Friday, January 03, 2014

Cinderella Man Revisited

Growing up, the family sport was tennis.  We all played.  My mother was the fanatic.  My dad had played when he was younger.  He took it up again when my siblings and I were kids.  Family doubles was one way we played together.  Other sports I learned from my friends.  There certainly was no neglect in that area.  But I didn't have the traditional American relationship between father as coach and son as learner, especially with baseball, but really with every other ball sport as well.  My dad did play street football with my friends and me.  None of my friends' dads did that.  But as a coach, he didn't play that role. 

I mention that as I segue from participation in sports to being a fan for the professional variety.  I did become quite a fan of many sports.  It came, perhaps, from a surprising source.  I read many books about sports.  Some of this was a consequence of reading fiction in fifth or sixth grade, particularly  the Duane Walter Decker series of books about major league baseball.  The first one about Chip Fiske reeled me in.  The rest was from an earlier passion about biography, which ultimately found its way to books about sports stars.  One of my favorites was It Takes Heart, where I first learned about Jim Braddock.  Each chapter is a separate vignette about a famous athlete, who faced tremendous adversity yet was able to overcome it in some manner.  Braddock was one of those.  Lou Gehrig was another.  "....I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

I can't recall whether my interest in watching boxing on TV stemmed from reading that book or from something else.  A few years later I often watched Wide World of Sports.  They featured a lot of the sports from the Olympics, amateur boxing included.  And the 1976 Olympics, in particular, may have generated an interest in pro boxing thereafter, especially for bouts in other than the heavyweight division, an interest which lasted for another decade or so.

Indeed as a graduate student I watched by myself in my apartment, on my crummy black and white portable TV, the fight that to me seems closest to the Baer-Braddock heavyweight title fight, depicted so well in the movie.  This was a light heavyweight championship bout between Victor Galindez and Mike Rossman.  Galindez was the slugger and strong favorite to keep his title.  Rossman had a peekaboo style, in the manner of Ernie Terrell, who couldn't make it work when he fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title, more than a decade earlier.  Beyond the style, Rossman had a game plan for the Galindez fight, one that he executed to perfection.  That's what caused the upset.

Fast forward a dozen years.  The Buster Douglas - Mike Tyson fight signified the end of my watching boxing altogether.  I did see some fights with Riddick Bowe and maybe a couple with Lennox Lewis, but then it was cold turkey.  There was no particular reason why.  Perhaps the Rocky movies were part of it.  The early ones were compelling.  Mr. T. was quite a character, as was Hulk Hogan.  But eventually they became formulaic and harder and harder to believe.  Then there was my family life.  We had young kids then and were mainly watching cartoon movies - Land Before Time, Balto, that sort of thing.  Boxing didn't fit with that.  And the heavyweights had become so big - height and weight - that it was kind of freakish and not that much fun to watch.  Boxing, when it's lyrical, draws you in.  Boxing, when it's just two guys beating on each other with no apparent art in the process, is repulsive.

Several years later I had one more dose of the lyrical kind of boxing via a book of short stories, Rope Burns.  I got it as a Father's Day present a few years before the movie Million Dollar Baby came to one of the movie channels on Dish that we subscribe to.  Million Dollar Baby is one of the short stories in Rope Burns.  I only realized that midway through watching the movie.  My memory doesn't retain much of the fiction I've read.  (I've got The Testament by John Grisham via the Kindle app and only realized after reading it there that I had purchased a paperback version years earlier and read it then.)  What does survive on occasion is the kind of glow I felt while reading the book.  Based on that feeling, Rope Burns, which gives an insider's view of the sport, is a good read for a long weekend. 

* * * * *

Every writer knows that readers are silent contributors to the work being read.  The reader's prior experience blends with the printed words on the page to produce a unique interpretation.  I suppose something similar happens with film directors and the audience that watches their movies.   The above is meant to show some of what I brought to the viewing of Cinderella Man.  Thinking this way, I wondered what Ron Howard, the film's director, brought with him into the making of the movie.  Of course, we all know his TV bio, but I was ignorant of his personal history.  I found his Wikipedia entry and learned that he and I are pretty close in age.  He is ten months my senior.

I wondered if he too had read It Takes Heart as a kid and whether that served as a gateway for him into the making of Cinderella Man.  In trying to answer that question I found this interview on NPR, which makes for a good read.  It seems that Ron's dad, Rance Howard, had been a fight fan, so Ron got the father-son entry into boxing that I mentioned above vis-à-vis baseball.  He had no need to read It Takes Heart to appreciate the Jim Braddock story.

The first time I watched Cinderella Man the housing bubble had yet to burst.  At the time it seemed like a boxing movie with the Great Depression as a backdrop, adding a crescendo to the story, and perhaps lingering too long on Braddock's family situation.  Boxing fans want to watch that part of the movie.  It's okay to tie the poverty to the motive for being a fighter.  But once that motive is clear enough, the rest just seems like piling on.

I watched it again a few nights ago.   I was merely looking for some diversion, nothing more.  What I found was an entirely different picture than what I had seen the first time through.  This time it seemed more a portrait of the Great Depression than anything else.  Given the times in which we live, having a feel for the Great Depression should be an indispensable part of our common heritage.  That makes Cinderella Man an important movie to consider.

In the film, Braddock takes a fight knowing he has a broken hand - he desperately needs the prize money.  But this proves to be a mistake.  He breaks his hand further during the fight.  And the fight is ruled a No Contest.  The prize money is withheld and Braddock loses his boxing license as a consequence.  Desperate for work he seeks a job as a day laborer.  There are many other guys who do likewise.  They too can't find a regular job.  Each of them are in the same grim boat as Braddock.  Only a handful get selected by the foreman.  The first time around, Braddock isn't one of them.

On the Waterfront has similar grim scenes where longshoremen swarm at the gate hoping to be selected for a day's work.  Of course, the two films are set at different times.  But the real difference for me as a viewer is that the Marlon Brando character, apart from raising pigeons, had no dependents.  Braddock, in contrast, has a wife and a bunch of young kids at home.  He is responsible for their welfare but is unable to provide for them.  Looking at these scenes as a parent, I wondered what I would do were I in his shoes.

There is a poignant scene where the oldest son has stolen a salami from the local delicatessen. The family didn't have enough to eat and in some sense the son was providing for the family because the father couldn't.  But they are a proud family and tried to be honest and do things the right way.  Stealing wasn't right.  So father and son go back to the deli to return the salami.  Afterward the father asks the son why he did it.  The son tells the story of a friend who got sent away because his family didn't have enough food.  The son is afraid of likewise being sent away.  He wants to stay with the family.  You can see this story tearing up the father on the inside.  The father promises the son that he will never be sent away.

* * * * *

My parents came of age during the Great Depression.  My dad graduated from NYU in 1933, then from Columbia Law School in 1936.  I believe he lived with his parents, then and after.  I don't know his entire work history.  He probably didn't face quite the income uncertainty that Braddock faced, because of his education.  College men were comparatively scarce at the time.  But I believe he would have considered himself poor during the 1930s and perhaps during the 1940s as well.  There were many behaviors learned at the time to economize on spending.  Some of those behaviors survived till his passing.  I've written elsewhere that when he did the shopping he would always buy the knockoff brand, never the name brand.  He was also far from generous in leaving a tip, when we'd go out to dinner as a family.  Even in buying toys for the grandkids, he would get cheapie stuff, though I found plenty of those toys when I cleaned out their condo last March.

My mom may have been more extreme in her poverty, growing up in Nazi Germany and her dad an actor who couldn't find work.  She probably knew hunger and may have experienced it often.  Unlike Braddock, she was not above petty theft in search of food.  When I was a teenager and later as an adult she did some things that embarrassed me when we'd go out to eat.  She would take the uneaten rolls and pats of butter, wrap them in a paper napkin, and put the package into  her purse.  She would rationalize this by my father being a brittle diabetic and that we needed starchy food at home in case he had an insulin reaction.  But this was sheer nonsense as we were perfectly capable of buying the starchy food.  The real reason was that my mother couldn't stand seeing those rolls go to waste.  After all, we were paying for the dinner and the rolls were a part of that.

Ashamed of my parents though I might have been at the time, I now respect their values.  Sometimes I obsess about the excessive spending of my own family, not in comparison with peers nor in relationship to the income we generate, where we seem to live within our means, but might it be that a rainy day comes along before we expect and couldn't we get by with less now just to be more prepared for that eventuality?  It's a thought that's hard to let go of.  How does one get one's children to think likewise when all they've experienced is a very comfortable existence?

Your parents serve as role model even when they aren't trying to do so.  Like my dad, I never coached my boys in sports and never felt a need to do otherwise.  But I insisted they read The Grapes of Wrath, the only book for which I issued such an injunction.  It's a step in the right direction, though it's far from sufficient.  What more might be done?  Perhaps Hollywood could lend a hand here.

I am not suggesting a remake of Cinderella Man.  It is such a fine movie in its own right.  I get why they produce remakes as a business proposition.  The paying audience seems to be pretty habituated.  Doing something fundamentally new is a far riskier proposition, regarding the box office.  But on an artistic level you'd think that directors like Ron Howard, who've had many commercial successes, would want to follow a fresh direction for the story alone.

Not that long ago I watched on the ESPN Classics Network a SportsCentury about Sam Huff, which originally aired in 2004.  Huff was born in the middle of The Great Depression in a coal mining town in West Virginia.  His dad was a miner and the family was dirt poor.  To my untutored eyes, Huff's biography seems eerily similar to that of Mickey Mantle, who was born a few years earlier and whose dad was a lead miner.  My thought is this.  Why not make a movie not from the perspective of the star athlete, as all sports movies I'm aware of do, but rather from the perspective if the parent who raised the budding athlete and then do so for famous athletes born during the 1930s?  This would produce a convincing origins story, something that Hollywood seems to like, and it would open windows into the Great Depression, something we desperately need more of.  Further, such stories would not have the fairy tale aspect that Cinderella Man has, since the fantastic accomplishments of the star athlete only happened decades later, so couldn't possibly alleviate the family's plight during the 1930s.  These stories would be grittier and might be double-edged as a consequence, the parent having a hard side in addition to the love and affection held for the child.  What else would you expect from living in such trying conditions?

For such a film to have some chance in making money, the star athlete must still be prominent in the public consciousness.  For Huff that may no longer be true.  For Mantle it surely is.  And Jane Leavy's biography, The Last Boy, surely has enough information to make a movie no just about Mutt Mantle (Mickey's dad) but also about the various women who raised Mickey.  Isn't it time for a more grounded and less romantic film?

* * * * *

Jim Braddock will always be tied to Joe Louis, as Louis became champ by taking the title from Braddock.  But there is more to it than that.

Prior to the Louis fight, Jim's manager Joe Gould struck up a deal that would give Braddock 10% of the gross with Louis for the next ten years. From 1937 to 1939, Braddock received over $150,000, a lot of money in those days (nearly two million today).
Found here

I've puzzled over this and wondered how it was possible for Gould to get such a contract written.  I'm guessing that Gould had leverage only because Louis was black, but how racial discrimination entered into the fight game in the 1930s I don't understand.  That would be another flavorful story to tell, though perhaps not in movie form.  I, for one, would be interested in learning the history.

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