Boxing is an illegal and disreputable sport in 1890s San Francisco. Nevertheless that does not stop rambunctious bank teller and fight enthusiast Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn) joining the huge crowd at a match between two bare-knuckle brawlers, even though it lands him in jail. Corbett's irrepressible enthusiasm and fast-talking charm convinces influential members of the prestigious Olympic Club to legitimize boxing as a 'gentlemanly' sport. However, his bluster and confidence rub some up the wrong way including beautiful socialite Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith). Attempting to take Corbett down a peg, the wealthy club patrons arrange a fight with a formidable opponent. To the surprise of everyone, Corbett knocks out the British boxing champion! When snooty patrons expel Corbett's pal, Walter Lowrie (Jack Carson) from a celebratory banquet, the good-natured boxer leaves with him in protest. After a night of carousing, they discover Corbett agreed to take on a seasoned boxer in a professional fight staged by promoter Billy Delaney (William Frawley). Which makes Corbett ponder whether he has what it takes to make a career out of this boxing lark.
You bet he does. For this was a biopic of famed pugilist and silent film star James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, based on his autobiography “The Roar of the Crowd” albeit with considerable dramatic license. Hollywood icon Errol Flynn, famously himself no slouch with a right hook, rated Gentleman Jim his personal favourite among his many celebrated roles. Indeed in subsequent years there were many, including influential critic, film historian and director Peter Bogdanovich, who would claim the film features Flynn's finest work as an actor. Certainly Flynn took his role seriously and performed the majority of the boxing sequences without a stunt double although his legendary off-screen antics inevitably took their toll. Whilst filming Corbett's epic climactic bout with Heavyweight Champion John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond, magnificently larger than life), Flynn suffered a minor heart-attack. True to form he was back on his feet in no time and despite the pleas of co-star Alexis Smith refused to change his hard-drinking ways.
Blessed with a dynamic screen charisma, Flynn is thoroughly charming. In real life Corbett was supposedly far more humble and self-effacing but Flynn plays him as an affable rogue who talks big but backs up every word. He is confident without being insufferable, never without a big, beaming smile on his face and courteous to everyone he meets. Even those that think little of him. Signaled early on by a key line of dialogue ("That's the guy they pay. The guy that talks up") the moral of the movie, while dubious to modern eyes, suited the bold and brassy Forties. If a man thinks big and talks big, he will achieve big things. At the same time there are more dimensions to Corbett than mere braggadocio. His gallantry both in and out of the ring does much to change the image of boxing and elevate the sport out of the dark alleys into big public arenas as a 'gentleman's sport.' Crucial to the film is the climactic exchange between Corbett and Sullivan, beautifully scripted and played by both actors, that stresses the warmth and respect between the two fighters and melts the heart of his harshest critic: Vicky. Interestingly, Corbett's most relentless antagonist is also his love interest. Offended by his cocky attitude, Vicky longs to see some other prize fighter knock his block off. She even stumps up the cash to make his title fight with Sullivan a reality. This decidedly unconventional romance adds another fresh element to a lively comedy-drama.
Regally lovely Alexis Smith had already acted opposite Errol Flynn in her first film Dive Bomber (1941). She partnered with many of the great leading men of the era with her favourite role opposite Bing Crosby in Frank Capra's musical comedy Here Comes the Groom (1951). In later years Smith had great success on Broadway, winning a Tony award for her role in Stephen Sondheim's Follies in 1972. She remained active on both the big screen and television, notably on Dallas, and died shortly after completing her final role in Martin Scorsese's sumptuous period romance The Age of Innocence (1993). Also worth mentioning is musical comedy staple Jack Carson who adds a welcome, vulnerable counterpoint to Flynn's bravado. He plays a man who is hesitant, uncertain and who sadly misses opportunities yet is beloved by Corbett who defends him at every turn.
As directed by the great Raoul Walsh, a still-underrated Hollywood master, Gentleman Jim mixes rollicking comedy with bare-knuckle action and social satire. The well written script establishes the link between sporting success and social mobility as Jim pulls his lovably unruly Irish-American working class family - headed by Alan Hale, Flynn's former Little John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), - up with him. It also addresses the social tensions that arise when working stiffs mingle with "Nob Hill" snobs as Corbett takes on class prejudice. Walsh stages the fights for knockabout comedy without shying away from the brutality of a sport where burly, sweaty guys belt the hell out of each other. Snappy editing, a staple of Warner Brothers films at that time, including montages by Don Siegel, ensures the film stays as footloose as Jim Corbett. It moves fantastically well unlike so many period films these days. Wonderful production design vividly conjures the sights and sounds of the milieu. You can practically smell the streets. Walsh deftly mixes grit and sweat with the warmth and romance of nostalgia crafting a film with wince-inducing action that is somehow also laugh-out-loud funny and remarkably uplifting.
American director with a talent for crime thrillers. Originally an actor (he played John Wilkes Booth in Birth of a Nation) his biggest silent movie successes were The Thief of Bagdad and What Price Glory? He lost an eye while directing In Old Arizona, but went on to steady work helming a variety of films throughout the thirties, including The Bowery and Artists and Models.
After directing The Roaring Twenties, Walsh really hit his stride in the forties: They Drive By Night, High Sierra, Gentleman Jim, The Strawberry Blonde, Desperate Journey, Objective Burma!, Colorado Territory and the gangster classic White Heat were all highlights. Come the fifties, films included A Lion is in the Streets and The Naked and the Dead, but the quality dipped, although he continued working into the sixties. He also directed the infamous Jack Benny film The Horn Blows at Midnight (which isn't that bad!).