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Carpentier the Film Actor

During the period in which he was appearing in films, there seemed to a sort of tacit agreement among the filmmakers, the newspapermen and Carpentier himself that he was to be taken seriously as a performer, and not merely as a celebrity cashing in on his fame, a glorified novelty act.  In 1930, for example, long after any real hope for a return to the ring had faded but just after he had made his Hollywood feature films, Carpentier, hyperbolically and inaccurately described as “the new star of the ‘talkies’,” was interviewed in Paris about his new career and his intention to continue pursuing it:

I spoke English in the movies I made over there, which the public was kind enough to receive  favorably.  You will no doubt be seeing them soon in France: Show of Shows, Hold Everything, Naughty but Nice.  As a matter of fact, immediately after my vacation, I’m going to go right back to it!  And am I pleased!  There are certainly no directors in the world who can give an actor better direction than the Americans!  When all is said and done, I don’t have too many regrets about leaving the ring.[1]

In later years, when there was no longer any need for hype, Carpentier spoke of his career as a film actor in very different terms.  Refreshingly self-deprecating, he was candid about the fact that he had never really taken himself seriously as an actor and had in truth never developed much of a taste for acting.  In reference to his first American film, The Wonder Man (1920), he said:

Altogether I don’t think I did too badly, but I wasn’t keen on the whole business.  I have played in about a dozen films in my life and the profession of film actor never appealed to me. (Carpentier by himself, 126)

Of his later experience in Hollywood, he was even more self-deprecating and made clear that he had not known great success :

I felt a little lost in Hollywood amongst all the flamboyant stars.  But much more important than that: I have always had a horror of not doing things really well, and I certainly didn’t think a great deal of my abilities as a film star. (Carpentier by himself, 189)

After [Hold Everything] I played in two other films, but in less important roles.  I was never one not to take a hint and so I packed my things.  I had been in Hollywood just over four months and my stay had been interesting and agreeable, but I couldn’t feel that I had successfully opened up a new career.  I took film work no more seriously than I had taken the music-hall stage and although the film people seemed to have been quite satisfied with what I had done, I felt that I had no particular gifts for work, which in any case, did not really please me very much […] (193-194)

Carpentier realized that his film roles would inevitably be related to boxing, that his appearances in films would be self-referential-- that filmmakers would want him to play some version of himself. Much to his credit, while he was willing to take some of these opportunities to take advantage of his celebrity, he was lucid enough to understand that this was not the same thing as being a “real” actor and that the interest such performances held, both for him and for audiences, would always be limited:

[…] I felt that the possession of a reputation for something else and a well-known face would represent a handicap: no matter what I did in a film the public would always see the ex-boxer Georges Carpentier in me.  (Carpentier by himself, 194)

The producers at Warner’s continued to be satisfied with my services, but I was less satisfied, knowing that I was condemned forever to play the role of boxer, in other words, to play the same role over and over.  (Mes 80 Rounds, 211)

At the time of his first film role in the United States, in 1920, Carpentier was accused of being a “film boxer,” an actor who could only pretend to box. Ultimately, as he himself seems to have recognized, something closer to the opposite was true: he was, more or less, a boxer who could only pretend to act.

[1] Roger Sauvé, “Georges Carpentier: Vedette du cinéma parlant américain.”  The clipping is marked “1930” but includes no other bibliographical information; it is included in Rk 17.943 in the Collection des arts du spectacle of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Return to text