The Long Count in Color

By The Fight Film Collector on June 29, 2017
The Long Count in Color
The Smithsonian Channel has partnered with filmmakers to produce America in Color.

If vintage fight films were to be colorized, how they might provide a fresh look at the styles and skills of the great champions of the past…

A few years ago I visited a friend in New York who is an editor for a sports magazine. He showed me an original color photograph from the second Robinson-Basilio fight in 1958. It was a ringside shot that showed the details the boxers faces, muscles, trunks, gloves and blood barely visible in black and white photos. It was so REAL. As the saying goes, “It could have been taken yesterday.” It got me thinking how we perceive boxers and recorded bouts of different eras, and how the images and films of different eras influence our perceptions of these men.

Boxing has been documented on motion picture film ever since the movie camera was invented late in the 19th century. Boxing was among the first subjects to be filmed, notably with Jim Corbett’s staged clocking of Peter Courtney for Thomas Edison’s cameras in 1894. Over the next few decades, as film technology advanced, boxing grew from both barroom and athletic club affairs, to a thriving international sport. The popularity of fight films helped boost motion pictures from a sideshow attraction into a new industry.

Surviving films of Jack Johnson, Jack Demspey, Joe Louis, Max Baer, Billy Conn, Henry Armstrong, Tony Galento, Tony Zale, Marcel Cerdan and others up to the 1940s, when seen in pristine condition, are incredibly clear and detailed. The 1950s were even better, with fights featuring Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ezzard Charles, filmed with Hollywood precision. The introduction of television was revolutionary, but the quality of early television was low compared to film. Then came the 1960s, and video advanced with higher resolution, larger screens and then finally color TV.

Pre-1960 color films of championship boxing are rare. Most of the color footage that existed up to that time, with some going back to the 1940s, were home movies. Boxing was never filmed in color for movie theatres. According to boxing film historian Steve Lott, by the time championship fights were being filmed in color, everything was on television or closed circuit.  Some exceptions include the second Robinson-Fullmer fight (see video posted below) filmed in color in 1957 and possibly the Robinson-Graziano fight of 1952, according to Lott.

With Photoshop and other imaging software becoming ever more sophisticated, there’s been a trend in the last few years to colorize vintage and historical photographs. It’s a complicated process, but the results can be striking. From Civil War solders to factory workers during World War II, tastefully colorized images can sharpen our perspectives of history, especially those photos we’ve already known in black and white.  The color reveals depth and details that our eyes otherwise passed over. Photos of Lincoln, Frederick Douglass or Babe Ruth appear distant in black and white, but in color, and minus the period clothes, they look contemporary.

As complex as colorizing photos can be, it’s more difficult for motion pictures. I’ve often wondered if vintage fight films were to be colorized, how they might provide a fresh look at the styles and skills of the great champions of the past.

A new documentary series that is taking a step in that direction. The Smithsonian Channel has partnered with filmmakers to produce America in Color, a 20thcentury history series of the Unites States. The episodes cover each decade from the 1920s to the 1960s. The source footage for each chapter is taken from newsreels, photographs, home movies and other sources not previously published. All the footage has been colorized to show “Decade by decade, the story of America, its people and its culture are given new life and shown in vibrant color for the first time.” The color tones have been accented for each decade, beginning with the softer pastel look of Autochroms, Chronochroms, to the warmer Kodachrome/Agfacolor and later the sharper and brilliant Technicolor.

I was hired as a consultant for the 1920s episode, providing research and background for the segment highlighting the Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney “Long Count” fight in Chicago 1927. I also provided footage from my collection—including an original 16mm home movie of the fight, photographed by a spectator at the fight. The four-minute movie, which has never been shown before, was taken from two angles, both from the ground level seating, between 10 and 20 rows from the ring. The fight appears in a series of short clips, with the camera starting and stopping repeatedly, while the photographer chased the action through the fight. In the seventh round, the camera rolls just as Dempsey traps Tunney on the ropes. The view is captured from the far (Tunney’s) corner of the ring, recording from behind Dempsey as he throws his famous volley of punches. As Tunney falls, the view is blocked by spectators jumping up in front of the camera.

America in Color includes the home movie footage, as well as footage from the original theatrical film of the fight, providing two perspectives of the action, with both in color for the first time. The color in the 1920s episode is subtle. The producers wanted to reflect tones associated with the decade rather than a full colorization. Additional colorized documentaries are planned over the next year. I hope, with the wealth of historic boxing footage already preserved, that more great boxers of the past will be brought to life in color.

Thanks to the Smithsonian Channel for providing the above colorized image of Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. AMERICA IN COLOR premieres with the 1920s episode on Smithsonian Channel on Sunday, July 2 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

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Ray Robinson vs Gene Fullmer II (Color Footage w/Jack Newfield)

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  1. nicolas 10:42am, 06/30/2017

    I don’t think colorizing old fight films will add anything to the way we feel about a fight. It has really more to do with the amount of cameras used, camera placement

  2. Lucas McCain 11:38am, 06/29/2017

    Watching Robinson move in the ring, and the way the left shoulder makes an arc with relaxed but always ready left arm, are things of beauty.  And then listening to Newfield and host enjoying Jimmy Cannon’s “hard-boiled” prose as much as they enjoy Robinson’s KO . . .a great clip, color or no color.

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