BY MARK POLLARD /December 7, 2005
Boxing is seemingly the only form of hand-to-hand combat Hollywood consistently tries to take seriously. Maybe it's because boxing defines the American spirit. Like bullfighting, it's a controversial sport that simultaneously creates heroes amid great moments of human drama and pummels fighters' bodies and minds irreversibly into pulp in a modern form of gladiatorial spectacle fueled by big money. Say what you will about the real world of boxing, but in the movies it's the human drama that delivers the knockout and such is the case with Ron Howard's finest film to date.
Cinderella Man is a largely faithful biopic of Depression-era heavyweight champion Jim Braddock. What sets this film apart is its subject matter: Braddock was not only an underdog like Rocky Balboa, a fierce competitor like Jake La Motta, a champion of the people like Muhammad Ali, and someone who never gave up despite heavy odds, he was also a man of integrity who put his family before pride and the pursuit of success during one of the darkest periods in American history. It's a story that flies in defiance to modern thinking , which is dominated by the pursuit of material gain, self gratification and notoriety.
Despite early success as a boxer and a record of having never been knocked out, several injuries including a broken right hand and their impact on his increasingly poor ring performances cause Braddock to lose his boxing license just as the stock market crashes in 1929 and the Great Depression begins. Unable to earn a living as a boxer in New Jersey, Braddock joins thousands of unemployed as he struggles to provide for his wife Mae and three children by daily looking for menial labor, grudgingly accepting government handouts and standing in breadlines. He even resorts to selling his boxing equipment and asking his old associates for help in paying his heating bill during the winter. But his manager Joe Gould never gives up on his old friend, and within a few years arranges to have Jim return to fill in for another boxer. Out of shape and forced to wear borrowed gear, Braddock still manages an upset victory that sets him on a course to fight the charismatic, yet brutal Max Baer for the heavyweight championship of the world.
The majority of the film is not focused on Braddock's boxing matches, but rather on his struggles outside the ring during the Depression. Most of them reinforce his character. Such things as Braddock's insistence on returning his welfare income once he starts making money again almost seems like a Hollywood contrivance, but by all accounts this and other aspects of his upstanding character were true. This is what really makes the film great. Like Ali, we're dealing with an intriguing personality who is larger than life, although in a vastly different way. Braddock's not fighting for respect, or sparring any inner demons. Quite simply, he's fighting for milk for his kids. And like so many others, he's battling poverty, despair, and shame--the shadowy foes of the Depression threatening to swallow his family. "Let me take my punches in the ring," the film's Braddock tells his worried wife, Mae. "At least I know who's hitting me."
Jim Braddock was dubbed the "Cinderella Man" for his rise from poverty to world boxing champion. For struggling right along with the rest of America during the Depression, only to make a historic comeback, he became an inspiration for many people at a time when hope was in short supply. It's a feel-good story about endurance, integrity and family values overcoming great odds. This may not be original or flashy, but it's a great story that deserved to be told and was done so extremely well.
Here's something on the life and times of the real Jim Braddock:
Q. How popular was boxing during the 1930s?
A. It was huge--as popular as baseball, and maybe more so. Heavyweight champions were superstars, with a Michael Jordan-like fame. Fans by the tens of thousands thronged to see the big matches, with millions more avidly following via radio and the colorful stories of newspaper sportswriters.
Q. How accurately is the Depression era shown?
A. Watching a recreation of painful historical episodes isn't always fun. After all, the Depression was so depressing. But at the same time, historical films provide a time-capsule thrill of watching a long-past era spring to life. In brown and sepia tones, Cinderella Man perfectly captures the bleakness and the despair of the Depression--the squalor, the Hooverville shacks, the hollow eyes and grim faces. It's the next best thing to being there. On second thought, it's better.
Q. Did Braddock actually fight with a broken hand?
A. He did. More than once in fact, and it was the constant hand injuries that ended his career for the first time. Braddock's most celebrated qualities as a boxer were his tenacity, and his ability to fight through intense pain. He took pride in being knocked out only once in his long career, by Joe Louis, two years after the film's events.
Q. Did the Braddock kids really get sent away?
A. Yes, and for a longer time than shown in the film. His inability to pay the bills and keep the family together during the bitter winter of 1934 was the final straw that sent Jim to the relief agency, and in the film's most poignant moment, literally begging for help.
Q. Did Jim only have two days' notice of his first comeback fight against
Corn Griffin? And did he go into it without having eaten all day?
A. The two days' notice is accurate. Braddock later said he would have fought on two hours' notice, so badly did he need the money. As for the growling stomach--it's a great moment in the film, but whether or not Jim actually tried to gulp down hash that his manager Joe Gould brought him minutes before the fight is unknown. But after the fight, he did say, "I did this on hash, Joe. Imagine what I could do on steak."
Q. Did Braddock give back the money he had gotten while on relief? Isn't
that a little too good to be true?
A. It is, but happened nonetheless. Like many people, Braddock was intensely ashamed about the relief money he had received. With his fight earnings growing in 1935, Braddock was eager to pay it back. Sportswriters discovered the story just weeks before his fight against heavy weight champion Max Baer, and to Braddock's embarrassment, splashed the story everywhere. Yet it was this action, as well as Braddock's improbable soupline-to-heavyweight-contender story, which endeared him to millions. By the time of the fight, seemingly the entire country stood firmly in Braddock's corner, while betting--assuming they had money--on Baer.
Q. Did Max Baer really act so badly towards Braddock before their fight?
A. Poor Max Baer comes out here much worse than he really was. Every film needs a juicy villain, and fact-based films usually exaggerate the villainy of the token bad guy. Although Baer publicly disparaged Braddock as an unworthy opponent, he never taunted Braddock about killing men in the ring. In fact, the death of his opponent Frankie Campbell (in the newsreel clip shown in the film) haunted Baer throughout his life.
Q. Did Mae beg her husband not to fight Baer?
A. No. In reality, Mae shared Jim's thrill at his opportunity to fight for the heavyweight title, and of course, his delight in the substantial purse money he'd receive, win or lose.
Yet Mae did worry constantly about potential injuries, and refused to watch Jim's matches in person. As a viewer, I can certainly relate. It was tough to watch Russell Crowe's mug getting so mauled. Boxing can be sadistic, and the film doesn't flinch from that aspect of the sport.