Jul 7, 2008

Fight Pics and Orphans at the SF Silent Film Festival

our orphan hero, Ed,
in The Soul of Youth (1920)
aka The Boy.

Thanks to the good people (Stacey Wisnia) at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival there will be a
Fight Pictures book-signing on Saturday, July 12th, at the Castro Theatre. The SFSFF is hosting several authors with books on silent cinema, including Leonard Maltin, Guy Maddin, and Suzanne Lloyd (granddaughter of Harold). Fight Pictures is paired with Richard J. Meyer’s book about China's biggest silent screen star, Ruan Ling-Yu: The Goddess of Shanghai.

This event is, I’m told, the first interaction between the Silent Film Festival and the notable Press across the Bay. With its great list of silent film books, UCP would be an apt annual fit for the SFSFF. This 13th festival runs July 11-13 at the Castro Theatre, with a well programmed lineup of features and shorts – and live musical accompaniment.

The truism “silent films were never silent” is of course correct – except for the peculiar genre of fight pictures. These virtually never had musical accompaniment. Instead of music, fight pictures had screen-side announcers telling spectators what to watch for – the knockout “solar-plexus punch” in Veriscope’s
Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897), the questionable performance of the old master Joe Gans (“was he taking a dive, ladies and gentlemen?”) as filmed by Selig Polyscope in the McGovern-Gans Fight Pictures (1900), or the Australian constabulary stopping the Gaumont cameras as Jack Johnson’s finished off Tommy Burns in 1908.

San Francisco plays a large role in
Fight Pictures. The city was home to William A. Brady, the film and theater impresario who also managed two heavyweight title holders, Gentleman Jim Corbett (of S.F.) and Jim Jeffries. When New York booted out prizefighting in 1900, boxing flourished in the Bay Area for a decade.

Also central to the story of
Fight Pictures are the Miles brothers, whose film distribution firm was large enough to challenge the largest motion picture companies of the early 1900s. That was until the 1906 earthquake and fires devastated their vaults, theater, and headquarters. Nevertheless, between 1901 (when Edison cameras filmed Jeffreys [sic] and Ruhlin Sparring Contest at San Francisco, Cal.) and 1908 (when Selig recorded the third title bout between Battling Nelson and Joe Gans, in Youknowwhere, Cal.) the Miles brothers were the only camera crew to shoot any prizefight in the United States. The genre was their own -- until the United States outlawed the interstate trafficking in fight films in 1912.

Fight Pictures
book-signing begins
after the 11:40 am screening of

The Soul of Youth (1920, William Desmond Taylor) A humanistic portrait of society's unloved orphans and unlawful urchins, combined with the story of a power struggle between a reformer and a corrupt politician. (80 mins.) Preceded by an animated comedy, The Old Family Toothbrush (1925), which, unlikely as it may seem, is a boxing film!


The first fight picture: a staged sparring match.
Leonard-Cushing Fight (Edison, June 1894)

The biggest event of Edison’s kinetoscope era. Heavyweight champion and matinee idol Jim Corbett is paid to spar before the camera.
Corbett and Courtney before the Kinetograph
(Edison, Sept. 1894)


A Miles Bros. film, showing a spectacular first-round knockout.
International Contest for the Heavyweight Championship--Squires vs. Burns, Ocean View, Cal., July 4th, 1907

The dramatic conclusion of
World Championship, Jack Johnson vs. Stanley Ketchell [i.e., Ketchel] (1909)
Filmed by the Kalem Co. for promoter Jim Coffroth

Correspondence welcome: Dan.Streible@NYU.edu

More about
Fight Pictures at

the Orphan Film Symposium blog

Luke McKernan’s blog The Bioscope

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy, summer book recommendations