During those days boxing matches were stag affairs, so the simulated fights on the stage attracted audiences that had no opportunity to experience the real thing. But fight films ended the vogue for prizefights in the legitimate theater. Late in 1894 Corbett left the stage and traveled to Thomas Edison's new studio in New Jersey—built at a cost of $637—and made a fight film of his own, the second sports film ever made. Corbett, who was a good actor, took no chances. He picked an unknown Trenton heavyweight, Pete Courtney, for his opponent, and he prepared a script calling for him to knock out Courtney in the sixth round.
The shadowy background, the tense figures at ringside, the awkwardness of Courtney and the poise and stage presence of the champion made the occasion historic. And two influential developments in filmmaking were started by the picture: huge profits from a small investment and the practice of dubbing films after they were made.
The third fight film was shown six months after the Corbett-Courtney fight. It starred Young Griffo, an Australian featherweight, renowned as the fastest fighter of his time. "He was a marvel," said Corbett, who was very fast himself. Griffo was also an eccentric, even in that age of spectacularly individualistic fighters. He never trained, drank to excess and sometimes refused to sit in his corner between rounds, standing by the ropes and making speeches instead. His opponent was Charles Barnett, the setting was Madison Square Garden and Griffo quickly put Barnett away. The fight and the film lasted only four minutes.
There was another sports film made in 1895. It was essentially a newsreel—the 116th running of the Derby at Epsom Downs, a thriller won by Lord Rosebery's Sir Visto. This marked horse racing's debut on the screen. Twelve sports events were filmed in 1896. By 1898 Edison was able to persuade a Newark amateur baseball team to play before the camera in the backyard of his home.
One of the many paradoxes in movie history is that these early films are better preserved than those made after the movies became big business. Film cost a lot, so the pioneer moviemakers deposited paper prints of their reels with The Library of Congress for copyright purposes, and these lasted long after the old nitrate films disintegrated. Now the paper prints have been remade into movies and The Library of Congress has a superb collection of films dating up to 1912. But after that there are almost none until 1939.
By 1904, or 10 years after the first was shown, there were about a hundred sports movies on view. They amounted to an early version of ABC television's Wide World of Sport. Moviegoers could see a cockfight, a hurdle race, a harness race, a game of jai alai, a caber toss, a crew race, a practice session of the unbeaten Yale football team and various oddities, including something entitled A Unique Race Between Elephant, Bicycle, Camel, Horse and Automobile. Most of these are of interest only as social history, like Casey at the Bat, the comedy that Edison made in 1899. Whatever Edison's genius, it did not include a sense of comedy, but his film of the old poem was inadvertently funny. The pitcher lofts the ball very slowly, so the camera can follow it. Casey swings at everything, missing so badly that his reputation as a great slugger can only be accounted a mass delusion. After he strikes out, Casey argues with the umpire, stealthily crooking his leg behind the umpire's knee. When the official trips backward players rush in swinging, two well-dressed men wearing derbies appear mysteriously and join the fight and the movie ends in a confused pileup of struggling figures. As a dramatic effort, it could hardly have brought joy to Mudville.
The big financial successes were fight pictures, and the moviemakers began backing these and other sports events—much as television does today. The first movie-financed fight of substance was Bob Fitzsimmons against Peter Maher in Mexico on Feb. 21,1896. The producers put up $10,000, and movie history lists it as a fiasco because Fitzsimmons knocked out Maher with the first punch. There was no fight to film. Sports history records the event somewhat differently. Maher was a tough Irish heavyweight; Fitzsimmons was lucky to have won their first fight by a knockout in the 12th round. For various legal reasons the 1896 fight was held in Mexico, across the Rio Grande from the town of Langtry, Texas (pop. 75). A special train carried 182 fight fans on a 16-hour trip from El Paso. They stumbled across a stretch of desert, descended a steep trail to the riverbed, waded and splashed to a heaving pontoon bridge across the flooded river and paid $20 for their tickets. They saw Maher rush out and land a left on Fitzsimmons' mouth. Fitzsimmons came back with a left and a right, but Maher smashed a left to Fitzsimmons' head. Fitzsimmons clinched. His nose and mouth were bleeding and he seemed badly shaken. He backed away when they broke, Maher following. Maher led with a left that missed. Fitzsimmons sidestepped and swung a right that caught Maher on the chin. Maher hit the canvas, going over backward. The moviemakers had wanted a real fight—no Corbett-Courtney scenario—and they certainly got one. But they wished they had used a script after all.
In addition to the sudden ending the sky was so stormy that nothing showed on the film except gray spectral shapes. So for the first time the weather had become a major factor in heavyweight fights. When Corbett defended his championship against Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nev. in 1897, the New York Herald's account of the fight began: "The day was clear and beautiful and just right for the kinetoscope." Corbett was knocked out in the 14th round, and, the paper reported, "The films alone should net a hundred thousand dollars to each pugilist." But sentiment soon turned against the moviemakers as fight promoters. When Terry McGovern fought Pedlar Palmer for the world bantamweight title in Tuckahoe, Sept. 12, 1899, the headlines went like this: MCGOVERN KNOCKS OUT PALMER FOR THE BENEFIT OF PICTURE MEN.
The movies were now being patronized by sports fans who questioned official decisions. For example, the decision in the 25-round fight of Jim Jeffries and Tom Sharkey at Coney Island in 1899—awarded to Jeffries—was so bitterly resented that the opening of the film on Broadway, the first time a movie was presented as a complete theatrical performance, was packed with Sharkey partisans who threatened to riot over visual evidence that their man had won.
The great barroom argument of the time was whether Domino or Henry of Navarre won their match race. This was the race that immortalized George E. Smith, later known as Pittsburgh Phil. He stood impassively munching figs at the rail as the horses crossed the line in what the judges ruled was a dead heat. Smith had bet $100,000 on Domino and, by keeping his cool, became the prototype of innumerable steely-eyed movie gamblers who risked fortunes with less agitation than the average citizen feels when ordering a steak. A melodrama, The Suburban (written by the same Charles Dazey who wrote In Old Kentucky), was a hit. It was made into a movie with King Baggott, the first of the male movie stars, and retitled The Kentucky Derby. With this the gambler as a Pittsburgh Phil type became a movie fixture: he appeared in The Thoroughbred, in Princess O'Hara, in Sporting Blood (with Clark Gable) and right down to Saratoga, the classic of the type, the movie Jean Harlow was making when she died.