Bright Lights Film Journal

The Birth of the Feature Film – 120 Years Ago: The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897)

A rare clear frame enlargement from The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight from a 35mm copy of the 63mm print last screened in 1997 on the 100th anniversary of its premiere

There was just one hitch: Rector and his camera operators had to be inside the camera.

* * *

On March 17, 1897, in an open-air arena in Carson City, Nevada, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons fought for the heavyweight championship of the world. The fourteen-round contest was recorded in its entirety by film pioneer Enoch Rector from inside a huge, human-powered camera called the “Veriscope,” the forgotten Neanderthal at the dawn of cinema history. Rector’s movie premiered in New York City two months later. Known today as The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, it was the world’s first feature-length film.1

Enoch Rector (courtesy Sarah Chermayeff, Rector’s grand-daughter).

The making of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was the culmination of three years of rapid evolution in motion picture technology in which boxing played a key role. It began in the summer of 1894, when Enoch Rector of Parkersburg, West Virginia returned to the United States after several years in South America building a railroad. He landed in New York and was strolling around when he ran into his old friends Otway and Gray Latham, playboy brothers he knew from his time studying engineering at West Virginia University. They continued on together and happened upon a storefront at 1155 Broadway where Thomas Edison’s latest invention, the Kinetoscope peephole machine, was introducing the public to moving pictures. They went in to see what the fuss was about and were greatly impressed. As the trio left the shop, Gray had a brainstorm: Why not show prizefights on this wonderful new Edison device, one round per machine? Prizefighting was banned in most states of the Union, but the law said nothing about showing a film of a prizefight. It would be a sure moneymaker.

The first Edison Kinetoscope parlor at 1155 Broadway, New York (Phonoscope, Nov. 16, 1896).

Rector and the Lathams set to work. The first problem they encountered was the fact that Edison’s Kinetograph movie camera and Kinetoscope viewer could handle only twenty seconds of film. This was not nearly long enough for a prizefight, which was made up of three-minute rounds. Three full minutes of filming was not possible at this time, so they made one minute their initial goal. If they could film and exhibit a fight comprised of one-minute rounds, it would convey an approximation of a real contest, enough to get the public excited and the nickels rolling in.

To accomplish this, Edison technician William K. L. Dickson pushed the Kinetograph camera to its limit and Rector developed a large-capacity Kinetoscope, a six-foot-long version that could accommodate a longer loop of film. The first Rector-Latham production, filmed under the aegis of the newly formed Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company, was a six-round slugfest between lightweight contender Mike Leonard and local unknown Jack Cushing. The contest was filmed inside a ten-foot ring set up in the “Black Maria” studio at Edison’s Orange, New Jersey lab and ended with a satisfying “knock out” – prearranged but realistic enough. The resulting film, known today as The Leonard-Cushing Fight, debuted on August 4, 1894 at the first Rector-Latham Kinetoscope parlor in lower Manhattan and enjoyed moderate success.2

For their next production, Rector and the Lathams secured the services of heavyweight champion Jim Corbett to take on local slugger Peter Courtney, again in the Black Maria for six one-minute rounds. The film of the bout, known as Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph, would go on to become the biggest hit of the Kinetoscope era.3 But it still wasn’t an actual fight, only a staged representation. To photographically capture a real prizefight, Rector and his associates had to be able to film for three uninterrupted minutes, the length of a round. And that still wasn’t possible with the movie camera as it then existed.

Frame from Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph

The crux of the problem concerned film tension. In Edison’s Kinetograph camera and machines like it, the strip of celluloid film ran from the feed reel and past the lens to the take-up reel in a straight line. The intermittent mechanism that advanced the film past the lens in a rapid-fire series of starts and stops thus jerked it directly off the feed reel. The result was that the feed reel could hold only a limited amount of film, not much more than a minute’s worth. Any more than that and it would be too heavy, like a dragging anchor. The jerking of the intermittent mechanism, pulling on this weight, would tear the film.

In their quest to get beyond the one-minute barrier, Enoch Rector and the Lathams went their separate ways. The Lathams subsequently developed a machine, the Eidoloscope, that incorporated an elegantly simple solution to the film breakage problem in the form of a loop in the film before it passed in front of the lens. The jerking of the intermittent mechanism thus pulled only on this inches-long loop, not on the whole reel. This innovation would become an integral part of the modern movie camera. It is called the “Latham Loop” but was actually invented by Eidoloscope Company employee Eugene Lauste, working for a salary of $21 a week.

It would be the Lathams, using their Lauste-built camera, who would push the movies from one minute to eight full minutes. They would do so, once again, with a prizefight, this one featuring Albert “Young Griffo” Griffiths and Charles Barnett, filmed on the roof of Madison Square Garden in early May 1895. The film would be shown to the public via projector, which the Lathams were rightly convinced was the way forward, a much more cost-effective way for a film to be viewed by hundreds of people at once. Debuting on May 18, 1895, Young Griffo vs. Battling Barnett would be the first projected film shown to paying customers, predating by seven months the Lumière brothers’ first commercial screening in Paris, and established a new mark for film length. The Lathams, however, were better visionaries than they were men of business. Their Eidoloscope, while hugely important in cinema history, would soon fade from the scene.4

Enoch Rector, meanwhile, had come up with a different solution for making longer films. His idea was to operate the camera manually using a team of three men – one to turn the feed reel and thus keep the film slack, a second to crank the intermittent mechanism by hand and a third to turn the take-up reel. In this way much larger and heavier reels of film could be used. There was just one hitch: Rector and his camera operators had to be inside the camera.

Enoch Rector looking out one of the Veriscope’s red-tinted windows (San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1897)

Rector achieved this by building a huge camera he called the Veriscope. It was a light-tight wooden structure with red-tinted windows and with three photographing machines (each requiring a three-man team) installed inside. Because the Veriscope was in effect a darkroom, Rector and his assistants were able to handle and manipulate the film without it being spoiled, carefully watching it as it was cranked through the machines to ensure it didn’t tear. They were, after all, inside the camera. (Celluloid film of this era was orthochromatic, meaning that it was not sensitive to the red light streaming in through the Veriscope’s windows.) The significance of the Veriscope as a giant camera with the operators sealed inside has been entirely overlooked by film historians but it was evident to people in Rector’s day. As one contemporary paper described it, it was “an immense camera, arranged on the principle of the little Kodak machine, which contained within itself miles and miles of prepared photographic film.”5

The Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company had gone bust by this time. Rector would hook up with a Dallas-based promoter named Dan Stuart going forward in a concern called the Veriscope Company. Stuart’s plan was to arrange a title fight between Jim Corbett and loud-mouthed contender Bob Fitzsimmons and to have Rector film it with his new apparatus. Ticket sales to the contest would thus be only the start of the financial bonanza. They would then be able to show the film of the fight again and again to paying customers all around the country.

The initial plan was to hold the contest in a gigantic arena in Dallas, Texas, billed as the second largest in history, surpassed only by the Coliseum in Rome. Construction was already underway when the Texas legislature passed a law against prizefighting and the venue had to be relocated. It was now becoming increasingly difficult to hold a prizefight due to the rise of moral forces and resulting anti-fight legislation. Stuart was not easily discouraged, however. After a herculean effort, he succeeded in organizing a bout between contenders Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher near Langtry, Texas, on a Rio Grande sandbar just across the Mexican border. Ticket sales were abysmal, for to prevent interference the contest’s location had to be kept secret until the last minute. But that wouldn’t matter if Rector could record it. The plan was to show the resulting film on a truly gigantic Kinetoscope that would hold a three-minute loop of film, a monster fifteen feet long and equipped with five peephole ports along its length so that five customers could simultaneously watch. Had this device been built, it would have pushed the Kinetoscope as far as it could go.6

An approximation of what Enoch Rector’s five-person Kinetoscope would have looked like (illustration by Samuel Hawley)

Rector’s attempt to film the Fitz-Maher fight ended in failure. The day was too overcast to get a decent exposure on the light-insensitive Blair film he was using and the fight itself did not last even one round, Fitz decking Maher in under two minutes. Rector’s five-person Kinetoscope also never was built, for the projector was now on the rise. Why use costly Kinetoscopes that could accommodate only five people when, with a single projector, you could cater to a whole theater full of people at the same time? Projectors made irresistible business sense.

It would take more than a year, but Rector would try again, this time at the heavyweight title bout that Dan Stuart arranged between Bob Fitzsimmons and Jim Corbett in Carson City, Nevada on March 17, 1897. He had simplified his Veriscope by this time to make it more reliable and had also acquired more sensitive film stock from George Eastman. It was not the standard 35mm, 1:1.3 aspect ratio film normally associated with the silent era. Instead it was a whopping 63mm wide and had what we would recognize today as a wide-screen format. Rector had it custom-made so that he could place his Veriscope apparatus closer to the action and still encompass the whole boxing ring.7

The filming of the Corbett-Fitz fight was a tremendous achievement of organization, synchronization, and hard physical work. The three machines inside the Veriscope held 1,200-foot reels of film, enough to film for eight minutes at a rate of twenty-four frames per second. The first machine was started as the fighters entered the ring, one man cranking, two men manually turning the reels. The team on the second machine began cranking four minutes later, then the third after another four minutes. In this way two machines were kept filming at all times, giving Rector a duplicate record of the fight, fourteen rounds of action ending in the stunning “solar plexus blow” that Fitz used to drop Corbett and on into the scrum of bodies that subsequently poured through the ropes. When it was all over, Rector had exposed 21,600 feet of film. In the space of only three years, the movies had been pushed from a mere 50 feet to just over four miles.8)

A photo of the fight surreptitiously taken by Carson City teenager Hugh Castle, Enoch Rector’s Veriscope visible at center-right. The Veriscope Co. banned cameras from the arena to protect its exclusive rights to the contest, but Castle managed to sneak a portable Kodak in past the eagle-eyed guards. He took two shots, one in the 6th round and this one just after Corbett was kayoed.

The footage was taken back to New York to be developed. This next step was risky. Rector confided to an Eastman representative that the thought of consigning his precious film to chemical baths caused him “great dread.”9 With morality forces calling for the film to be banned, Rector leaked word to the press that the footage had not turned out and that he was personally devastated. But it was a ruse. The film turned out fine and thankfully no legislation against it was passed. Rector chose the best footage from the duplicate record and edited it into a single film 10,800 feet long on six reels – a total of approximately seventy-five minutes of screen time. He also built a projector, dubbed the Veriscope like his camera. Only the intermittent mechanism that advanced the film past the lens was electrically powered. The film reels, as in Rector’s camera, were manually turned by assistants to keep tension off the film and thus prevent it from breaking.10

Newspaper advertisement in the Chicago Tribune, June 6, 1897 for “The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Contest.” The inflammatory word “fight” was never used in publicity for the film.

The word “fight” was scrupulously avoided in advertisements when Rector’s film subsequently hit theaters. At its premiere at New York’s Academy of Music on May 22, 1897, tickets ranging from 25 cents to a dollar, it was genteelly billed as “The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Sparring Contest.” Rector himself presided in the projection booth in the balcony during the screening. With introductory lecture by a tuxedoed master of ceremonies and three-to-five-minute intermissions for changing the reels, the show lasted just over two hours – what was billed as “a complete evening’s entertainment.”11

What would it have been like to sit in that audience 120 years ago? The screen was 30 feet wide, a bit on the small side compared to a movie theater today but immense back in 1897. The projected images had an annoying tendency to flicker but when they were steady they were remarkably clear, far sharper than what is generally expected in a film so old. The lecturer stood to one side of the screen and gave a running commentary during the presentation, his voice occasionally drowned out by excited shouts when the action grew hot. The audience was in fact extremely vocal, roaring out at the screen as if they were actually seated at ringside, “Oooh! … What a soaker! … He’s tiring now! … Fitz has got him!” The intermissions were welcome, for by the end of each reel everyone had a bad case of eyestrain. It didn’t seem to detract from the enjoyment of the evening, however. As a female spectator concluded: “[T]hough we leave the theatre with aching heads, we regret that so little that we determine to return as soon as we can, to witness again this combat of modern gladiators.”12

A sample of the actual 63mm film of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight.

An interesting sidelight to the show, from the modern perspective, is how the audience was captivated by the innocuous. One example came in the eighth round, when a ringside spectator in the foreground leans over to borrow a match from the timekeeper and lights a cigarette. The naturalness and reality of this simple action, the clarity of the smoke the man blew into the air – it amazed audiences more than a century ago. At a time when moving pictures were indistinct and typically recorded frenetic movements, it was a revelation to see a relaxed, unselfconscious moment so clearly captured on film. As for Corbett’s high-cut briefs and largely bare buttocks, in an age of supposedly Victorian sensibilities this merited no comment at all.13

The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight went on to earn close to $1 million. Enoch Rector, the man who made it, set off on a world tour with the film, with stops in Hawaii, Australia, and South Africa, and returned to the States in mid 1898 aglow with the thought of receiving his quarter share of the profits. In the end, however, he never saw a dime. For according to Dan Stuart, Rector had been promised a share of the net profit, not of the gross … and of course there was no net profit. The film, Stuart insisted, barely broke even.

Rector thus established yet another first: He became the first victim in cinema history of what would come to be known as “Hollywood accounting.”

* * *

This article was adapted from the author’s book The Fight That Started the Movies: The World Heavyweight Championship, the Birth of Cinema and the First Feature Film.

  1. Approximately 29 minutes of surviving footage of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight still exists. The original 63mm film is held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A low-resolution copy of most of this footage can be viewed on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVwNVzqQeeg. []
  2. Surviving footage of the Leonard-Cushing Fight may be viewed on the Library of Congress website: https://www.loc.gov/item/00694127. []
  3. Surviving footage of Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph may be viewed on the Library of Congress website: https://www.loc.gov/item/00694182/ []
  4. Young Griffo vs. Battling Barnett is a lost film. I have been unable to locate even a single surviving frame. []
  5. Eau Claire [WI] Daily Leader, Aug. 24, 1897. []
  6. Rector’s planned five-person Kinetoscope has been entirely overlooked by film historians. This “new machine” is referred to in a letter from Thomas Edison manager William Gilmore to Kinetoscope Exhibiting Co., Sept. 10, 1895, Thomas Edison Papers, TAED D9516AAD, and also in the El Paso Daily Times, Feb. 27, 1896: “These machines were to be so constructed that five people could witness the contest at one time, at a tariff of 10¢ per spectator.” []
  7. The raw Eastman stock Rector used was 2 1/2 inches (63mm) wide. Prints of the film were slightly smaller at 2 3/8 inches (60mm) due to shrinkage during the developing process. Other print specs: frame width 2 inches (50mm); frame height 1 1/4 inch (32mm); frame aspect ratio 1:1.6. []
  8. I describe the Veriscope filming process in greater detail in my book The Fight That Started the Movies. Here is a note from the book (pp. 348-49) explaining how I figured it out:

    It was variously reported in the press that Enoch Rector filmed the fight at 40 to 45 frames per second (see for example Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1897). This was an exaggeration. Judging from extant footage of the Corbett-Fitz fight film, Rector’s actual filming speed was 24 fps (corroborated by The Phonoscope, Jan.-Feb. 1897, 12), somewhat slower than the 30 fps he intended to use at the Fitz-Maher fight (deducible from camera and film specs in William Gilmore to Kinetoscope Exhibiting Co., Sept. 10, 1895, TAED D9516AAD). Given a speed of 24 fps and a frame height of 1¼ inch, Rector’s 1,200-foot film reels would have lasted eight minutes. Starting the cameras at four-minute intervals (according to Phonoscope) would have given a four-minute overlap, thereby allowing Rector to make a duplicate record of the fight with three cameras. With this information, one can map out a plausible approximation of the filming sequence and determine what each camera was doing at any given time. My description of filming inside the Veriscope is based on clues and deductions such as these, coupled with what is known about the challenges filmmakers faced at that time and of the practices of camera operators in the silent era. Antique movie camera expert Sam Dodge provided me with additional insights, including the telling comment, “I can’t imagine cranking for 8 minutes. I don’t think anyone could crank for 8 minutes. They had to have shifts at the camera.” (Email correspondence with the author, Nov. 28 and 30, 2015. []

  9. Eastman Kodak president Henry Strong to George Eastman, Mar. 29, 1897, George Eastman Legacy Collection (GELC), Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY. []
  10. Standard and Diggers’ News, Johannesburg, South Africa, Feb. 12, 1898 (it took “three lantern men” to run Rector’s projector); Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1897 (film reels on Rector’s projector turned by hand). []
  11. Milwaukee Journal, July 13, 1897. []
  12. Lady Colin Campbell (pen name Véra Tsaritsyn) writing in the New York World, Oct. 20, 1897, of her experience attending the film’s premiere in London. []
  13. Accounts of the film’s premiere appeared in New York Herald, World, Sun and Tribune, May 23, 1897; New York Press, May 23 and 24, 1897; New York Times, May 26, 1897; and New York Clipper and Dramatic Mirror, May 29, 1897. See also “Big Fight on Canvas,” The Phonoscope, May 1897. []