Saturday, October 29, 2011

Tunney-Dempsey Audience Film Surfaces | A Window In Time

A Window In Time.  Tunney-Dempsey 1927, audience film.

Gene Tunney vs Jack Dempsey II
World Heavyweight Championship
Chicago, September 22, 1927
16mm Black and White Audience Film
**This film is currently being archived, and will be shown pending licensing.

The Fight
I’ve written about the second Tunney-Dempsey fight on this blog before, showing the “Long Count” in real time.  The Long Count is one of the most famous moments in boxing history, and the fight was well documented by a commercial film crew.  However, among the 104,943 people attending the fight, was a fan with a 16mm camera. 

The Film
Amateur films taken at fights are not unheard of, but rarely seen.  In the days before video, 8mm and 16mm home movies were family keepsakes, almost never copied or distributed.  Three examples of audience movies that have come to light include the ringside film of the LaMotta-Cerdan fight (16mm film shot by a fan) as well as 8mm audience films of Graziano-Zale II and Marciano-Vingo.  In those cases, the home movies were the only film documentations of the fight.

The Camera
The average person owning a movie camera was extremely rare in 1927, let alone successfully filming a night time sporting event.  16mm had been introduced by Kodak four years earlier in 1923.  8mm would not be on the market until 1932.   Kodak produced 16mm stock on safety film, and not nitrate, which helped this footage survive decades of storage.  Judging from the frame rate, the camera had a spring driven motor, running the shutter at approximately 16-20fps.  The film is well preserved.  It has dried somewhat over the years, making it stiff, but not inflexible.  There’s also some shrinkage and emulsion stains, but otherwise the film is remarkably clean and free of scratches.  The film speed is unknown, but was likely low (perhaps 100 ASA) and was reversal film stock.  Meaning, this is not a print, but the actual film that was in the camera at the fight. 

Picture Quality
The stadium scene is very dark, but the exposure setting was in range for the brightly lit boxing ring.  The fighters, the referee and overhead lights are clearly visible. The first minute of the movie contains footage shot in the early evening outside the stadium; including silhouettes the surging crowd walking toward the camera.

Views of the Fight
This is an amateur film, photographed with a bulky hand held camera. It provides no definitive alternate view of the bout.  However, for those who are passionate about boxing history and events, the film is a window in time.  Seated on the stadium field, perhaps 20 rows from the ring, the filmmaker captures brief excerpts throughout the fight, sometimes no more than a few seconds at a time. Early in the reel, the camera peers past the head of a spectator sitting in front.  The photographer then moves closer to the ring, and to a slightly better angle, possibly the aisle.  In most shots, it appears the photographer was chasing the action, rolling film directly after a flurry or anticipating a peak in the fighting.  Still, from shot to shot, Dempsey charges in, with Tunney jabbing and countering.  In one shot between rounds, we see ring card “3” being paraded for the audience as the camera pans across the inside of the stadium, though it’s too dark to see the crowd.

The Long Count
The seller told me that the movie did not include the Long Count.  I assumed he was correct . . . until I viewed the film myself.   Toward the end of the reel, Tunney throws and misses a right, and then back off.  Having watched the commercial films of the fight many times, I’m familiar with the action and recognized this key moment.  It was definitely the seventh round.  Suddenly, the camera begins to swing around.  The view of the ring is blocked as the crowd stands.  People are on their feet, moving and waving.  The crowd is in an uproar.  As the ring comes back into view, Tunney is back on his feet, with Dempsey pursuing.  The film ends shortly after. 

I scanned and rendered the film to video, and replayed the sequence in slow motion.  It’s only a few frames long, but there they are, the fighters, on the far side of the ring; Dempsey with his back to the camera, standing over Tunney with referee Barry’s right hand in the air, and his left reaching to direct Dempsey away - The Long Count.

Despite the limited view of the fight, the thrill of this film is the audience perspective, watching the fight within a stone’s throw of the ring, surrounded by one hundred thousand cheering fans.