As a lifetime fan of boxing and supporter to the continued life of the sport, I have not yet witnessed a fighter with such clean, natural skill as Joe Louis. I grew up watching televised boxing with my father on an antennae-crowned television set, and in addition to seeing the fighters of the nineties—George Foreman, Evander Holyfield and Tyson—we also watched classic, historical boxing matches on films rented from the local library. I noticed a significant contrast in Louis, who seemed to have a powerful yet humble (and I’ll go as far as to say spiritual) approach to the sport. There is something to be said for a boxer that does not talk a big talk. Real fighters’ allow their fists to talk, and in this sense, Joe Louis did a lot of talking. But he did a lot of listening as well—not only metaphorically listening to the sound of incoming punches against his head and body, but also, he listened to his coaches, promoters and agents; and he agreed with them. He wanted to change the negative image that black fighters had created, like the obnoxious ex-champ Jack Johnson. With a combination of Louis’s driven work ethic, his promoters’ guidance, and luck—a lot of luck, Louis would become the next black, ”white” fighter.1
In the early 1930’s Louis was young, fresh and raising the spirits of thousands of fight-fans that had a lot of pride for Joe; and for the black community, he was an inspiration of hope for the success of black society in America. But Louis was still a black man in a black and white America, and was often depicted in newspapers and magazines as a novelty. As a prizefighter, Louis faced media-driven nicknames like “The Brown Bomber,” “The Dark Destroyer” and “Black Lightening.” Grantland Rice was among the top-ranked group of sportswriters of the time that including Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner, and likened Louis’ quick and paralyzing punches to the strike of a “brown cobra,” his speed in the ring as the “speed of the jungle” and as the “instinctive speed of the wild.” 2 Louis was both aware and dismayed at the media-crafted image of himself; but at the end of the day, he was always uplifted by his fans—white and black—who knew that Louis was not only a prizefighter, but a prized, American fighter—something that Louis always internally wanted to be, and fought for.
Edging on the summer of 1935, Louis entered into his first “big” heavyweight fight with Primo Carnera, who stood six-foot six-inches and weighed two hundred and sixty pounds.11Louis was unintimidated, however, and knocked out Carnera in the sixth. His fans’ electricity matched his own. In the ring and out, Joe Louis became a highly vocalized name.
Next, Louis was pitted against Max Baer. The fight drew thousands of mixed black and white fans to Yankee Stadium in South Bronx, NYC. In succession to the Carnera fight, Louis won by way of knockout and was propelled into a high-class position of fame and fortune. In an era when luck and pluck* were difficult qualities to procure, Louis had not only become a symbol of American boxing, but also the epitome of pride for black communities.
In 1936 Joe Louis faced Max Schmeling from Germany. Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Partywas considered highly eccentric, but did not pose a serious threat to U.S. security; but Schmelling’s connection to the fascist totalitarian party, just like Carnera with Mussolini’s Italy, significantly upped the promotional ante of the fight. Americans’ wanted to see Louis knock Schmeling out cold.
That night Louis endured twelve rounds and seventy-two right hands before collapsing just prior to the ding of the bell. Chicago Daily Tribune journalist Wilfred Smith wrote “only when his [Louis’] body refused any longer to absorb Schmeling’s tornadic punches did he drop. Louis did not quit. He fought to the last ounce of his strength.” 3
When Louis fell, the crowd of nearly 40,000 went deathly quiet—reverent. Scattered fans across America hung their heads beside radios, as if paying their respects at a funeral. Louis had just suffered his first professional loss, and a smug Schmeling returned to Germany, only adding fuel to the fire of an already overconfident, winner-take-all reign of power.
But Louis didn’t stay down long. In 1937 he knocked out Jimmy Braddock and reignited his career, and by ‘38, his real goal had been met—a second chance at Schmelling. The rematch was hugely symbolic. As tensions overheated in Europe, and war was on the tip of American tongues, Louis was to carry the country—a superhero against the incoming “Nazi” Schmeling. As Louis recalls in his memoir: “Man, did he [Schmeling] catch hell. There must have been hundreds of people picketing him at the dock. They had all kinds of signs saying that he shouldn’t be allowed in the United States, that he represented Nazi Germany, and that he didn’t belong here.”4
But Louis wanted him here; and after he beat out Schmeling with a bombardment of boxing’s finest stylistic punches that resulted in a technical knockout due to a humane ringside throw of the towel, in one of the biggest, most culturally defining moments in American history, Joe Louis was no longer just a lucky share-cropper’s son from Alabama with quick hands and devastating power; he now represented America.
In the educational film The Negro Soldier (1944), Joe Louis became a centralized character—although hardly a “character:” Joe Louis was a true-life, voluntarily enlisted man in the U.S. Army during World War II. The film was instrumental and the first of its kind to spotlight life for blacks in the military. It raised awareness of historical military heroes like Dorie Miller, and trailed black soldiers’ actions in the Boston Massacre, the Spanish-American War and World War I. Portraying the minister in the film, Carlton Moss (also the writer of the documentary) begins a sermon with a symbolic remembrance of the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight: In one minute and forty-nine seconds an American fist won a victory. But it wasn’t the final victory. No, that victory’s going to take a little longer, and a whole lot more American fists. Now those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again. This time in a far greater arena—and for much greater stakes.5 A veteran of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes called The Negro Soldier the “most remarkable negro film ever flashed on the American screen.”6
The film was one of many virtuous films produced by a man whose rise to fame was as lucky and compelling as Joe Louis. Frank Capra: a nobody from a Sicilian ghetto in Los Angeles, California, raised by parents who could neither read nor write and barely made ends meet. Needless to say, Capra’s young future was bleak, but he was determined to break the boundaries of his environment. In his youth, he considered fast-lanes to success: “bootlegging, prize fighting, the ball and bat, con games.” 7 But Capra soon realized that his intelligence, and the opportunity to gain a proper education could potentially carry him and his family out of the trenches. He paid his way through school by selling newspapers in the morning and stuffing them at night. He taught himself to play the guitar and plucked for tips at a Central Avenue bistro, and for two hours every weekday morning, he performed janitorial work for a local school. Frank Capra went on to attend Manual Arts High School, and, ultimately, earned a degree in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1918.8
When World War I beckoned Americans to assist, Capra enlisted in the army without hesitation and vocalized a passion to “go straight to France.” To his dismay, he was stationed in coastal defense site Fort Mason in San Francisco with orders to teach artillery officers ballistic mathematics. “My weapon was a piece of chalk,” Capra later commented.
Out of the service without catching a glimpse of the war, and with no GI benefits to speak of, Capra found himself back where he had begun.
Boarding a trolley car, a conductor handed Capra a newspaper. As if Columbia herself had passed a torch to Capra, he sat down and looked inside the sections and discovered a column entry that both brought his dormant creativity to life, and forever changed his future. The entry read: Fireside Productions has announced it is revamping the old Jewish gymnasium at Golden Gate Park into a movie studio.9
How Frank Capra made it from a prop man on a low-budget film crew to a writer, director and producer of films under Columbia Pictures is a dense jungle of events; and in place of napalm to clear that jungle, I suggest digesting Capra’s highly readable and detailed autobiography The Name Above the Title (referenced in the footnote). It is one of a few primary sources providing detailed insight into Capra’s thought process and filmmaking—beyond the screenplays and filmography.
Capra didn’t need to exploit his rags to riches story to gain recognition of his artistry with the camera. His precise locational camera angles were superb-beyond-years in comparison to the current visual imagery of the era, and his thematic elements were unique and embraced by moviegoers, critics and eventually the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But things in the film industry were not always without friction.
Co-producer Harry Cohn stopped calling Capra a dago sometime late in 1927. They had been partners for a stretch, and had decided to collaborate and start producing “talkies.”10 Although Capra owed a lot to Cohn’s marketing and promotional savvy, it is safe to say that being referenced by a derogatory name on a morning-to-afternoon-to-evening basis got under Capra’s skin—and Capra felt it, as did many Italians in America east and west. Both interesting and perplexing is that the term dago is more likely the bastardization of the common Spanish name Diego by 18th and 19th Century British sailors. How the Italian relation was formed is unfounded, as is the term Wop: another Italian slur. The phrase Without Papers, or Wop, could correspond with many, if not all, immigrants. Sometimes humanity is far-flung from reason. Perhaps someday a writer will write an analysis of our own generational ignorance; but when all is said and done, I believe that civil rights in America have come a hell of a long way with respect to many—all who call America home, really—who took a stance and continue to stand up.
The roaring twenties were over, but Americans wanted to keep roaring. Some of the residual effects of the 1920s can be seen in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), especially when an attractive young lady with a bob and dark lipstick shows Clark Gable that “her leg is mightier than his thumb” when they attempt to hitch a ride.11 Although It Happened One Night claimed all five major Academy Awards (best picture, actress, actor, writer and director), carving Capra’s name into motion picture history, the young producer/director wanted to change the directional pull of his films. He wanted to make films with depth and a sense of morality, courage and hope.
With Capra’s next successful and highly acclaimed film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), a significant story was unfurled to a nation that was averaging at most a meager income. Longfellow Deeds, played by Gary Cooper, is an ordinary, average American, with the utmost honesty and sincerity—a man of good “deeds,” characteristics put in to place by a mindfully aware Capra. When Deeds inherits twenty million dollars, he is not quick to change his characteristics for the sake of his newly founded wealth, and, in the end, after many troubles spawned by his fortune, decides to use his money to provide free, fully-functional farms to thousands of homeless families. The film symbolized many virtuous elements, but perhaps what sunk into American minds the deepest was the idea of money—a subject that was looming over many heads, now being disputed before them on screen as a culprit and not a saving grace. Capra immortalized virtuous behavior through the medium of Deeds, and—if only for the time spent in the theatre viewing the film—swept the black cloud of financial hardship from the minds of American viewers, reminding them that the more important aspects of life cannot be bought.
Mr. Deed’s won Capra another Oscar, and with luck and persistence for producing moving, parabolic films, Capra was searching for a story. He picked up a newly published novel by James Hilton called Lost Horizon (1937) to read during a train ride, and was not only impressed with the story, but dreamed of it in his sleep.12 It was a perfect yet daring venture for a film, Capra thought. The Eastern philosophy of the inhabitants of Shangri-La** could inspire a peaceful approach to American life, and also become a symbol of faith, hope and peace… even through loss. “I believe it, because I want to believe it,” protagonist Robert Conway. In the end, it is inconclusive if Conway makes it back to the Tibetan utopia, but regardless there is the implication, or internal hope, that he does. But perhaps character Lord Gainesford summarizes the meaning of the film best when, nearing the close of the film, offers a toast: “Here’s my hope that Robert Conway will find his Shangri-La. Here’s my hope that we all find our Shangri-La.”
1. Joe Louis: America’s Hero… Betrayed. Home Box Office Sports, 2008. Film
2. Mead, Chris. Joe Louis: Black Champion in White America, Dover Publications, New York, 2010. Print. pp. 62-63
3. Smith, Wilfrid. “Schmelling Whips Joe Louis.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), June 20, 1936. http://search.proquest.com/docview/181772055?accountid=13158.
4. Louis, Joe. Joe Louis: My Life. Ecco Press, 1997. Print. p. 138
5. Roberts, Randy. Joe Louis: Hard Times Man. Yale University Press, 2010. Print. pp. 228-229
6. Ibid. p. 229
7. Capra, Frank. Frank Capra: The Name above the Title. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1971. p. xi
8. Ibid. pp. xi-9
9. Ibid. p. 19
10. Ibid. p. 100
11. Ibid. p. 168
12. Ibid. p. 190
* Horatio Alger’s self-made man philosophy as emphasized in his novel Ragged Dick.
**now a widely used term for a utopian location. Inspired by the film, FDR named his presidential retreat in Maryland Shangri-La then later changed it to Camp David, after his son. Chapter 4 “Shangri-La: A Travel Guide to the Himalayan Dream”. Michael Buckley, Bradt Travel Guides, Chalfont St. Peter 2008