“Each boxing match is a story,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote about the enduring appeal of the centuries-old blood sport. “A highly condensed, highly dramatic story ….” Long a popular subject for writers, from Homer to Colette, these compact dramas also drew the attention of cinema’s pioneers who sought to profit from filming important bouts for a wider public. The earliest films used boxing images in their experiments—Edison’s gloved lab assistants going at it mano-a-mano for the Kinetograph in 1892 and Max Skladanowsky pitting a man against a kangaroo for his Bioskop in 1895. But it was W.K.L. Dickson who conjured the future when he wrote in a letter to soon-to-be business partner Henry N. Marvin about “…the possibility of some small simple device which could be made to show cheaply the final punch and knockout of a prizefight.” The sport of boxing has been bound to the movies ever since.
Translating easily into slapstick, boxing situations were frequently featured in comedies. Chaplin played referee to Fatty Arbuckle’s “Pug” in 1914’s The Knockout. An effete Buster Keaton put on the gloves for 1926’s Battling Butler in order to prove his manliness to his fiancée’s macho father. The avant-garde also embraced pugilism: Entr’acte (1924) begins with two white gloves boxing against a black background and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) juxtaposes images of the fights with dance clubs in a sequence on the city’s nightlife. Drama, however, asserted the most tenacious claim on the prizefighter, his rise and fall tailor-made to Hollywood’s melodramatic tendencies. D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) centered around the daughter of the brutal over-the-hill boxer Battling Burrows; Alfred Hitchcock captured the comedies and tragedies of a carnival prizefighter turned gentleman sparring partner in The Ring (1927); and future film director John Huston, who in his youth had “boxed for small purses,” played a small role in William Wyler’s The Shakedown.
Wyler, nominated for 12 best director Oscars and winner of three, made almost every type of film in his 45-year career. He began cranking out two-reel westerns and went on to make some memorable features of the genre, including Hell’s Heroes (1930) and The Westerner (1940). He directed the social-issue film Dead End (1937), which led to legislation to clean up New York City’s slums, and his stripped-down noir Detective Story (1951) confronted middle-class hypocrisy. He collaborated with playwright Lillian Hellman on five films and adapted classic and contemporary novels for 1939’s Wuthering Heights and 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives. He worked with Gregg Toland on seven films, developing a complex mise-en-scène in conjunction with the cinematographer’s distinctive deep focus photography. He helped refine the innate talent of Bette Davis in three of her starring roles and guided Audrey Hepburn to her breakout performance in the romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953). He directed MGM’s remake of the rousing biblical epic Ben-Hur, and, toward the end of his career, when he could have rested on his substantial laurels, he agreed to direct Barbra Streisand’s film debut Funny Girl (1968), because, he said, “I had never made a musical.” The Shakedown, however, was one movie the young Wyler did not want to make.
Born July 1, 1902, in Mulhouse, Alsace, an 18-year-old Wyler joined the ranks of Universal’s many young relatives of studio head Carl Laemmle, cousin to Wyler’s doting mother. After a couple years in odd jobs at the studio’s New York headquarters, he made the move to Los Angeles and became errand boy for Irving Thalberg’s office—“They’d send me out to buy cigars.” Dubbed “Worthless Willy” when he failed to turn in a synopsis for the German-language novel that Erich von Stroheim was interested in filming, he, however, proved useful on location of Universal’s many western serials, moving up to herding extras and assistant directing. Just before his 23rd birthday, Wyler directed his first two-reeler, Crook Busters (1925). “Westerns were a great way to learn your trade,” Wyler later recalled, “because they were action films and so you were dealing with movement, which is the fundamental ingredient of motion pictures. … (I used to stay up nights, trying to think of new ways for the hero to get on and off a horse.)” After directing 21 two-reel and eight five-reel westerns, Wyler sought a promotion to Universal Jewel features, with their bigger budgets and bigger stars.
The Girl Show, based on Charles A. Logue’s script The Grappler about a wrestler in an itinerant burlesque act, was to be Wyler’s first non-western feature but, according to biographer Jan Herman, the project was delayed over casting issues. In the meantime, Wyler directed Bessie Love in Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, a comedy about a French woman who comes to the U.S. after the war to look for her soldier boyfriend. Given a budget of $60,000, he traveled with cast and crew to New York City to film the exterior shots, which he did documentary-style, without permits or paid extras. He installed cameras in cars, taxi windows, and even a laundry pushcart to capture Mitzi’s trek through the unfamiliar city and, in one scene, played a traffic cop at Broadway and 42nd, where he caused an actual traffic jam and got arrested. His bosses were pleased with the onscreen results. Wyler continued to balk at directing the wrestling picture, which, after being combined with a Damon Runyon script called The Geezer and re-titled, The Frame-up, now centered around a prizefighter. Universal’s general manager Henry Henigson promised Wyler, “If you play ball, I will.”
Made for $50,000, The Shakedown, as it was finally called, was released as both a silent and a part-talkie. Wyler was now an up-and-coming director at Universal, the youngest on the lot, and his name was used to promote the film—“Another Willie Wyler Winner.” Next, he reluctantly agreed to direct The Storm, an outdoor adventure movie starring Lupe Vélez, only after the studio’s new general manager, Carl Laemmle Jr., threatened to bust him back down to “programmers.” In order to get his next assignment, the Laura LaPlante vehicle The Love Trap (1929), the studio screened The Shakedown for the valued star who had director approval. Wyler joined the projectionist in the booth, laughing up the funny scenes so she could hear. By the time he directed Universal’s first all-talking picture Hell’s Heroes, shot under grueling conditions in the Mojave, he was on solid ground at Universal for the industry’s turbulent changeover.
Sound suited William Wyler. A theater lover since a boy, he easily adapted to the talkies, which began pulling its stories from the New York stage. He went on to accrue accolades from his Hollywood peers, even as they complained of his perfectionism as director. (He first earned the moniker “50-Take Wyler” on the set of 1933’s Counselor-at-Law, starring the forgetful John Barrymore). He eventually left Universal for an eight-film collaboration with producer Sam Goldwyn and later earned two best director Oscars at MGM. Boxing achieved its own greatness in motion pictures. In heart-wrenching melodramas like King Vidor’s The Champ (1931), classic film noirs like Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947), and modern masterworks like Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), the prizefight film went on to transcend its lowly origins as a mere profit-making genre to give cinema some of its most poignant and indelible characters.
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Donald Sosin