved watching boxing with his father and grandpa and thought Errol Flynn was the coolest cat ever. Gentleman Jim ranks high on my list of beloved boxing movies; it’s on the opposite spectrum from Raging Bull but they both share good stories, solid boxing action, and are filmed in black and white.  

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Joe Garcia III

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