Jan 2, 2009

Film posters for lost films

Apropos yesterday's posting about the National Film Registry, here's some recent "news" about a title -- Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest -- added to the Registry in 2005.

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An NYU Cinema Studies grad student, June Tan, took some snapshots of items now on exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. "Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture" includes this extraordinary movie poster.

This color lithographic poster is one meter tall. It was made by the Adolph Friedlander Lithography Company, a Hamburg printer that the National Portrait Gallery says was "known for its circus advertising."

Although the research in Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema (U of Cal Press, 2008) was fairly exhaustive from the U.S. end of things, an artifact like this opens up new questions about this most notorious of fight films. What was the "Union" A.G. in Frankfurt? As for Monopol, early leader in feature-length film distribution, was this fight picture not against the grain of the company's otherwise artistically ambitious, European preferences for "features"? How widely was the film seen across Europe? with what reception?

There is no definitive version of this film record of the heavyweight championship in which champion Jack Johnson knocked out the "white hope" Jim Jeffries. The German poster refers to the film as Championship-Match Johnson-Jeffries. The production received U.S. copyright under the title Jeffries-Johnson World's Championship Boxing Contest, Held at Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910 (© December 7, 1910). The "J. & J. Co." held the rights. This entity was set up to take in the profits, which were split among the boxers, managers, and picture people.

When state and municipal censorship prevented many screenings of the Johnson-Jeffries Fight (as it was more commonly known), the usual means of distribution via the Motion Picture Patents Company's General Film Co. did not suffice. Because of its contraband status and the enormous audience demand for the film worldwide, the footage of the much hyped match was copied, cut, recut, imitated, duped, and retitled in many forms.

Lewis Hine photo, New York nickelodeon, Aug. 1910

The German exhibition of the film no doubt meant that some new intertitles were added to Monopol prints, a practice that would have been repeated in each marketplace where English would not suffice. There are records of the Johnson-Jeffries Fight being shown in India, South Africa, Japan, Argentina, Cuba, China, and elsewhere.

Alternate cuts of the film were also made according to varying local standards about race. On other occasions, abbreviated editions of the movie were made. The fight, after all, went on for 15 rounds (about an hour of screen time, not counting the preliminary footage).

When the fight picture was commercially re-released in 1922 (by parties unknown), ads noted:

By a new process of enlargement, the first time used in motion picture photography, the action is brought up far closer than ever before in any fight film. Enables you to see every move made and every blow struck for the entire 15 full rounds.
ad in the Chicago Defender, January 21, 1922.

In fact, the dozen or so Vitagraph cinematographers who cranked out the footage in 1910 framed the ring at a great distance. Certainly the movie spectator's view of the boxing was less than ideal. So apparently some enterprising person or group had the entire film optically printed with tighter framing on the action. Quite a length to go to for a twelve-year-old topical film, demonstrating the high degree of interest there was in Johnson's fight against Jeffries.

And we must not forget that before the authentic recording was released, competing films were rushed to market: Impersonation of the Johnson-Jeffries Fight (Toledo Film Exchange), Jeffries-Johnson Fight (another reenactment, Empire Film Co.), and the "no fake" fake Johnson-Jeffries (Sports Picture Co., below) among them.
ad in Moving Picture World

All of these imitations presumably no longer exist.  •