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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Saturday, December 10, 2005

At Least They Got His Name Right

I watched Cinderella Man last night, and although it started kinda slow, it ended up being a well-done, moving story. I wouldn't go as far as Larry King, who called it "one of the best movies ever!" (according to the back cover of the DVD), but it's worth watching, particularly if your other option is studying for finals.

Now that I've got that positive review out of the way, I want to rip the movie for a minutia that irked me. Boxing movies always need a villain. But the story of James J. Braddock didn't have a good one - Braddock's struggle was against the tough times of the Great Depression. So instead, the screenwriters/director/whoever decided to take Braddock's opponent in the film's climactic fight, Max Baer, and turn him into an unapologetic, murderous prick.

Even while watching the movie, Baer's character seemed so ridiculously villainous that I began assuming it had to be an exaggeration. So I looked up a little bit about Max Baer, and no surprise, Baer seemed like a good guy outside the ring.

Baer was known for being a carousing, Hollywood type, and the film did get that right - he shows up at a restaurant with a big fur coat and an entourage at one point. Baer actually acted in many movies (which were apparently reviewed well), he was married twice, and he also had an affair with a Hollywood starlet.

I find it hard to believe that Baer was the sneering bully that the movie portrayed him as, though. Baer did showboat in the ring, but that seemed to be more an extension of his Hollywood flair. As for the movie character who spits quotes like, "People die in fairy tales all the time," and implies that after he kills Braddock in the ring, he'll sleep with Braddock's widow, it seems unlikely from a guy who was once quoted as saying, "I never had a fight out of the ring. I never harmed anyone outside the ring. I loved people."

Baer did kill someone in the ring - that part of the movie is true, all the way down to the diagnosis of a loosened brain - but it wasn't a matter of pride for Baer. He was charged (and acquitted) of manslaughter, banned from boxing in California for a year, and, depressed, proceeded to lose four of his next six fights. Remorseful, he ultimately put that fighter's children through college.

(Incidentally, the boxer who Baer killed, Frankie Campbell, was the brother of 1941 NL MVP Dolph Camilli, who played three-plus seasons with the Phillies. Camilli still ranks sixth on the Phils' all-time slugging percentage list at .510.)

Baer also became a prominent figure in the Jewish community. His father was Jewish, but he was raised Catholic, his mother's faith. Nevertheless, after he beat German fighter Max Schmeling (telling him, "That one's for Hitler" during the bout), he began wearing a Star of David on his shorts when he fought. Not surprisingly, Baer wasn't popular in Germany after the fight, and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, banned his films. Apparently, you can see the Star of David on Baer's trunks in Cinderella Man, although I missed it.

Baer, far from a burning desire to kill Jim Braddock in the ring, instead didn't even give him much thought. According to Baer's son (who later played Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies), "He didn't take Braddock seriously, he didn't train, and he got a BJ before the fight."

Anyway, I don't think Baer was given a fair shake in the movie, and apparently, I'm not the only one. If you're interested, here's some more Max Baer reading for you:
Fight Snub - Slate
Max Baer - Wikipedia
Some Baer Facts on Cinderella Man's Max - FreeRepublic


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