Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Cinderella Man

"People die in fairy tales all the time."

Max Baer
Cinderella Man (2005)

In spite of the oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico and the flooding in Arkansas and all the other terrible things happening in the world, there is a kind of fairy–tale quality to this June.

It is the anniversary month of two related events.

Earlier this month was the fifth anniversary of the theatrical debut of a movie that was well reviewed — but not terribly well attended, which seems odd in hindsight because it was directed by Ron Howard and it starred Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti.

The film, "Cinderella Man," was inspired by something that happened in New York on this day 75 years ago. James J. Braddock, a journeyman fighter, defeated Max Baer for the heavyweight championship.

Braddock was written off as a real tomato can. He was chosen by Baer's handlers because he was believed to be an easy payday for a fight scheduled on the eve of the anniversary of the fight in which Baer took the title from Primo Carnera.

What followed resembled the plot of the original "Rocky" film.

Apparently convinced that Braddock, a 10–to–1 underdog, was a pushover, Baer hardly prepared at all for the fight while Braddock was deadly serious in his workouts. "I'm training for a fight. Not a boxing contest or a clownin' contest or a dance," he said. "Whether it goes one round or three rounds or 10 rounds, it will be a fight and a fight all the way."

Like Rocky's fight with Apollo Creed, though, it went 15 rounds. And history shows that, unlike Rocky's, Braddock's dream came true. He won the title and held it until Joe Louis knocked him out two years later.

The Braddock–Baer fight has been elevated to legendary status in the three–quarters of a century since Braddock's upset victory. It was astonishing to me that no one ever made a film about it until long after both men died.

But even though the movie got great reviews and promoters spent a bundle trying to get audiences interested, it never caught on with the movie–going public. Promoters even took the unusual step of offering a money–back guarantee to anyone who didn't like the movie. I haven't seen any figures that would indicate how many people took them up on the offer.

Frankly, that public reception surprised me. I mean, Howard had already won an Oscar for directing and Crowe and Zellweger had already won Oscars for acting. How much more star power did a movie need to be successful?

Part of the problem may have been the fact that 2005 was considered a down year in general for box office receipts. There were some films that drew large audiences, but they tended to be in the fantasy/escapist genre — Hary Potter, Narnia, Star Wars, as well as "War of the Worlds," "King Kong" and "Batman Begins," etc.

It's also possible that it came up short in an unofficial competition with another boxing movie, "Million Dollar Baby."

Some folks have speculated that negative publicity about Crowe's behavior at a New York hotel — in which he threw a phone at an employee — was a contributing factor to low ticket sales.

But I have always wondered if any previously proposed projects treated Baer as Howard's script did. If they did, the people responsible for them may have been reluctant to deal with Baer's family. As a result, by the time it made it to the big screen, the fight was largely forgotten by all but hard–core boxing fans.

Even so, Baer's survivors protested. All three of Baer's children are still living, and his son and namesake, who made his name playing Jethro on the Beverly Hillbillies, was particularly incensed about the depiction of his father, who was portrayed as a brutal man who savagely killed two of his opponents.

Part of that may have been due to Baer's reputation as a great puncher. Ring Magazine ranked him #22 all time among punchers. He just may have been. He wasn't better than Louis — or George Foreman or Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson — but he was better, in Ring's estimation, than Joe Frazier and Evander Holyfield.

And part of it indisputably was the result of the course of events. One man slumped to the canvas when his fight with Baer was halted, then he died the following day.

According to Baer's family, Baer was a gentle man who was devastated by that death. He was acquitted of manslaughter charges, but he seems to have held himself responsible for what happened until his own death. None of his relatives seem to have disputed that.

However, Baer's family stoutly resisted the film's suggestion that injuries inflicted in the ring led to the death of another fighter several months after he and Baer fought, even though the autopsy on that opponent indicated that he was suffering from meningitis, a swelling of the brain, at the time of his death.

It's also worth noting that he died after fighting Carnera, who was a mountain of a man at 275 pounds. It could not be concluded that any injuries he sustained some five months earlier when he fought Baer caused or contributed to his death.

Thus, the alleged link between Baer and that opponent's death was tenuous at best.

But the storybook quality of Braddock's improbable championship earned him the nickname "Cinderella Man" from Damon Runyon.

And that is how he still is remembered 75 years later.

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