- Seeing without Feeling:Muybridge’s Boxing Pictures and the Rise of the Bourgeois Film Spectator
Introduction: Feeling the Fights
On July 4, 1910, cameras and crews from Vitagraph, Selig, and Essanay—three of the era’s biggest film companies—collaborated to film the World’s Heavyweight Championship in downtown Reno, Nevada. Black title-holder Jack Johnson squared off against former champion and “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries (Figure 1). It was one of the most expensive and complex film productions that had yet been conceived.1 Boxing films had proven lucrative in recent years, and the worldwide attention that this particular fight had already drawn assured investors that the film could bring in over a million dollars in exhibition profits—an astronomical sum in the fledgling industry.2 The only catch, as one contemporary industry publication put it, was that, if Johnson won, “the pictures [might] then be of comparatively little value, especially among the white section of the community.”3
The production was an expensive gamble that backfired in an unexpected way. Not only did Johnson soundly win the fight, but the film of Johnson’s victory also fueled a sudden spike in legislation outlawing boxing films throughout the country. Within days of Jeffries’s defeat, states and cities banned exhibition of the film, and many state and local governments used the occasion to ban fight films altogether.4 Almost overnight, politicians and citizens who had been fans of the sport, including Teddy Roosevelt, now rode the tide of Progressivist rhetoric that decried the sport as “brutal” and “uncivilized.”5 Two years later, in 1912, the United States Congress passed a federal ban on the interstate distribution of fight films that codified at a national level the many local and state bans on fight films that had already been enacted in the days and weeks following the Johnson-Jeffries fight. The federal ban was the nail in the coffin for the genre in the United States, and by the time the film ban was lifted almost thirty years later, in 1940, boxing had already moved on from the medium; live broadcast technologies like radio had stepped in as the sport’s preferred outlet, and television was poised to obviate fight films altogether.
The fallout from the Johnson-Jeffries fight—beyond the obviously reactionary racism—signals a crucial turning point in the transformation of the cinema from a working-class medium to a bourgeois one, for the Johnson-Jeffries fight film lies at the end of a decades-old culture war over who film spectators were and would be. The widespread political and popular condemnations of the 1910 fight film created a nexus for the sometimes subtle, and sometimes crude, racial inflections and class conflict driving the rise of narrative film more generally. As if by reflex, the fight film genre became a convenient example of the primitive mode of cinematic spectatorship that Progressive Era legislators and reformed filmgoers were determined to overcome. Unsurprisingly, spectatorship—or at least a supposedly volatile form of it—would serve as the grounds for outlawing the Johnson-Jeffries film. The most common justification for the suppression of the film was to avoid race riots, but many politicians and reformers also articulated vague fears over the adverse effects that the film would have on “respectable” white viewers, especially on women and children, who, thanks to the rise of inexpensive and abundant nickelodeons, constituted a new and burgeoning population of dedicated filmgoers. Banning fight films altogether would, as one US Congressman put it in 1912, “prevent the display to morbid-minded adults and susceptible youth all over the country of representations of such a disgusting exhibition.”6 Such fears were part of a much larger anxiety over how spectators invested [End Page 66] themselves in film, which, because of the sensuously immersive nature of the medium, had aroused general concern since the late-nineteenth century. The racial fallout of the Johnson victory aroused renewed and specific concern because of the especially visceral nature of boxing films and the supposedly weak-minded viewers they might harm.
But the fight-film story is of course older than these reactions to the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries film...