Tom Tugend is a contributing editor to the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
Max Baer, the Jewish Fighter in Cinderella Man
Reprinted with permission of the JTA. Visit jta.org.
LOS ANGELES, June 5 (JTA)--Cinderella Man chronicles the fall and rise of Depression-era heavyweight champion James Braddock, but the movie also revives the memory of another title holder, Max Baer.
In the climactic scene, the movie depicts the 15-round fight between Braddock (Russell Crowe), the victorious underdog, and a menacing, beady-eyed Baer (Craig Bierko).
But Baer's greatest fight was in June 1933, when he faced a heavily favored German, Max Schmeling. Hitler had come to power a few months earlier and the Nazis were busy smearing Stars of David on Jewish-owned stores.
When Baer strutted into the Yankee Stadium ring, his trunks sported a prominent Star of David, and he then proceeded to demolish Schmeling, knocking him out in the 10th round.
This pugilistic victory, coming in the depth of the Great Depression and amid rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States, lifted the spirits of Jews throughout the world, regardless of Baer's actual Jewishness.
Under Ron Howard's direction and in the screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, Baer is portrayed as the designated bad guy to deepen the contrast to the gutsy, family-loving, Irish-American Braddock.
Though the realistically staged boxing scenes in Cinderella Man--which opened nationally last Friday--carry the action, the movie essentially is the story of a man overcoming defeat and poverty through his own courage and the devotion of a loving wife.
Except for ardent fans of the sport, the most wrenching scenes are of Depression-ridden America, with men clawing for a few hours of work and cops demolishing the Hooverville shantytown in New York's Central Park.
Despite intensive training and great cinematography, the 41-year-old Crowe is not fully convincing as the younger Braddock. But the actor, complete with New Jersey accent, is at his best as a poor, hungry down-but-not-outer, whose comeback made him the idol of working class and jobless Americans and earned him the "Cinderella Man" sobriquet from writer Damon Runyon.
As Braddock's wife, Mae, Renee Zellweger has little to do but look noble and supportive as she tries to raise three kids while her husband is reduced to asking for handouts from the government and old pals.
The most impressive performance is delivered by Paul Giamatti (Sideways) as Braddock's loyal Jewish manager, Joe Gould.
Bierko has the muscle and face to play Baer, but the character comes across as a playboy and a clown, which Baer frequently was, and as mean-spirited, which he wasn't.
Baer, who always carried the burden of having caused the deaths of two opponents with his lethal straight right, is depicted telling Mae Braddock, just before the fight with her husband, "You're too pretty to be a widow."
When Mae shows her shock and indignation, the screen Baer follows up leeringly with, "Maybe I can comfort you afterwards."
According to sports historians and Baer's son, this kind of cruelty was not characteristic of the champion.
Except for fleeting glimpses of the Star of David on Baer's trunks, which the boxer displayed in every fight after the victory over Schmeling, the movie does not touch on his ethnic background. His genealogy has been frequently debated and misconstrued, but was clarified by the fighter's son, Max Baer Jr., better known to 1960s TV audiences as Jethro in "The Beverly Hillbillies."
Speaking from Las Vegas, the younger Baer said the champ's father, Jacob Baer, was a German Jewish immigrant, who worked as a butcher, cattle dealer and rancher in Colorado and California. Jacob Baer married a Catholic woman and their children were raised in her faith, though the household wasn't particularly religious.
"When I was around 10 and living in a Jewish neighborhood in Sacramento, I came across a boy wearing a yarmulke," Baer recalled. "So I went home and asked my mother why that kid was wearing a beanie without a propeller."
The idea of wearing a Star of David for the Schmeling fight, said Baer, "came from my father's Jewish manager. At that time, the great boxers were Italian, Irish or Jewish, and there was a lot of ethnic pride and rivalry among the fans, especially in New York. I think it all started as a publicity ploy, but over time my father might have convinced himself that he was defending the Jewish people."
The younger Baer described his late father as cocky, "sort of like Muhammad Ali," who liked to clown around and would rather party than train.
But Baer trained hard for the Schmeling match. After watching that fight, the legendary Jack Dempsey observed that Baer was so good that night he could have beaten anybody in the world. Whatever could be said against Baer, he was never petty or mean-spirited, contrary to the movie depiction, said his son.
"My father hardly ever bore a grudge, and after he and another fighter would beat each other to a pulp, my father would go to the other guy's dressing room and invite him to a party," said the junior Baer.
"After he lost the world championship to Braddock, my father said he was glad that the title went to a guy who had to support a large family.''