After watching Errol Flynn corral the Old West in Dodge City (1939) and sail the seven seas as The Sea Hawk (1940s) it’s simultaneously refreshing and bizarre watching him play an average bank teller turned pugilist in Gentleman Jim. Unlike other boxing movies where the rise to the top and the big takedown of the heavyweight champ drives the narrative, Gentleman Jim is a lot like Errol Flynn himself: content to skirt by on charm and if something good happens, run with it.
With the turn of the century arrive, boxing is perceived as a low sport. Hoping to turn a “gentleman into a boxer,” Jim Corbett (Flynn) decides to use the boxing game as a means of self-promotion and upward social mobility.
Unlike the previous Flynn titles we’ve reviewed, there’s a lighter quality to this, as if director Raoul Walsh and company were more interested in having fun than creating something legendary. Gone are the grandiose speeches (and even more grandiose sets and situations), in favor of telling the simple story of a boxer who makes good while retaining his flippant sense of charm. Flynn’s Jim Corbett is a gender-swapped Becky Sharpe whose self-promotion and self-aggrandizement is charming, easily winning people over to his side – or, in the case of love interest Victoria Ware, creating a love/hate relationship. (The ultimate proof that Becky Sharpe needed to be born Robert Sharpe!)
Gentleman Jim was meant to show Flynn’s range outside of elaborate costumes and sans swords. Though the real Jim Corbett was far from the film’s depiction of him – allegedly Corbett was a soft-spoken, shy man – Flynn takes his romantic rascal and brings him in line with 1800s San Francisco. You could say Flynn’s depiction is entirely anachronistic, devoid of the staid trappings commonly associated with the era, but that’s the appeal. Corbett isn’t interested in being an old fuddy-duddy despite his desire to be accepted by the members of the Olympic Club.
Timing wasn’t Flynn’s friend during the filming of Gentleman Jim. Not only did Flynn have a mild heart attack during production, he was also brought up on rape charges, leaving Flynn’s declaration of “I’m no gentleman” at the end laughably correct. But it is this symbiosis between character and reality that works in Gentleman Jim’s favor. You laugh at Jim’s bravado all with the knowledge that it’s Flynn’s bravado. The boxing notwithstanding, there are several moments that left me saying, “This is just Flynn on a Tuesday.” Come on, you want me to believe that wasn’t the first time Flynn got tanked and woke up in Salt Lake City?
I’d be remiss talking about a boxing film without mentioning the fights themselves. Despite the mayor’s fear that boxing has become gross and scummy, Flynn makes the sport look as classy as he is! This was a time where coaches spit hooch in their pugilists’ face, everyone! The camera whirls around the fighters in an elegant dance. When Jim gets in the ring with John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond), Bond actually hits the camera in a moment remarkably unplanned or even more skillfully choreographed. Because Jim is such a gent the film culminates with honor amongst fighters as Sullivan arrives to pay homage to the man who bested him.
Gentleman Jim also has quite the ensemble of character actors, all of whom create genuine warmth and humor in their roles. This marks the third film we’ve covered this month teaming up Alan Hale with Errol Flynn. Where in previous films Hale was Flynn’s sidekick, he’s Flynn’s father here. The stand-out, though, is young Jack Carson in the last of four films he starred in in 1942. Because he’s Jack Carson and his best friend is Errol Flynn, he’s stuck playing second banana, trying to get the girl but opening the door for Flynn to snatch her up.
Speaking of, Alexis Smith is probably the film’s weakest element. Walsh and crew originally wanted Rita Hayworth as Victoria Ware, and it’s easy to see why. Victoria is as brassy and bold as Jim, calling him out on his braggadocio and his continued need to dominate her, a perfect Hayworth vehicle. However, Smith is just too polished and prim to take Flynn on, cold.
“Why doesn’t daddy look like that in his underwear?” Apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling weird about Flynn in those tights. Gentleman Jim was a thoroughly enjoyable film that isn’t wrapped up in boxing so much as it’s wrapped up in the masculinity associated with the sport. If only boxing was as elegant today as Jim makes it look.
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