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The Wonder Man (1920)

Soon after his arrival in the US for the first time, in the spring of 1920, Carpentier got down to the business he had come to do, namely to star 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), was driven by a chauffeur every morning from his Manhattan hotel to the New Jersey studios of Robertson-Cole, where the film was being shot.  The film presents a version of Carpentier that is at once dashing and courageous and upstanding and patriotic.  While the character is ostensibly fictional, spectators are clearly being encouraged to identify the actor/boxer with the role he is playing.  

Carpentier plays the title role in The Wonder Man (directed by John G. Adolfi), a role that is, as he says in an autobiography, “particularly flattering for [him].”[1] Henri d’Alour [2] is a young officer assigned to the 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 suspect in the murder.  Ultimately, the French hero is able to produce conclusive proof of the American villain’s culpability.  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 a fight scene or two, however gratuitous, and this one is no exception), d’Alour  and 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 will 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 Rounds 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 dastardly foe and then displays his class 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 iconic Carpentier persona. The 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 being cast 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 not necessarily terribly intriguing--, Carpentier is cast as an elegant diplomat.  He boxes thus 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 sub-plots, 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.

In boxing terms, the fact that his character is an inexperienced and unskilled pugilist only serves to heighten the moviegoer’s thrill when, in the end, he 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 be able to triumph in the ring over a more skilled, more vicious 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 seen The Wonder Man, the buildup to Carpentier-Dempsey must have had more than a touch of déjà vu. As would also be the case in the Carpentier-Dempsey matchup, the contrast between upstanding French hero and scheming American villain is between selfless patriot and 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 in the same way that people like watching a boxing match.  In addition to the boxing, the reviewer approves of 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’s screen presence.  While they may not get to see him in the ring for real, 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, it is clear 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.  Perhaps even 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 war hero) in action 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])

These things, in conjunction with the heroic deeds of his fictional alter ego, will contribute to the construction of an iconic Carpentier persona in the collective consciousness of mainstream America. 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),[11] it is indeed probable 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.[12] 

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 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.

In an interesting example of the sort of blurring of lines between fact and fiction, between sport and spectacle, that was an integral component of Carpentier’s career, 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.”[13]  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, not from a training camp.

Ultimately, The Wonder Man accomplished the simple but all-important goal Carpentier and 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. The plan very nearly backfired, however, as American fight fans were quick to dismiss the “film boxer,” to pigeonhole Carpentier as a movie actor who also boxed rather than a boxer who had appeared in a movie or two.

 


[1] Georges Carpentier, Ma Vie de boxeur (Amiens: Roger Léveillard, 1921), 208. The Wonder Man was the first feature film made by the Robertson-Cole studio, which would later, through a series of corporate mergers, become the legendary RKO Pictures studio. 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; the 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. Return 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 Wonder Man,’ in which he is a hero.  So what if the French champion is not champion of the world?  Console yourself with the knowledge that he is the most photogenic boxer.”  Ironically, Carpentier was of course 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. Return to text

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

[12] The film was also released, somewhat later, in England and France. As the advertisement in the Beloit Daily News, cited above (note vi), 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

[13] Nat Fleischer, Jack Dempsey: The Idol of Fistiana (New York: The Ring, 1929): 186.  This is a curious error on the part of the usually very sharp Fleischer, all the more so since at least one of the photos is obviously a movie still. Return to text