Cinderella Man


Posted to on June 15, 2005


“Cinderella Man” is a stolid, old-fashioned but moving film directed by Ron Howard. It combines elements of “Rocky” and “Seabiscuit” as it tells the rags-to-riches true story of boxer James J. Braddock, played by Russell Crowe.


In the late 1920s Braddock was a highly ranked light-heavyweight fighter, but fractured hands made him unable to compete effectively. After losing a string of bouts, he was forced to take a job on the Jersey docks just like the kind that Marlin Brando held down in “On the Waterfront.” Additionally, whatever money he had put aside in stocks was lost in the ’29 crash.


So, after a brief introduction showing the up-and-coming Braddock, we find him living in a meager basement apartment with his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and three young children. Whenever Braddock fails to get selected by a straw boss in the demeaning morning shape up ritual, he is forced to go home without money to pay for food or other necessities. The film pulls no punches as it shows Mae Braddock mixing water with milk so that it will last longer. Apart from John Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath,” this is the only movie that I can recall showing life as it was in the Great Depression. That is no small achievement.


In an article on the making of the film that appeared in the May 8, 2005 NY Times, we learn that Ron Howard has a strong affinity for the period. He said, “I've always been fascinated by the Depression.” His father Rance Howard had told him stories about the family's subsistence farm in Oklahoma, just like the kind that was featured in “Grapes of Wrath.”


In high school, Howard made a 30-minute documentary about the Depression, interviewing his father and others and using old photos.


He told the NY Times:


''What was really shocking to me were the images of poverty in big cities. Whenever you'd see poor straggling kids with the New York City skyline in the background, or you'd see these men, still dressed in their business suits but standing in a breadline, it was as least as devastating as the Okies with all their stuff packed on a Model T. I wanted to remind people that the working poor existed then, and we have it today. While the economy is mostly up and then sometimes down -- the Internet bubble bursting felt a little bit like '29, where people had overextended and fallen into that trap again -- we're anxious. Our population is anxious. We're not in a depression, thank God, but I think it's crossing our minds that something could happen, things could change, and not for the better, for the worse.”


In one memorable scene in “Cinderella Man,” Braddock goes to Central Park to try to find a fellow longshoreman and neighbor Mike Wilson (a fictional character) who had run away from home out of despair. Upon arriving there, he discovers cops sweeping across a Hooverville burning shacks and clubbing homeless men, including his neighbor.


In June of 1934, Braddock was thrown in as a last-minute substitute for a bout with top heavyweight contender John “Corn” Griffin. Nobody expected him to survive the first round. To everybody’s surprise, Braddock was victorious. For the next couple of years he fought and defeated other top contenders until meeting Max Baer, the reigning champion who had already killed two fighters with his devastating punches. This showdown supplies the dramatic momentum for the remainder of the film.


When Braddock was at his most desperate, he was reduced to applying for relief payments at a government office. After he started making money again, he went back to the office and paid back exactly what he had received. In including this scene, Howard explained its importance to the NY Times: “As much as it [receiving government assistance] ate at him, it saved his family. It's this kind of harmony, in a way, between a governmental system that would offer support, and a population that wouldn't exploit it.”


Unfortunately, this feeds into a prevailing mythology about government hand-outs that grew up during the Reagan administrations and continues unabated. It views aid to the needy as a kind of favor that often goes unappreciated. Unlike the Irish-American Braddock who was anxious to get back on his own feet and pay off his debts to the government, there are ostensibly far less honest people who use such handouts as a way to buy booze or drugs.


In another key scene, Wilson and Braddock are seen discussing the problems of finding work on the docks in a waterfront bar. Wilson is bitter at the system. He tells Braddock that he distrusts both FDR and the Republicans and sees unionizing the longshoremen as their only salvation. Unfortunately­-but understandably­-Howard does not dramatize Mike Wilson acting on these beliefs. Braddock tells Wilson that the only fighting he wants to engage in is in the ring.


In a very real sense, Howard’s take on the Great Depression is in the tradition of Frank Capra. Although Capra obviously made movies calling attention to the plight of working people in the 1930s, he did not view political action as a means to redress these conditions. It was instead a kind of old-fashioned “roll up your sleeves” ethos that was championed in films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life.”


In order to get the audience to identify with an underdog like James J. Braddock, Howard felt it necessary to turn Max Baer into a stock villain. Baer is seen warning Braddock not to take on the fight unless he wanted to be killed like his previous victims. He also tells him that he might sleep with his wife after he is dead and buried.


In real life, Max Baer was nothing like this. He preferred partying to fighting and only saw it as a necessary evil to make a living. In other words, he was not that much different from any other fighter. Furthermore, after Frankie Campbell died from the beating administered by Baer in 1930, a traumatized Baer cried and had nightmares long afterwards. Baer was charged with manslaughter, but was cleared of all charges. He gave purses from succeeding bouts to Campbell's family, but lost four of his next six fights. Indeed, by the time that Baer met up with Braddock, he had lost his edge.


Although no attention is drawn to it in “Cinderella Man,” you can see a Star of David on Baer’s trunks during the fight with Braddock and in an earlier fight in the film with Primo Carnera. Baer first wore the Jewish Star in a bout with the German Max Schmeling in 1933. Although Schmeling was no Nazi by any stretch of the imagination, Hitler stated that his championship vindicated Aryan superiority. At this point Baer proclaimed his Jewish identity and turned the fight into a struggle for racial justice, just as Joe Louis would a few years later. There is some controversy whether Baer was Jewish, but some researchers are convinced that his father was probably half-Jewish. Whatever the case, he became a hero to Jews after beating Schmeling.


Primo Carnera was also a fascist icon. This oversized but under-talented heavyweight was hailed by Mussolini as a symbol of the new Italy, but Carnera went back to Italy in 1937 and joined an anti-Fascist resistance group. After being captured by Mussolini's state police, he spent most of World War II in a forced-labor camp.


In the 1950s, Budd Schulberg wrote a movie titled “The Harder They Fall” that was based on the Carnera-Baer fight. It was one of a legion of exposés about the fight game. It was no coincidence that Schulberg also wrote the screenplay for “On the Waterfront.” Schulberg was forced to become an informer against the Communist Party in the 1950s. As an ex-party member himself, he was given a choice of naming names or being blacklisted himself. Like other ex-CP’ers, Schulberg remained attracted to ‘social’ issues, but lost the radicalism of his youth. “The Harder They Fall” was a polemic against the corruption of the boxing industry, but stopped short of addressing the question of why capitalist society mounts such latter-day gladiator contests.


That question gets to the heart of how class society is constructed. Professional sports in general, and boxing in particular, expresses the cash nexus that is intrinsic to commodity production. The boxer is simply super-exploited labor. Even though James J. Braddock left the blue-collar world of the Jersey docks for the glittering ring, he never really left class exploitation behind.


It is doubtful that Hollywood would ever be capable nowadays of getting at this deeper reality, especially when it requires millions of dollars to finance a film. Today’s NY Times reports that Universal Pictures executives are considering shelving “Cinderella Man” since it is a box-office failure, taking in a mere $34.6 million after two weeks. The film cost $88 million to make. Brian Glazer, the producer, said, “There are hardly words to describe how we all feel. I feel like crying.”


One way the film might have realized a profit is if it had selected a less costly actor than Russell Crowe. There other reasons to have passed him over. One cannot think of anybody less suited to play the self-effacing and likeable James J. Braddock. Crowe has been in the news lately after pummeling a hotel desk clerk with a telephone in a moment of pique. Last March he told an Australian magazine that Osama bin Laden wanted to kidnap him as part of a “cultural destabilization plot.” In this particular instance, one might have considered giving critical support to bin Laden.