Friday, April 3, 2015

The Other Jack the Giant Killer

Jack Sharkey vs. Primo Carnera I
Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, NY 1931
16mm Sound Transfer
Speed and Audio Restoration

A recent article I wrote was accompanied with newsreel footage of Jack Sharkey in training for his first fight with Primo Carnera in 1931, including rare footage of Ernie Schaaf. As I described in the piece, Sharkey went on to win a 15-round decision. The victory propelled Sharkey back into contention and to his rematch with Max Schmeling for the heavyweight championship in 1932. Sharkey was given what many regard as a gift decision against Schmeling, and held the title for only one year. I was planning to move on from there, but by chance I recently found and acquired a rare 16mm print of that first Sharkey-Carnera fight.
The Film
The print arrived marked as part of the Schlitz Famous Fights TV series, which ran for a number of years beginning in the 1950s. Excerpts of this film have been circulated for some time among collectors, and versions have also been posted on YouTube, often as projector screen videos or from old VHS tapes. I wanted to show a clean telecine transfer of some of this film. A drawback of today’s boxing coverage is that it widens the gap between contemporary HD quality and the analog films of earlier eras. Younger viewers are used to seeing fights in amazing detail and have, unfortunately, less appreciation for earlier boxing. The networks today don’t help either. I’ve expressed before my frustration with ESPN for showing classic footage on an as-is basis with little or no picture restoration.

Fortunately this print arrived in excellent condition, with few breaks or scratches. The ring photography was average for the day. The exposure was dark, but the density provides some extra detail often lost in films of this period. Notably, many films made under the bright ring lights were poorly exposed, sometimes to the point of completely blowing out Irish complexions into a ghostly white. There is no live audio, but the great Sam Taub provides the narration. Most famous as a live blow-by-blow radio announcer, Taub delivers a classic style narrative of the fighters and action.

The one drawback of the film is the projection speed. As Steve Lott once explained to me, it was during the Depression of the 1930s that film stock, like most everything, was in short supply. To conserve footage, films were often taken at the silent speed of approximately 16 frames per second instead of the standard 24 frames per second established for sound movies. Movie theaters may have slowed their projectors to compensate at the time, but the surviving prints, such as this one, runs at a speedy 24fps. This is why most early 20th century fight films appear more like Keystone Cop movies than historic sports events. For this video, I not only slowed the film down to standard speed, but I kept Sam Taub’s narration is as well. If Sam sounds a little lethargic, it’s because he’s actually speaking about a third slower than normal, though I kept his voice at a natural pitch. 

“…a long way to climb to reach that chin.”—Jack Sharkey

The first Sharkey-Carnera fight was held at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, on October 12, 1931. It has largely been lost in history. It wasn’t a title fight, and the rematch two years later was an upset that forever cast a shadow over both fighters. This fight, however, appears to have been a legitimate contest and a turning point for both boxers. Carnera had come up the ranks very quickly, and suspiciously, and was still a question mark as a title contender. Sharkey needed the win to secure a rematch with Schmeling. The fight was not as close as some contemporary descriptions indicate. Despite being five inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than Carnera, Sharkey shook the bigger man repeatedly throughout the contest, including a knockdown in the fourth round. The Barrier Miner Daily wrote, “Well advised by his seconds, Sharkey continued to rip into the body, which forced Carnera to drop his guard. Then Jack would crack Carnera’s jaw so hard that he wobbled repeatedly, but did not fall. The eleventh and twelfth were like a terrier worrying a St. Bernard. Carnera was weary and staggering in the fourteenth, and just before the final bell reeled and swayed drunkenly on the verge of a knockout, as Sharkey riddled his head with lefts and rights in a tempest of battering that left him unable to defend himself.” It was a decisive win.

Primo lost the fight but won the public’s respect. He proved to be a courageous boxer, and while not a resourceful fighting machine, he was durable, strong, and very agile for a man his size. Since the entire film of the fight is nearly 50 minutes long, I’ve included only the last two rounds. I wanted to show how Sharkey closed the show. Jack had a good night, in front of 30,000 spectators who watched the match in weather “so cold that most of the spectators wore mufflers and overcoats.” Not only moving well to evade Carnera’s attacks, Sharkey was very effective at getting inside Primo’s defenses, closing the distance to finish the fight with the kind of action rarely seen today among heavyweights. At the final bell, Sharkey rejoices, discarding his mouthpiece and pushing referee Gunboat Smith aside as he follows Carnera to his corner to pay respect.

The Warrior's Bond

Jack Sharkey & Ernie Schaaf
Newsreel Interview 1931
Primo Carnera vs. Ernie Schaaf 1933
16mm print Transfer

Newsreels contain a wealth of hidden historical treasures. There are hundreds of thousands of hours of film now being curated in archives around the world. But due to the amount of material and limited resources, the archives often provide limited information for each entry, with some material going undocumented. Recently I was scanning through an index of boxing newsreels made during the 1930s, looking for alternate footage not used in the officially released versions. At the bottom of one listing, I spotted the word Schaaf. When I obtained and finally viewed the film, I saw that it was a promotional reel featuring heavyweight Jack Sharkey training in May 1931 to fight Primo Carnera. Included in the footage, as I had hoped, was rare film of Sharkey’s friend and protégé, Ernie Schaaf.

Rich Man Poor Man

Sharkey and Schaaf exemplified the warrior’s bond. Sharkey, who was six years older than Schaaf, was already an established boxer when they met as Navy seamen on board the battleship Denver. The two boxed, and Sharkey, admiring Schaaf’s determination in the ring, began mentoring the teenager. After the Navy, the two remained friends as they climbed the professional ranks during the 1920s. Both experienced mixed luck with their careers. Sharkey fast-tracked during the mid-1920s, before losing to Jack Dempsey and later to Max Schmeling. But on the rise again, he defeated Primo Carnera in 1931, and then won the Heavyweight Championship in a disputed decision from Max Schmeling the following year. 
Meanwhile, Schaaf’s record was spotty. So in 1930, Sharkey acted on both faith and loyalty to Schaaf when he and his manager, John Buckley, bought Schaaf’s contract. The two boxers became official stable mates and Schaaf began to prosper—with victories over a youthful Tony Galento, Paulino Uzcudun, Jim Braddock, Tommy Loughran, Max Baer and Young Stribling. There were also losses, including a rematch with future champion Max Baer, where Schaaf was battered unconscious just seconds before the final bell, suffering, many believe, permanent brain damage. By 1933, however, Schaaf was a top-ranked heavyweight, right behind his friend and champion Jack Sharkey.
Dual fighter/manager partnerships are not uncommon, but Sharkey and Schaaf were unique, remaining friends while ascending the ranks to within one fight of facing each other. There was talk of Ernie hiring a new manager in the event that he would challenge Sharkey for the title. After Schaaf’s victory over Young Stribling, The Reading Eagle reported, “The victory may have moved Schaaf into the somewhat embarrassing position of crowding his co-manager, who was in his corner, for a place in the heavyweight sun.” In The Gettysburg Times, the two reportedly joked about the prospect, with Sharkey suggesting a way “to devise some painless means of passing the crown along to him” when Sharkey tired of the title.

The Last Fight

 Instead, events soon played out like a Greek tragedy. On February 10, 1933, at Madison Square Garden, it was Schaaf’s turn to fight Primo Carnera, a boxer that neither Schaaf nor Sharkey should have lost to. Ernie appeared to be having an off night during the battle, and in the 13th round, Carnera hit Schaaf with a stiff left jab. Even today, the sequence that followed is chilling to watch on the film; the sight of Schaaf tumbling to the canvas, struggling with sudden paralysis, and then collapsing. As the ring fills with Primo’s well-wishers, Sharkey drags the unconscious Schaaf back to his corner. Unable to wake him, Schaaf’s limp body is lifted out of the ring and carried off. All this under the roar of 20,000 boos raining down from the crowd calling out “FAKE.” Even the best Hollywood boxing movies would have trouble matching a scene like this.

At the hospital, belief was that Schaaf might recover. He eventually came to and was speaking. Sharkey reportedly stayed with Ernie through the night. The following morning, the doctors expressed hope regarding Schaaf’s condition. Only then did Sharkey leave town on a trip with his family. Schaaf died after emergency surgery on Valentine’s Day 1933 and Sharkey never saw his friend alive again. Carnera, it was reported, was crushed by the news of Ernie’s death, and cried for hours. For a detailed story on the circumstances of Schaaf’s death, please read the excellent article by Norman Marcus, “The Strange Death of Ernie Schaaf.”

David Loses to Goliath

 The epilogue to this drama came four months later when champion Sharkey faced Primo Carnera in their rematch. This was the title challenge intended for Schaaf. Now instead, Sharkey was facing Ernie’s killer. After a competitive six rounds, an uppercut/shove by Carnera dumped Sharkey on the canvas like a beached whale. He lay motionless as he was counted out. Rumors have circulated for years that the knockout was not on the level. There were mob connections, primarily involving Carnera. Sharkey denied the loss was anything but genuine, adding famously that he was distracted by the sight of Schaaf’s ghost standing in the ring. “I had no trouble, physically fit and everything and I boxed the guy (Carnera) before . . . I looked and I see a vision of Ernie Schaaf. There’s no pain . . . like in a dream. Of course when you snap out of it, that’s when the shame comes. You know you’ve lost.”

The Films

The newsreel footage is striking in several ways. Sharkey looks impressive during the training portion. Though only 6’ tall, modest height for a heavyweight, Sharkey appears strong, well-conditioned and projects great physical intensity and humor. Schaaf, though dressed in a suit and tie for the occasion, looks impressive as well. At 6’2”, he is clearly the bigger of the two men. Despite the scripting that was common for newsreel sound bites, it’s clear that the two are friends and trying not to crack up. The image of Schaaf in this film is a sharp contrast to the man who appeared dwarfed in the ring against 6’6” Primo Carnera. The newsreel also puts a face and a voice to a man, who has mostly been associated with images of his death.
I’ve also included the Official Films abridged version of the Carnera-Schaaf fight from an excellent 16mm print. With the exposure and film speed adjusted, the action suggests that Schaaf was in trouble even before the knockout. I also have a longer version of this fight, but the print quality is poor, though it does include the post-fight footage with Schaaf being attended to and taken from the ring. I have inserted that scene at the end.