Boxing is ideally suited for filming. There are only two participants and they interact in a small space. These considerations weren't lost on Thomas Edison when he and his laboratory staff in West Orange, N.J. were developing the pioneering motion picture camera, the strip kinetograph, in the early 1890s. They produced the world's first fight film in 1894, despite the limitations of the camera and the fact that at the time boxing was illegal in New Jersey as well as almost everywhere else in the U.S.
Edison worked with William Dickson, the lab's chief photographer, in developing the strip kinetograph, the first camera that could record motion. The two required a studio for filming, so Dickson had a 25-by-30-foot black tar-paper shack built next to the lab.
"We were looking for service, not art," Edison wrote later about his shack, which became known as the "Black Maria," the world's first building erected expressly as a movie studio. The roof opened, and the entire building was placed on pivots to follow the sun's light for natural illumination.
Next came the problem of what to film. "We needed to make our arrangement of scenes just as obvious and simple as possible," Edison wrote, "[for audiences] hadn't been trained to visualize more than one thought at a time." One short film showed a man sneezing. Eventually, wrestlers, fencers, acrobats, performing bears, the exotic dancer Carmencita and strongman Eugene Sandow performed before Edison's camera.
But more compelling attractions were needed if the cinema was, as one Edison biographer wrote, "to offer the poor man an effective substitute for the saloon." Boxing came to the rescue. On June 15, 1894, two 130-pound fighters from Brooklyn, Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing, went to West Orange to fight six one-minute rounds in a 12-foot square ring set up in the Black Maria.
Because boxing was banned, secrecy was required, and some newspaper accounts later claimed that at the time of the filming Edison was in the mountains in northern New Jersey checking on his iron ore separating plants. The New York World of June 16, however, reported that the excited inventor was at ringside. " Mr. Edison tossed his long locks out of his eyes and imitated every movement of the fighters," the account related.
There were problems with filming the fight. One was the camera, which held only about one minute of film and required seven minutes for changing reels. Thus "rounds" lasted roughly one minute each, instead of three, and the long rest periods made it seem to those at the studio that there were six short and separate bouts instead of one long one. Leonard knocked out Cushing in the sixth—surprise!—and afterward told The World he would have hit Cushing harder, faster and more often, but Edison had been good to him, and he didn't want to move so quickly that the camera couldn't follow him.
The film was viewed through a Kinetoscope, a device that had a rapidly rotating shutter to give the illusion of motion, but each machine could only hold the film of one round. Thus, six Kinetoscopes were lined up in a row to show the whole fight, and each round cost the viewer a nickel. The machines were set up in franchised parlors, which were eventually located in all major U.S. cities. But the fight-film trade wasn't good. One theory was that viewers were skipping the first five rounds, and only paying their nickels to watch the sixth. Another held that nobody was particularly interested in two little-known boxers from Brooklyn. (A maximum of six rounds was set because it was felt that in any case viewers wouldn't pay more than 30� to see a filmed fight.)
Edison, looking for something that would bring in more business, negotiated with theatrical producer William Brady for permission to film a bout featuring Jim Corbett, the handsome heavyweight champion then performing in his play Gentleman Jack. Brady had brought Corbett, a former bank clerk who officially had an 11-0-2 record, to New York from San Francisco to box between acts and thus liven up a dull play called After Dark. Corbett had become famous after he defeated John L. Sullivan in the 21st round in New Orleans on Sept. 7, 1892 and was crowned world champion in the first title bout fought under Marquis of Queensberry rules and with five-ounce gloves. This was the first year that fights conducted under those rules were legal in Louisiana.
Brady, ever the promoter, thought a movie fight starring Corbett would provide publicity for the play, and he fell in with Edison's plan. Gentleman Jim's opponent would be Peter Courtney of Trenton, N.J., who is reported to have lasted four rounds with the formidable Ruby Robert Fitzsimmons. Corbett received $4,750 and Courtney $250 for the fight. Corbett's pay was probably well deserved because he had a national reputation as a boxer and his name brought throngs into the parlors to view the fight. It was, after all, the first motion picture of a major boxing event.