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The Wonder Man

Carpentier as the "film boxer"

In the spring of 1920, as the frenzy of activity and writing surrounding his arrival in the US subsided, Carpentier got down to the work he had come to do, starring in a movie. The boxer, who had already starred in a highly fictionalized and melodramatic cinematic rendition of his life story  in France in 1911 (Le Roman de Georges Carpentier), played the title role in The Wonder Man (directed by John G. Adolfi), a role that was, as he says in an autobiography, “particularly flattering for [him].”[1] Henri d’Alour [2] is a young French officer assigned to a French delegation in the United States and, unbeknownst to his American friends, charged with uncovering an espionage ring.  As it happens, his rival in love, an American engineer named Allan Gardner (played by Robert Barrett), is also his adversary in the espionage wars: Gardner is himself working undercover and has even committed a murder to further his goals.  Gardner manipulates the situation so that d’Alour becomes the object of suspicion in the murder.  Ultimately, the French hero is able to produce conclusive proof of the American villain’s culpability.  So all ends well and d’Alour walks away with the girl, too.[3]   

Improbably, but inevitably (movies starring boxers rarely pass up the opportunity for the odd fight scene or two, however gratuitous, and this one is no exception), the chivalrous d’Alour  and the dastardly Gardner are opponents in the ring as well. After a first encounter in which Gardner humiliates the inexperienced d’Alour in a supposedly friendly sparring match, the two end up squaring off in an amateur boxing tournament sponsored by the tony “Potomac Ridge Club.”  In a scenario that would be repeated in countless subsequent boxing movies for decades to come, the hero/underdog d’Alour is badly outclassed for the first three rounds but, upon receipt between round 3 and 4 of a note of encouragement from the woman he loves, draws upon previously untapped reserves of strength and skill.  In a miraculous fourth round, the hero KO’s his villainous foe and then displays his virtue and good sportsmanship by carrying the man back to his corner.

The Wonder Man  puts into play many of the most important elements of the Carpentier myth.  It is in fact a cinematic, thinly fictionalized version of the persona constructed for the American public through the series of syndicated autobiographical articles supposedly penned by the French boxer.  This wondrous man is first and foremost a gentleman (while American audiences may not have been aware of it, the lower-case “d” that precedes the character’s surname is a particule, an onomastic signifier of aristocratic status).  Rather than casting Carpentier as a professional boxer, which would do nothing to enhance his image or create interest in him (a professional boxer playing a professional boxer is, after all, not terribly intriguing), the powers-that-be behind the film cast him as an elegant diplomat.  Henri d’Alour boxes not as a professional, nor even an official amateur, but within the context of a private gentlemen’s club, in what would today be known as a “white collar” bout.[4]  The entire story, in both its boxing and espionage subplots, takes place within a rarified world; tellingly, the advertisements for the film billed it as “an absorbing drama of high society;”[5] “ a modern society drama with a thrilling four-round fight,”[6]  and “An Absorbing American Society Drama.”[7] Among other things, the film thus reaffirms Carpentier as the gentleman boxer, the embodiment of the fascinating and improbable overlap between upper-crust society and boxing.

The fact that his character is an inexperienced and unskilled pugilist only serves to heighten the moviegoer’s thrill when, in the end, he unexpectedly manages to trounce his more qualified opponent.  The suspense of the fictional boxing storyline is that of the uncertainty about whether the slim, handsome, dashing hero, however worthy, will in fact be able to triumph in the ring over a more skilled, more ruthless villain.  This fictional suspense is of course precisely the suspense that would be created by the real Carpentier-Dempsey bout the following year; for fans who had recently seen The Wonder Man, the buildup to Carpentier-Dempsey must have had a touch of déja vu. As would also be the case in the Carpentier-Dempsey matchup, the contrast between upstanding French hero and scheming American villain is between a selfless patriot and a selfish anti-patriot.  According to at least one account, Carpentier’s character, Henri d’Alour, appears throughout the film in his French uniform, complete with medals (whether Carpentier wore his actual uniform and/or actual medals is unknown).[8] 

Reviews of Carpentier’s first American film were somewhat mixed.  One French reviewer called the plot “unbelievably devoid of interest” while praising the technical aspects of the film, arguing that the expertly staged fight scene constitutes the real appeal of the film.   The reviewer predicts that people will like the film simply because people enjoy watching a boxing match.  In addition to the boxing, the reviewer gives relatively high marks to Carpentier’s screen presence: “[…] Georges Carpentier, while not a great actor, is more than sufficiently elegant and more than sufficiently adroit to avoid appearing ridiculous.”[9]        

Likewise, the June 4, 1920 review in Variety leads with an optimistic prediction about the American public’s reception, not of the film per se, but of Carpentier the screen presence.  Though most of them will not have the opportunity to see him fight in the flesh, Americans will at least be able to admire him on screen:

Fight and film fans alike are going to take to George Carpentier in pictures.  The former may never lamp him in action against a formidable opponent during his stay in America, but both clans can get an eye full of his wonderful athletic versatility in addition to his artistry as a screen actor in The Wonder Man.

[…]

Carpentier, as Henri d’Alour, clad in his French uniform, upon which dangle the many medals he received, makes a handsome appearance.  His smile and pretty teeth and altogether clean-cut appearance makes you wish you could shake his hand.

Despite the requisite passing reference to Carpentier’s putative skills as a thespian, the clear implication of the review is that The Wonder Man provides the American public with the opportunity not to see a great film or to marvel at the French boxer’s acting, but simply to “get an eye full” of him.  They will see him move around the ring, albeit in the context of a fictional choreography. Much more important, they will see his “smile and pretty teeth and altogether clean-cut appearance.”  They will have before their very eyes a great champion boxer (and a war hero) as a literal matinee idol, more than handsome enough to make the ladies swoon in admiration.  (One French advertisement for a re-release of the film after Carpentier’s loss to Dempsey suggested that French audiences comfort themselves with the knowledge that, while Carpentier was not heavyweight champion of the world, he was nonetheless the “most photogenic boxer” in the world.[10]

Carpentier’s presence and pulchritude, in conjunction with the heroic deeds of his fictional alter ego, contributed to the construction of a myth surrounding him in the collective consciousness of mainstream America.  Tellingly, one of the advertisements for the original American release of the film touts Carpentier as “The Most Magnetic Man in the World.”[11]  Given the  big-scale publicity campaign promoting the film and its consequent commercial success (Carpentier’s autobiographies report that the film “made a lot of money for its producers” and that he himself made $45,000 for his twenty-five days’ worth of work),[12] it is clear that the film played a significant role in the marketing of the Carpentier as “the most magnetic man in the world” to the American public.[13] 

The Wonder Man  also produced some of the mostly widely distributed still photographs of Carpentier.  In what appears to have been a single sitting, Carpentier was photographed bare-chested, in form-fitting white boxing trunks with a tri-color sash at the waist, in multiple, stylized, quasi-sculptural poses designed to highlight his impressive physique: in profile, slightly raised on his toes, with right arm extended and left cocked up by his shoulder and vice-versa, in fighting stance with head down and one or the other biceps flexed, and so on.  Reproduced on postcards and collectors’ cards, in his own books and often accompanying the flood of newspaper and magazine articles articles about him that would appear in the year between the first release of the film and his fight with Dempsey, these images show the “wonder man” Carpentier as statue, as super model, as male pinup.  Even those who hadn’t seen the movie had a chance to admire the French boxer’s Greek God physique through the circulation of this particular set of images.[14]

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Ultimately, The Wonder Man accomplished the simple but all-important goal Carpentier and his manager François Descamps (who plays a minor role in the film  himself) had in mind when they agreed to make the film: to introduce Carpentier to a mainstream American public that had previously had very little knowledge of him.  In order for an eventual Carpentier-Dempsey matchup to be anything approaching the kind of draw all parties concerned were imagining, Americans had to be (well) acquainted with Carpentier:

The trouble was that the American public did not know me well enough and it was therefore doubtful whether a match with me would bring in sufficient to make it worth Dempsey's while.  […]

I accepted the offer of a film company to go to New York to star in a film and the American promoter Jack Curley agreed to organize an exhibition tour for me throughout the country.  Apart from the fact that both our contracts promised to be very profitable it would be an excellent opportunity to make my name known to the American public and quite generally to prospect the ground for future campaigns.[15]

The plan was not without its risks, however.  As might have been predicted, fight fans were skeptical about a boxer who came to the US for an extended stay without engaging in a real bout.  They were not to be content with a few minutes of after-banquet sparring, a few highly choreographed scenes on film nor even with the nationwide (forty cities) tour of exhibitions with a sparring partner on which Carpentier embarked following the shooting of The Wonder Man.  American audiences, perhaps more so than their European counterparts, made a clear and firm distinction between exhibitions of sophisticated boxing technique and the actual toe-to-toe brawls they prefered. In fact, if Carpentier’s interpretation of the situation is accurate, the typical American audience didn’t fully understand the concept of an exhibition match between sparring partners, in which skill is showcased but doing real harm is avoided:

The welcome I received in the various places I appeared was almost always extremely warm, in some cases even overtly enthusiastic.  I am nonetheless obliged to tell the truth and say that overall the tour didn’t have the success that we and the promoter had expected.  This was due to the particular mentality of the American public, who, in principle, hunger less for pretty and scientific boxing than fights, which they like as action-packed as possible.  In certain cases, the shouts of the audience, who didn’t understand why I was going so easy on my partner, grew so loud that I was forced several times to beat up pretty hard on poor Lenaers, who didn’t understand what was going on and wondered what had gotten into me all of a sudden.[16]

 The American public was not the English public.  They were not going to settle for a an exhibition of classic boxing, they wanted a brawl, and I was forced to rough up my sparring partner in order to give them a show.[17] 

This is of course not hard to believe.  Given the American boxing audience’s marked taste—then and now-- for exciting, rough-and-tumble brawls as opposed to demonstration of technical prowess in the art of boxing, crowds were no doubt disappointed by the politeness of Carpentier and Lenaer’s displays.  As Carpentier points out, however, the flames of this disappointment were fueled by the sporting press, who mounted a “veritable campaign” of criticism against Carpentier, the “film boxer” who had only come to the US to rake in money without incurring any risk to his pretty face:

What’s more, this curious  attitude toward me on the part of the public was encouraged and amplified by an entire segment of the American press, which, well before the end of the tour, undertook a veritable campaign to reproach me  for making movies and doing exhibitions instead of proving my worth as a boxer in the ring.  I have kept  many clippings of articles published at that time and I assure you that some of them are completely lacking in the slightest courtesy.  I was compared to an actor seeking to make money by smiling prettily instead of trading punches.  The nickname “film boxer,” bestowed on me by one of the most virulent writers, was threatening to stick […] [18] 

The jibing in the press at Carpentier the “film boxer” was no doubt motivated in large part by  a more or less legitimate  skepticism about a great boxer’s attempting to earn a following without actually fighting; there was another element at work as well.  The backlash against Carpentier also had much to do with American skepticism about a boxer who is as “refined” as Carpentier appeared to be.  The marketing of Carpentier was an esthete, going to the Opera in New York and hobnobbing with the members of the high society, proved to be a double-edged sword in the US.  Carpentier’s European persona—aristocrat, esthete, intimate of barons and princes—was not translatable in any literal way into American popular culture.  While a mainstream American public may have embraced the idea of a cultivated gentleman who can box the ears off the usual hard-scrabble brawler, many fight fans would have preferred to keep the conventional stereotypes in place.  If, in the traditional world-view, boxing is a signifier of toughness, and toughness has to go hand-in-hand with life on the margins and a “primitive,” almost bestial persona, a fancy fellow like Carpentier is a threat.  Especially if he appears to be living the high life without putting his pretty face on the line.[19]

With the much-desired match with Dempsey rendered temporarily impossible because of the champ’s ongoing legal battles, Carpentier and Descamps nonetheless “resolved one day not to get back on the boat for France without having answered our persecutors with the most clear-cut means of denial.”[20] They signed a contract for the next best thing to a bout with the heavyweight champion of the world: a bout with light heavyweight champ, Battling Levinsky, to be held October 12, 1920, in Jersey City.  It was Carpentier’s decisive victory over Levinsky, by knockout in the fourth round, that earned him his world championship and thus made him a legitimate challenger to Dempsey. It was even argued by some that Carpentier dispatched of Levinsky more handily, if not more quickly, than had Dempsey himself.[21]  Within six months, all the necessary negotiations for a Carpentier-Dempsey fight had taken place and the date of July 2, 1921 had been set.

[1] Georges Carpentier, Ma Vie de boxeur (Amiens: Roger Léveillard, 1921), 208. Return to text

[2] The character’s name appears to have been changed, for some reason, to “d’Arvant” in the French version of the film. Return to text

[3] There is some confusion as to the exact plot of The Wonder Man: Carpentier biographer Ginette Haÿ specifies that the Henri d’Alour character is “covered with a hero’s glory  due to his courageous actions during the war” (118) and explains in a footnote that, the film itself being unavailable, her information comes from two of the Carpentier autobiographies, Ma Vie de boxeur and Mon Match avec la vie.  Consultation of those passages, however, reveals that Carpentier merely refers to his character as a sous-officier français without any mention of being a war hero.  Perhaps Haÿ has, understandably, conflated the facts of Carpentier’s life with the fictions of Henri d’Alour’s?

Similarly, Carpentier’s (and Haÿ’s) accounts of the plot describe the American villain as working undercover for the Germans, whereas a contemporary review of the film in Variety (June 4, 1920) says that the evil deed is question has to do with “the stealing of some valuable after-war contracts between American agents and the French government” and makes no mention of the Germans.  A French review of the same period (unidentified press clipping in a clippings file at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, call number Rk 5086) refers to contracts between the French government and an American manufacturer of agricultural machines, with no mention of the Germans.

Unfortunately, going to the film itself for verification of these not entirely insignificant points is not possible, as the film does not appear to be able for viewing anywhere in either France or the US. Return to text

[4] An article in the French sporting periodical L’Echo des sports ( July 8, 1921), 21, tells of French cinema audiences, well acquainted with Carpentier and Descamps’s adroitness at making money both in the ring and out, bursting into laughter when Carpentier’s gentleman character disdainfully turns down an offer to box for money, saying “I don’t fight for money.” Return to text

[5] Antiquities of the Prize Ring archive file, Georges Carpentier: 1920; this ad was published in the Beloit Daily News, September 20, 1920. Return to text

[6] For this advertisement, appearing in the Beloit Daily News of June 11, 1921 and no doubt in papers around the country, see the  Antiquities of the Prize Ring archive file: Georges Carpentier 1921. Return to text

[7] Antiquities of the Prize Ring archive file, Beloit Daily News, September 23, 1920. Return to text

[8] See the review of the film in Variety, cited above. Return to text

[9] Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, clippings file Rk 5086. Retrn to text

[10] The ad, cited by Haÿ, 118, from a document in the collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale dated August 26, 1921, reads as follows: “You have seen the film of the Carpentier’s match with Dempsey?  Now go see the film ‘The Wonderman,’ in which he is a hero.  So what if the French champion is champion of the world?  Console yourself with the knowledge that he is the most photogenic boxer.”  Ironically, of course, Carpentier was at this time a world champion, of the division to which he genuinely belonged (light heavyweight) and the first ever Frenchman to achieve that distinction (there have only been a handful since). Return to text

[11] From the Beloit Daily News, September 20, 1920 (see note above). Return to text

[12] See Carpentier by himself, 126; and Mes 80 Rounds, 144. Return to text

[13] The film was also released, somewhat later, in England and France. AS the advertisement in the Beloit Daily News, cited above, attests, the film was re-released in the United States in June 1921 in anticipation of the Carpentier-Dempsey bout; for this release, Carpentier was billed specifically as “The Dempsey Challenger.” Return to text

[14] In an interesting example of the sort of blurring of lines between fact and fiction, between sport and spectacle, that was at the heart of Carpentier’s success, boxing historian and founding editor of The Ring Nat Fleischer made the revealing error, in his biography of Dempsey, of mistaking the Wonder Man stills for pictures of Carpentier in training for the Dempsey bout in Manhasset, New York. His captions reads: “First fighting poses of Georges Carpentier at Manhasset Bay camp.”  The Wonder Man pictures were indeed the first US-produced pictures of Carpentier is fighting poses, but they were taken at a time when the only fighting he was doing was fictional.  They are “real,” in that they do what they purport to do, to show Carpentier’s body, but they are artifacts from a film set rather than a training camp. Return to text

[15] Carpentier by himself, 123. Return to text

[16] Ma Vie de boxeur, 210. Return to text

[17] Mes 80 Rounds, 145. Return to text

[18] Ma Vie de boxeur, 211.  On the “film boxer” accusations, see also Carpentier by himself, 129; Mes 80 Rounds, 145-46; Merlin, 47; and Haÿ, 118. Return to text

[19] It is important to note that, in keeping with the elegance and comfort to which he had become accustomed in Europe as of about 1912, Carpentier toured the United States in grand style.  Thanks to the promoter of the tour, Jack Curley, the French boxer and his entourage traveled by train in “royal conditions,” in a private car, a “magnificent affair” that had been previously used by President Wilson, the King of Belgium and the Prince of Wales (only fitting, since the Prince and Carpentier were, if not actual friends, at least very friendly acquaintances,) The accommodations consisted of no fewer than seven sleeping compartments, as well as a kitchen, dining room and drawing room; three domestics attended to the needs of the members of the entourage. These facts, slavishly reported in syndicated daily papers, did little to dispel the notion of Carpentier as little more than a pugilistic wannabe. Return to text

[20] Ma Vie de boxeur, 211.  On the “film boxer” accusations, see also Carpentier by himself, 129; Mes 80 Rounds, 145-46; Merlin, 47; and Haÿ, 118. Return to text

[21] Dempsey knocked out Levinsky in three rounds in Philadelphia on November 6, 1918. Return to text