It’s been a bruising week for “Cinderella Man,” the new Ron Howard boxing drama. First came the disappointing box office showing — a distant fourth in first-weekend revenues. Then, the film’s star, Russell Crowe, allegedly flung a telephone at a New York hotel concierge. All the while, Jewish boxing fans have taken aim at what they call the film’s oversimplification of the story’s villain, the Star of David-wearing Max Baer.
“Cinderella Man” chronicles the fall and rise of Depression-era heavyweight champion James Braddock (Crowe). In the climactic sequence, the movie depicts the 15-round fight between victorious underdog Braddock and menacing, beady-eyed Baer (Craig Bierko).
But a longer view makes it difficult to see Baer as a stock villain.
A mere two years prior to the bout at the film’s heart, in June 1933, Baer was the underdog when he faced the 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. 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 antisemitism in Europe and the United States, lifted the spirits of Jews throughout the world.
It is, of course, not difficult to understand why the film’s screenwriters, Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, would have felt the need to flatten out the Baer character. A Cinderella story begins to lose its punch once the evil stepmother becomes lovable — and the Cinderella here is Crowe’s Braddock, not Bierko’s Baer. Only the most attentive of viewers will spot Baer’s star here (it is far smaller than the one he actually wore), and the question of the boxer’s Jewishness goes all but unmentioned.
But obscuring Baer’s star, boxing experts say, blurs our view not only of Baer but also of early 20th-century boxing and the place of Jews in it.
The boxing world of the 1920s through the 1940s was rife with Jews, both inside and outside the ring. According to Mike Silver, curator of an exhibit on Jewish boxers now on display at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, by the late 1920s, nearly a third of all prizefighters in the United States were Jews, and Jewish fans made up a central component of the sport’s fan base. Baer was the only Jewish heavyweight champion of the period, but there were 27 Jewish titleholders in all. It is important to note, Silver told the Forward, that not one major bout during boxing’s golden age was held on a major Jewish holiday.
Indeed, some argue that Baer, who had a non-Jewish mother and a half-Jewish father, was encouraged by his manager, the Jewish Ancil Hoffman, to wear the star in the Schmeling bout simply as a way to excite Jewish spectators.
“As Jewish boxers in Germany were fleeing for their lives, gentile boxers in New York were clamoring to be Jewish,” said David Margolick, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of a forthcoming book on Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. “The boxing culture of the 1930s was one of the few instances when being Jewish was good business.”
For Jeremy Schaap, host of ESPN’s issues-oriented news show “Outside the Lines” and the author of a book on the Baer-Braddock matchup, Jews in Hollywood — where Baer himself starred in a number of films — were “enormously proud of a guy who literally wore his Jewishness while they suppressed it.”
But it’s not simply on Jewish grounds that critics have taken issue with “Cinderella Man” and the harsh portrait that it paints of Baer. Chief among Baer’s defenders has been his son, Max Baer Jr., who played the role of Jethro Bodine on the TV series “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
According to his son, whatever could be said against the senior Baer, he was never petty or mean spirited, contrary to the movie’s depiction.
The younger Baer described his late father as a cocky man, “sort of like Muhammad Ali,” who liked to clown around and who would rather party than train.
“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,” Baer said. “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.”