May 31, 2008

a Pathex 9.5 mm fight picture

Upon seeing a copy of Fight Pictures, several people have asked "What's that image on the cover?" Good question. Certainly it is the most obscure illustration of the 50+ I gave the publisher's design team. But they made the right call by putting frames from the Pathex 9.5mm film Boxing Form (1924) on the cover. Talk about an orphan . . .

First, the odd gauge Nine Five has survival and preservation issues that surpass many others. The films came in 20-meter (ca. 65') cartridges or "bobbins," rather than conventional reels. Titles and intertitles were printed on a single frame, which the
Pathe Baby or Pathex projector would hold for viewers to read. Copying such prints without reprinting the flash frame several times leads to a film or video in which every intertitle is on screen just long enough to be detectable. Certainly not long enough to read.

Near the end of my research for
Fight Pictures, I came across an account of a young flapper/journalist/ countess watching the 1927 Dempsey-Tunney fight on a Pathe home movie projector (just a couple weeks after the big fight). Before closing the book on boxing films as theatrical fare, surely I needed to account for the show-at-homes. Was this unusual to see a topical boxing match at home on film in the 1920s? My search lead me to Pathex, the brand name that the French manufacturer Pathe used for its marketing of 9.5mm film in the U.S.

Thanks to archivist Bill O'Farrell's tips and Jerry Wagner's great, I found an early Pathex release in its 1925 catalog entitled Boxing Form. What was it? Listed as E-3 (the 'E' list being sport subjects), the blurb on the item was rather vague in describing the content.

Northeast Historic Film had an unpreserved copy. Kindly, Rob Nanovich made a scan from a strip of the film. Then a second high-resolution scan, for publication in the book.

(Charles Gilbert Collection, Northeast Historic Film).

The film turned out to feature Gene Tunney (not yet champion) and Jim Corbett (star of the 1894 Edison kinetoscope and the first filmed prizefight in 1897). But that's all I could discern from the scan. The book went to press a year ago.

Boxing Form (1924),
with the flash-frame intertitles "stretch printed" using iMovie.

Now, however, NHF has gotten the movielet transferred to video.
Seeing the choppy series of short scenes -- Corbett and Tunney spar, re-create famous punches in boxing history, sometimes in slow-motion; Jack Dempsey trains with lightweights; Tunney trains -- it's clear that this 3-minute novelty was a cut-down of a longer film. The opening credits tell us that it was a Grantland Rice 'Sportlight' film called On Guard. I've discovered nothing about this longer short film, but popular sports writer Rice's syndicated Sportlight newspaper column led to a deal with Pathe Exchange, Inc. to 'brand' a series of sports films. These were widely distributed theatrically in the 20s. And their reduction prints on 9.5mm made it to Pathex catalogs fairly rapidly after the 35mm first release.

Pathe's attempt to market 9.5mm film in the U.S. lasted about a decade after being introduced for Christmas 1922. Few American households adopted it, particularly after Kodak launched its 8mm format in 1932. At most, a few hundred copies of Boxing Form went out to homes with Pathex projectors.

Among those viewers and collectors who still care about boxing, films of celebrated prizefi
ghters are highly sought after. There's not a big wow factor in this little movie, but seeing Messrs. Dempsey, Tunney and Corbett in these obscure settings will pique the fight film fans' interest. I find the super-slo-mo footage matching the 19th-century champion Corbett with the up-and-coming Tunney odd. By choosing to film the men sparring on a New York rooftop in the open air, the 1924 filmmaker (credited as John L. Hawkinson, about whom I've found nothing but a couple of society notices from the 1930s) was replicating the way such things were done in 1895.

Be sure to check out this odd slow-motion sequence referencing the wild Jack Dempsey - Luis Firpo title fight of 1923.

Presumably, Corbett had this moment in mind.

from Chicago Tribune, Sept. 15.

Not quite like the famous George Bellows painting, depicting a later moment in the fight.

Dempsey and Firpo (1924).

In turn, the Bellows image had an interesting afterlife, as described by the Web exhibition American Treasures of the Library of Congress:

On September 14, 1923, boxers Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo fought at the Polo Grounds in New York. American artist George Bellows captures the moment Firpo sent his opponent over the ropes and into the press box below. The image quickly became an American classic. During Word War II, the U.S. Armed Forces commissioned a photographic facsimile of the print for distribution to soldiers in camps and hospitals.

Bellows has included his self-portrait in the lower left corner of the print.

[The use of the Bellows print as U.S. morale-boosting is interesting, perhaps ironic, because it is the American Dempsey who is getting knocked out of the ring and the Argentinian -- which is not to say protofascist -- Firpo who is displaying might. Or perhaps Uncle Sam was thinking a new generation of American troops would associate Jack Dempsey with the (unfair) tag of slacker/draft-dodger he got right after WWI.]

This news photo seems to indicate that Bellows' perspective, framed 90 degrees away, was a fairly accurate representation.