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THE FIGHT THAT STARTED THE MOVIES: The World Heavyweight Championship, the Birth of Cinema and the First Feature Film

On March 17, 1897, in an open-air arena in Carson City, Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons fought for the heavyweight championship of the world. The contest was recorded by film pioneer Enoch Rector from inside an immense, human-powered camera called the “Veriscope,” the forgotten Neanderthal at the dawn of cinema history. Rector’s movie of the contest premiered in New York City two months later. Known today as The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, it was the world’s first feature-length film.

The Fight That Started the Movies is the epic untold story of Corbett’s and Fitzsimmons’ journey to that ring in Nevada and how the landmark film of their battle came to be made. It reveals how boxing played a key role in the birth of the movies, spurring the development of motion picture technology and pushing the concept of “film” from a twenty-second peephole show to a full-length attraction, “a complete evening’s entertainment,” projected on a screen.

The cast of characters in the tale is rich and varied. There are inventors Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Edison, William Dickson and Eugene Lauste, figuring out how to photographically capture and reproduce motion. There are the playboy brothers Otway and Gray Latham, who first saw the commercial potential of fight films, and their friend and partner Enoch Rector, who pushed that potential to its fruition. There are fighters Jim Corbett with his “scientific” methods of boxing; Bob Fitzsimmons with his thin legs and turnip-on-a-chain punch; hard-drinking John L. Sullivan and the original Jack Dempsey and the gifted but ultimately doomed Young Griffo. There are loud-mouthed fight managers and big-talking promoters, and Wild West legends like Bat Masterson and Judge Roy Bean when the story heads to the Rio Grande river. And finally, there is the audience, our collective ancestors, discovering that movies were more than just a curiosity to gape at, but a new and enduring form of entertainment to rival the theater.

Movie buffs and boxing buffs alike will relish this scrupulous account of what Hawley (Speed Duel) identifies as the first feature film, the 1897 The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, featuring two of the period’s biggest prizefighters. Hawley creates a gritty, authentic picture of the late 19th century, a time when the trek from St. Louis to San Francisco by stagecoach was described as “24 days of hell.” This lengthy book could have benefitted from more judicious editing, but its copious detail pays off in adding color to the period and its characters: he introduces prizefighter Bob Fitzsimmons’s pet lion Nero, and describes Jim Corbett’s autobiographical stage play, Gentleman Jim. Hawley also conveys the painstaking process of inventing motion picture technology, one marked with an occasional “eureka” moment. The fighters possessed remarkable taunting skills outside of the ring, and Hawley precisely captures the formal language of the time. Beyond the rise of the feature film format, Hawley also notes The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight as a precursor to both subsequent blockbuster movies and today’s ubiquitous sports instant replay. An extensive bibliography, index, and selection of notes underscore the author’s devotion to research. 32 pages of illus. (BookLife)