Hollywood always has been obsessed with boxing. If the Evander Holyfield-George Foreman championship bout whets your pugilistic appetite, go a round or two with these boxing films available on video.
John Garfield is a tough boxer who goes on the lam after he thinks he murdered a reporter in 1939's melodrama They Made Me a Criminal (public domain), a virtual scene-by-scene remake of the 1933 Douglas Fairbanks Jr. flick "The Life of Jimmy Dolan." Strange footnote: Busby Berkeley, who choreographed the outrageous musical numbers in "42nd Street" and "Footlight Parade," was the director of "They Made Me a Criminal."
A then-20-year-old William Holden made his film debut in 1939's Golden Boy (RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video), based on Clifford Odets' hit 1937 play. Holden plays a poor New York violinist who discovers he can make money fast as a boxer, so he gives up his bow for boxing gloves. Lee J. Cobb, then only in his 20s, plays Holden's loving father; Barbara Stanwyck is the tough gal Holden loves.
Nearly three decades before Warren Beatty made the fantasy "Heaven Can Wait," Robert Montgomery starred in the delicious 1941 original Here Comes Mr. Jordan (RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video). Montgomery, who received a best actor nomination, is a sweet-natured boxer who finds himself in heaven decades too soon because of an eager guardian angel. When given a new body, Montgomery gets into shape to fight the world champion. Look for a young Lloyd Bridges as a heavenly pilot.
Eight years after "They Made Me a Criminal," John Garfield starred in his best film, Body and Soul (Republic Pictures Home Video), penned by Abraham Polansky and directed within an inch of its life by Robert Rossen. Garfield is Charlie Davis, a New York street kid who punches a wallop and gets mixed up with the mob in order to get a crack at the best bouts. Lili Palmer, Anne Revere and the wonderful Canada Lee also star in this multi-Oscar-nominated drama. James Wong Howe supplied the evocative black-and-white cinematography--he got the wonderful fight footage by getting into the ring with his camera and following the actors around the canvas on roller skates.
Kirk Douglas had only been making movies for three years when he landed the starring role in 1949's The Champion (Republic Pictures Home Video). His unflinching performance made him a superstar and gave him his first Oscar nomination, for best actor. The movie is a tough, depressing account of a ruthless boxer who destroys everything and everybody on his way to the top. Mark Robson directed; editor Harry Gerstad received an Oscar.
A young Paul Newman is a tad too handsome, but still powerful in 1956's Somebody Up There Likes Me (MGM/UA Home Video). Newman plays pugilist Rocky Graziano, who went from being a New York street punk to world champion. Robert Wise of "The Set-Up" directed. Look for Steve McQueen in a brief but telling part. Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg received an Oscar. Beware colorized versions.
Elvis Presley even got into the ring--in 1962's Kid Galahad (MGM/UA Home Video). Far from a knockout, the drama with music was originally made in 1937 with Wayne Morris and Bette Davis and in 1941 as "The Wagons Roll at Night" with Humphrey Bogart. Presley plays a garage mechanic who becomes a world champion boxer and still manages to find the time to sing six songs. Gig Young and Charles Bronson also star.
James Earl Jones became the second black performer to ever be nominated for a best actor Oscar (Sidney Poitier was the first) thanks to his larger-than-life performance in 1970's The Great White Hope (CBS/Fox Video), based on the hit Broadway play for which Jones won a Tony Award. Jones plays black heavyweight champion Jack Jefferson, whose relationship with his white mistress (Jane Alexander, also from the Broadway cast) ends his boxing career. Martin Ritt directed.
Of course, the winner and still champion of boxing films is Martin Scorsese's 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull (MGM/UA Home Video), which topped most film critics' lists as the best film of its decade. The black and white film is lyrical, violent, harsh, expressionistic-- exceptional . What could have been a pedestrian, albeit predictable, re-telling of the rise and fall of a boxer is turned into a modern-day Greek tragedy under the guidance of Scorsese. It's hard to imagine "Raging Bull" without, quite literally, the heavyweight, Oscar-winning performance of Robert De Niro as prizefighter Jake LaMotta--a difficult, unappealing, angry man who went from the top of his profession to an overweight, burned-out night club performer. Recent Oscar-winner Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty co-star. The graphic boxing sequences are not for the squeamish.