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Sport was Box-Office Poison
Robert Cantwell
September 15, 1969
The beginnings were hilarious—and profitable-but then hokum took over as Hollywood made hundreds of sport movies, most of them stinkeroos
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September 15, 1969

Sport Was Box-office Poison

The beginnings were hilarious—and profitable-but then hokum took over as Hollywood made hundreds of sport movies, most of them stinkeroos

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Addie Kessel and Charley Bauman were two gambling contemporaries of Pittsburgh Phil. A recent movie history disparages them as "a pair of credit bookies," but in fact they were well-known operators, though not plungers. Adam Kessel was born in 1866 and grew up in Brooklyn, where he and his brothers had a small printing business. As a sideline they turned out a sheet of baseball scores and race results called the Sporting Gazette, which they distributed in pool halls and barbershops throughout New York City. "This brought us into a sporting crowd," Kessel said, "and what with one thing and another we began making book."

Kessel was tall, slim, wiry and wore a small mustache, the classic gambler's get-up. Bauman was short, dark, and heavy-set, a Brooklyn boy who claimed to have gotten his start as a streetcar conductor pocketing coins handed him for fares. Among their customers at the track was Charlie Streimer, who, in 1907, operated a small film exchange and who owed them $2,500. Unable to pay, Streimer made them partners in his firm. Soon Kessel was head of the New York Motion Picture Corp., with an office on 14th Street near Tom Sharkey's saloon. Prospering, he opened another office near the theatrical district. Two of his brothers did the office work, and Kessel himself lived in considerable style at the Hotel Savoy.

By now the movies were becoming a sizable business. A survey of fire hazards in New York in 1908 revealed the astonishing fact that there were 180 movie houses in the city. But there were only half a dozen movie producers. One of them, a Chicago-based firm owned by Colonel William Selig, had profits of $5,000 a week. Yet the whole movie business was hampered by uncertainty over patents and copyrights. An exhibitor could rent or buy a film and then make as many copies of the film as he wanted.

By the time Kessel and Bauman became moviemakers it was impossible to film a subject of immediate interest, such as a fight picture, and not have it duplicated within 24 hours. Adding to the confusion was the practice of some pioneer movie men, notably Sigmund Lubin, a Philadelphia optician, of reenacting fights. He hired actors who went through the motions of the fighters as the round-by-round newspaper accounts described them. He reenacted the 42-round fight of Joe Gans and Battling Nelson in Goldfield, Nev. that was Tex Rickard's first promotion, the fight of Jimmy Britt and Nelson for the lightweight championship, the George Dixon-Terry McGovern fight that ended when Dixon's manager threw in the towel so Dixon could keep his record of never having been knocked down, the Corbett-Kid McCoy fight that was rumored to have been fixed until the punishment that McCoy took made it plain he was really trying. When Harry Thaw shot Stanford White in Madison Square Garden, Lubin even reenacted that, giving unsuspecting customers the impression he had a camera on hand as the murder took place.

In December 1908 the major film companies organized a trust, the Motion Picture Patents Company. They agreed to pay Edison royalties and were in effect licensed by him. More than 10,000 exhibitors in the U.S. paid $2 a week for the right to use projectors and to rent films. To further control output, the trust bought up the entire film output of the Eastman Kodak Company, the only U.S. producer of motion picture film. Edison got a royalty of one-half cent per foot for all the film used, amounting to about $500,000 a year. In 1912 antitrust laws dissolved the organization, but in the intervening period all filmmakers outside the trust worked at a decided disadvantage.

Meanwhile, sports was, in a way, getting a New York vaudeville performer, Mack Sennett, into the movie business. Sennett owed Kessel and Bauman so much money from his racetrack bets that they could see no way to get the money except to put Sennett to work making movies out West. With Sennett when he reluctantly headed for California was Mabel Fortescue, known as Mabel Normand, a winning little 17-year-old girl who had been working as a model in New York. Also in the company was Fred Mace, later well-known as the villain who used to drop safes and other heavy objects on Charlie Chaplin. He was then famous as the leading man in The Umpire, a musical comedy that had a record-breaking run of 350 performances in Chicago.

A little later Kessel sent Charlie Chaplin himself to join Sennett. Chaplin's film career had an exceptional beginning. He did not owe Kessel any money. Kessel's brother Charles happened to catch Chaplin's vaudeville act and asked Kessel to hire him, which he did for $150 a week, or $85 more a week than Chaplin was getting. Soon Keystone included Charles Murray, Louise Fazenda, Fatty Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson, Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin, Mack Swain, Hank Mann, Marie Dressler, Ford Sterling and Henry Lehrman, an Austrian army officer known as Pathé Lehrman because he claimed to be able to operate a French-made (and hence patent-free) Pathé movie camera. (He couldn't.) So the Keystone comedies began, founded by a pair of New York bookies who were to make as important a contribution to popular art as anyone in their time. For this reason alone it is possible to argue that the movies took far more out of sport than they ever gave back.

I estimate that I went through about a hundred old sports movies in the course of this study, and I came away with one strong impression: the shows were by and large entertaining when they were comedies—or melodramas—and disasters when they were tragic or sentimental. The movie colony was simply too knowing about sports to shed an honest tear over a horse race or a football game. On the stage it was different. In the durable stage plays, such as Paul Armstrong's Blue Grass, or Cecil Raleigh's Sporting Life or Rida Johnson Young's Brown of Harvard, the sports events took place offstage, with only a portion of the crowd shown responding to victory or defeat. But in the movies the audience was right in the ring or the backfield, and the transition from violent action to profound emotion was never pulled off convincingly. The moviemakers, wrapped up in sports themselves, couldn't fake it.

This Los Angeles fascination with sport even predated the arrival of the movie men. In 1910 Los Angeles had a population of 319,000—there's a statistic that can stop a man. Los Angeles fight crowds soon became bigger than those in New York or Chicago. (By 1925 the two fight arenas in Los Angeles were drawing a total of 610,000, compared to 120,000 for Madison Square Garden and 104,000 for Chicago Stadium.) The movie people simply picked up the sport tempo. Jim Jeffries' saloon became the most popular bar in town. Jack Root, the former light heavyweight champion who ran the Olympic arena, had been filmed in one of the earliest of fight pictures. Tom McCarey—"the greatest fight promoter in the world," according to Bill Henry, the sports editor of the Los Angeles Times—was a distinguished, silver-haired diplomat whose two sons, Leo and Ray, went on in time to direct some of the few good sports films that were made. Fred Newmeyer, who became a director and scriptwriter for Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, was a southpaw pitcher with Denver in the American Association who spent the winters as an extra on the Universal lot. Ted Wilde, another baseball enthusiast, became a gag writer for Lloyd. Wilde eventually became a director and made a pleasant comedy, Babe Comes Home, starring Babe Ruth. It was the slugger's only untroubled and profitable connection with the movies.

Some of the people who eventually made sport movies were already living in Los Angeles when the filmmakers arrived. Sam Wood, who became the best known of this group, was a high school dropout from Philadelphia who drifted to Los Angeles in 1901, became a real-estate dealer and got into movies in 1914 as an aide to Cecil B. DeMille. Wood had played football and baseball in Philadelphia and won a rowing championship. He also boxed at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and played baseball on the club team. As a moviemaker he directed Wallace Reid in his pioneer auto-racing picture, Double Speed. This established him as a specialist in sports films, a reputation that lasted throughout his long career. He even directed Ramon Novarro, a rival of Valentino, in a football picture, For Glory and the Girl, and helped Robert Montgomery, another actor unlikely to be cast as a football player, through So This Is College. It was Wood who directed the Marx brothers in A Day at the Races.

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