Film Review from the October 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Make no mistake, “Cinderella Man” is a crackerjack movie which thoroughly justifies the praise lavished on it. The true story of Depression Era boxer James J. Braddock, who rose from the welfare rolls to winning the World Heavyweight Championship, thereby earning his nickname, “Cinderella Man”, is totally absorbing and powerfully directed by Ron Howard.
Braddock’s story was representative of his time. The movie begins in the late 1920s, when he lived in a nice suburban house and was a leading contender for a world title. It resumes when the Depression was at its worse in the early 30s and Braddock’s career was at its lowest ebb, hence his standard of living too. As the Depression gradually recedes, we follow his rise to a shot at the title (at odds of 10-1) and victory over the seemingly unbeatable Max Baer, who was (dis)credited with two ring deaths.
“Cinderella Man” clearly depicts how tough times were in the early 30s, which doesn’t mean it’s a happy-go-lucky romp in Elysian Fields today. When Braddock’s daughter asks for an extra slice of baloney, Braddock, who hasn’t eaten that day, pretends he isn’t hungry. When a guy comes to their tenement apartment to switch off the hydro, Mae Braddock (who is unable to pay the gas or milk bills either) attempts to dissuade him. He tells her, “I’ve got kids too. If I don’t switch it off I’ll lose my job.” Mae and her three children tear the slats off a billboard, for fuel, risking trouble with the authorities.
Though his pride has sustained some fierce body blows, his spirit is unbroken. Braddock’s strength comes from his closely-knit family and the belief in his capabilities by Joe Gould, who (unbeknownst to Braddock) sells his own furniture to pay Braddock’s training expenses.
As we follow Braddock’s new-found success it becomes clear this movie is about the indomitable human spirit. As Ron Howard said recently, “It’s a film about people finding the strength to carry on and do the things they have to do.” Most of us like to see the underdog triumph, most of us like to see a comeback, and here we have both, therefore, we can enjoy this film. Although it’s perfectly OK to enjoy “Cinderella Man”, it’s not OK to be taken in by it. Sure it’s a paean to the never-say-die, gotta give it my best shot feeling that exists in all of us. In that sense it’s uplifting and a film in tune with the times we are living in, let alone the 1930s.
But on a deeper level the message of the movie is, “Hey, take it easy buddy, capitalism ain’t so bad. Sure there are times when it’s tough all over, but if you hang in tough and keep struggling like Jim and Mae Braddock did you’ll find things’ll work out just fine.” This viewpoint was echoed by Russell Crowe on the David Letterman Show on June 8 and has become the main mantra of the media.
On the docks, Braddock befriends an ex-stockbroker who lost his job, mortgage and belief in politicians the day the market crashed. When Braddock suggests things might improve now Roosevelt is president, his friend replies, “FDR hasn’t got me my mortgage back.”
In implying that we shouldn’t trust politicians, they are saying the right thing for the wrong reason. Politicians of all kinds stand for a continuation of capitalism, a system that causes the conditions within which the Braddock family, like most families, struggled.
The pity of it all is that Braddock, like most members of the working class, didn’t learn much, but continued to believe society didn’t need changing. In 1928, a year before the Wall Street Crash, he lost $20,000 when the Bank of the United States went belly-up. This was the year Herbert Hoover was elected president on the promise of continued prosperity. According to Mr. Hoover, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.”
Braddock, who was paid $32,000 for beating Max Baer, eventually gained greater prosperity by a deal that was thoroughly in keeping with boxing’s, hence capitalism’s, shoddy ethics. When Joe Louis had emerged as the outstanding challenger, Joe Gould informed him he could sign ten percent of his earnings over the following ten years to Gould and Braddock, should he win, or forget about a title fight. Knowing he could be denied a title shot for years because he was black, Louis signed.
Braddock died in his sleep on November 30, 1974 at the age of 69. The next day in the New York Times, Red Smith wrote, “If death came easily, it was the only thing in his life that did.”