So You Wanna Be a Boxer?

By Mike Silver on July 6, 2014
So You Wanna Be a Boxer?
Chaplin meets a boxer who tells him they can split $50 if he participates in a fake fight.

Of all the comic boxing scenes ever filmed (and there have been many) the one I believe deserves top billing appears in Charlie Chaplin’s great masterpiece…

Boxing is a sport of drama, excitement, romance, and physicality—qualities that filmmakers have mined to the fullest ever since the beginning of the motion picture industry. The hundreds of boxing-themed films even include musicals, westerns and cartoons. Most of the time the sport is central to the story but occasionally it is used as an important subtext (as in the classic On the Waterfront) or simply used to spice up the narrative. In the right hands it can even be the source of comedy. I was reminded of this fact while trolling for hidden boxing gems on YouTube.

I first saw Bugsy Malone when it was released in 1976. I considered it then, as I do now, a work of supreme creativity and much more than just a novelty. But what made it special for me was the film’s boxing sequence. Bugsy Malone—a gangster themed musical comedy—is set in 1920s New York during Prohibition. Here’s the novelty: Its entire cast featured only child actors dressed as adults and acting as adults. The movie marked the directorial debut of Alan Parker (Evita, Fame, Midnight Express). The musical score is by the brilliant songwriter (and sometimes actor) Paul Williams, whose other works include “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song” (lyrics), “You and Me Against the World,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and “Evergreen” (lyrics).

The rival mobsters are armed with what look like tommy guns (called “splurge guns” in the movie) that fire custard pies in rapid succession. Once a gangster is “splurged” (doused with custard) he is “all washed up” and his career in crime is over. The vintage cars the child actors drive are slightly downsized and look real, but they have no motor and are driven by pedaling. This is really ingenious stuff. The music is tuneful and the story fun and engaging. The words to the song “So You Wanna Be a Boxer?” are right on target, and combined with the choreography make for a very memorable segment. Check it out. Bugsy Malone was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Music Score (Paul Williams). 

Another of my favorite comedic cinema boxing scenes appears in the 1980 musical comedy Popeye. The film is directed by Robert Altman and stars Robin Williams as the spinach eating hero who, in a key scene, enters the ring to battle a gigantic opponent. The cartoon set that depicts Popeye’s fishing village (“where the streets run at crazy angles up the hillsides, and the rooming houses and saloons lean together dangerously”) is a revelation, as is this entire film. I believe the movie has a cult following—and rightfully so. I have never seen a cartoon come to life as perfectly as it does in this masterpiece. Robin Williams, in the title role, gives an astonishing performance. He actually becomes a living, breathing Popeye! Shelley Duvall is also perfect as Popeye’s “goilfriend” Olive Oyl. Both actors were born to play these parts. In fact, everyone in the cast is “poifect!”

But of all the comic boxing scenes ever filmed (and there have been many) the one I believe deserves top billing appears in Charlie Chaplin’s great masterpiece, City Lights, released in 1931 as a silent film. (Although sound had been around since 1927, Chaplin preferred to work with silent productions.) City Lights is quite possibly Chaplin’s best work (it was his personal favorite). The Little Tramp attempts to earn enough money so that he can pay for an operation to restore the eyesight of a poor blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) he has fallen in love with. Chaplin’s character meets a boxer who tells him they can split $50 if he participates in a fake fight. But that night the fighter receives a telegram that says the police are after him so he skips out. The Tramp has to take a replacement opponent who will fight for real. What happens next demonstrates the Chaplin genius in full bloom. He creates a hilarious choreography as his character attempts to survive the boxing match. I think such scenes as those described above are actually more difficult to stage (if they are to have the desired effect) and require more creativity and imagination than a realistic fight scene depicted in a straight boxing drama such as Rocky or Raging Bull.

In 1992, the Library of Congress selected City Lights for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. In 2007, the American Film Institute‘s 100 Years… 100 Movies ranked City Lights as the 11th greatest American film of all time.

Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of the The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, 2008). The critically acclaimed book has just been reissued in paperback and in kindle version.

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Popeye boxing scene.

Charlie Chaplin - City lights 6 _ 8 part.

Charlie Chaplin - City lights 7 _ 8 part.

Bugsy Malone - So You Wanna Be A Boxer

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  1. Mike Silver 02:37pm, 03/27/2015

    Hey John! Got to read your comment today!

  2. John Wilkinson 01:09am, 08/04/2014

    Got to read your article, today MIKE SILVER!

  3. Mike Silver 08:19pm, 07/09/2014

    Thank you Bob.

  4. Bob 07:02pm, 07/09/2014

    Mike: What a unique and interesting piece. Never would I have imagined I’d recognize such artistry in “Bugsy Malone” and “Popeye.”  Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Loved the article and the clips. So refreshingly original.

  5. Mike Silver 10:00pm, 07/08/2014

    Peter, I can’t rate “Main Event” because I never saw the entire film. I think I did try and watch it, and I vaguely remember quickly losing interest.

  6. peter 05:22pm, 07/08/2014

    Fascinating article! I get your point about “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” but they are far from comedy. Grossly melodramatic is more like it…I once wrote a term paper analyzing boxing portrayed in film. Of course “City Lights” was cited, but not “Bugsey Malone” or “Popeye” .  Where does Mike Silver place the Barbra Streisand—Ryan O’Neal comedy, “Main Event”?

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 04:24pm, 07/07/2014

    The only way to stage a realistic fight scene is to have full contact under strict supervision and direction of course….period….and they shouldn’t cast anyone as a fighter who isn’t athletically and physically up to the task.

  8. Mike Silver 09:30am, 07/07/2014

    You are right Mountain. I should have written “when attempting to stage a realistic fight scene”, although you must admit Foreman-Lyle and Ward-Gatti came pretty close to a typical Rocky Balboa brawl.
    Spider: The scene would not have worked for less than a $50 dollar purse, as it wouldn’t have been worth it. Chaplin stretched the truth indeed, considering the real purses for Depression era prelim boxers.

  9. Spider Rico 08:36am, 07/07/2014

    Chaplin fought for a fitty dolla purse back in ‘31? Dats more den I got fightin Balboa in November of ‘75.

  10. Mountain Rivera 08:02am, 07/07/2014

    I didn’t know the movies, “Rocky” or “Raging Bull” had realistic boxing scenes in them. Stallone was throwing uppercuts from the floor, and De Niro portrayed LaMotta as some kind of brutal puncher, which LaMotta wasn’t at all. The LaMotta vs. Robinson fight where Jake refuses to go down that was portrayed in the movie, “Raging Bull” should have been classified as comedy. Talk about overkill or exaggeration.

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