Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema (review)
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Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. By Dan Streible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). 396 pages, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-520-25075-8.
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Boxing moved from blood sport to Olympic sport thanks, in no small part, to the invention of the motion picture machine in the 1890s. At a time when prizefights were illegal, photographic reproductions of prizefights offered a loophole for ambitious promoters and a curious public that included, for the first time as common spectators, women. The racial controversy over a black heavyweight champion, however, caused this loophole to close in 1915. Federal prohibition forced fight films out of mainstream exhibition, but the military’s incorporation of boxing into training exercises had already shifted popular sentiment by the late 1920s; enforcement had ceased long before Congress repealed the ban in 1940. Recounting the dawn of boxing’s modern era via early cinema makes clear the intimate relationship that developed between sport and media.

Boxing films remained at ringside, as far as film historiography was concerned, because they were not seen as contenders in the development of the fiction feature film. Within the dynamic and now well-established field of early cinema, Dan Streible assembles this phenomenon into a rich cultural history in which class, gender, race, and censorship debates from the Progressive Era intersect in a new arena.

Streible organizes the book chronologically, from the origins of cinema to the blockbuster Corbett-Fitzsimmons bout in 1897, the development of the nickelodeon, and the career of Jack Johnson, the African American champion who precipitated boxing’s return underground. The relatively limited corpus of fight pictures permits a thorough history of notable events, covering the dealmakers, the legal ramifications, the boxers themselves, and even “fake” fight films – a significant aspect of the sport in the early period. The final chapter on the interwar period feels like an abbreviated second volume, but adequately describes the transition into the television age.

A straight-punching prose style and concise recapitulations make this heavyweight volume feel light on its feet. For example, “Jeffries did theatrical work, but he had neither the talent nor the yen for stage performance, preferring simple sparring demonstrations.” (114) The author does not indulge in boxing metaphors (like this reviewer), but lets the muscle of facts do the talking. While maintaining its focus on the fight film, the book invokes broader topics as well: the culture of athletics, boxing subculture, theatrical careers of boxers, censorship in the Progressive Era, and the evolving media landscape.

The book will interest sport and media historians, and may well establish the fight film as a seminal chapter in the history of early cinema: among other firsts, the landmark Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight was the first feature-length film and commercial blockbuster. Boxing also catalysed technical innovation among competing motion picture manufacturers. Streible candidly admits the “sideline” position of fight pictures within the development of classical Hollywood narrative cinema, but he too easily categorizes boxing films as pure attractions. Elsewhere, he unexpectedly dismisses the role of fight pictures in people’s changing perception of time, an interesting debate in early cinema; the book also treads lightly over the ethical issues of violence, spectacle and spectatorship. But Streible’s impeccable archival research will surely cultivate debate in myriad disciplines around these orphaned films. [End Page 127]

Grant Wiedenfeld
Yale University
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