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15th July 2020
By: Andrew Rihn
Boxing and movies have gone hand-in-hand ever since audiences saw Bob Fitzsimmons KO Gentleman Jim Corbett with a blow to the solar plexus in 1897. High in drama and low in cost, boxing has been a staple subject for the movie industry, from Body and Soul to Requiem for a Heavyweight, from Rocky to Raging Bull. The movies I review, however, won’t be appearing on any Top 10 lists. Or any Top 50, for that matter. But what these B-movies lack in name recognition, they more than make up for with their blunt charisma, their quirks, and their unexpected cameos. These are the sometimes-forgotten pictures that shaped the genre we know today. Join me in rooting for these cinematic underdogs as we explore some of boxing’s Not Quite Classics.
The Contender (1944) is a rudimentary tale of morality set in and around the boxing ring. Its characters are painted in broad strokes and it’s plot contains more formulas than a math textbook. Focused on the central trio of boxer, friend, and love interest, the movie’s lone attempt at novelty comes from the addition of a young child into the otherwise pedestrian mix.
The Contender stars Buster Crabbe, an Olympic swimmer better known as Flash Gordon and lesser-known as Tarzan and Buck Rogers. He plays Gary Farrel, a truck driver, and single father. The central trio is completed by friend and fellow truck driver Biff (played by Glenn Strange who at 6’5” also played Frankenstein’s monster on three occasions) and romantic interest, a journalist named Linda (Arline Judge, who according to Wikipedia is most famous for marrying and divorcing seven times).
Gary is a widower who works as a truck driver. He has a young son, Mickey, who attends a military academy. Gary’s truck driving job won’t cover the tuition, and soon he enters a boxing tournament to earn some quick dough. After winning the tournament, Gary turns pro, and as his star rises he meets Linda, a kind-hearted journalist, but also Rita, a gold-digging fight fan. His pugilistic success supplies his moral test, and through the vanity of his ego, he fails. He loses the big fight, and more importantly, he loses the respect of those around him. Gary is disconsolate and skips town. But his friends, indefatigable, track him down and the movie ends with a happy reunion.
The Contender offers little in the way of originality, but its unoriginality becomes itself an occasion to examine the tropes, devices, and stereotypes that populate the lowest common denominator of boxing movies. What is striking about so many early boxing movies, The Contender (1944) included is that success in the ring rarely equates to success in life. Raising the championship belt over one’s head isn’t what’s really important, these movies say. Instead, victory in the ring and the acclaim that follows presents a challenge to the moral fortitude of our characters. And, as is the case with The Contender, the main character typically fails that test.
This failure humanizes the prizefighter. Gary is like so many others: a strong man with weakness in his soul. He works hard for his triumphs, but as if drawn by the bright lights of success, greed and selfishness rise from the murkier depths of his personality. Yet these movies, almost without fail, argue these men are deserving of a second chance, worthy of redemption. And acts of forgiveness become profound lessons in empathy, the moral antidote to the selfishness displayed by the champions.
The redemption arc is something we look for in real-life boxing as well. Ali-Frazier. Leonard-Duran. Gatti-Ward. Fury-Wilder. Everyone loves a good comeback story. We seek it in religion, too. We all feel guilt and shame and we hang on to our own failures long after others have moved on. It’s often unconscious, but we’re constantly seeking out models for catharsis – in the movies, religious texts, the boxing ring. In the failures of these fighters – even the fictional ones – we can better apprehend our own conflicted selves. Through them, we can share the forgiveness and the redemption that follows.
This is a paradox of B-movies that never gets old for me. They demand less from us, and as a result, we can put more of ourselves into them. Precisely because the characters are so generic and forgettable, I am able to locate myself within their story even more. Precisely because the story is not so unique, the cinematography is not so beautiful, or the script is not so inspired, I can transpose its redemption arc onto my own life all the more easily. That is the gift “bad” movies, like The Contender (1944), give us.