Face Off: The Harder They Fall (1956) and Cinderella Man (2005)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

In The Harder They Fall, sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself in a moral conundrum. He’s covering the boxing phenom Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), an absolute barn of a fighter who’s touring across America on an unprecedented winning streak. The conundrum? Toro can’t actually box worth a damn. The glassjawed giant has been set up by his manager Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) and had all of his fights fixed, though that particular fact is kept secret from Toro himself. Benko’s scheme ensures that the audience has a built-in perception of this fighter, that Toro’s reputation — even if it’s engineered behind his back — will equal dollars in Benko’s pocket. People love a clear-cut hero, an undeniable winner, and Benko forms Toro into exactly that. But Eddie’s not convinced, even if the blissfully-ignorant Toro seems to be having the time of his life in this heroic role. Shouldn’t the athlete himself have some say in how he’s portrayed to the world?

As Bogie’s last film, the noir-ish drama is of a piece with many of his other movies. Eddie isn’t at all riding around gallantly on a noble white steed, nor is he above making a quick buck off a media frenzy now and again. But as his relationship with Toro grows, Eddie softens and soon realizes he has to champion the athlete in response to a ruthless media and Benko’s managerial machinations. It’s not the Quintessential Humphrey Bogart picture, but The Harder They Fall is still deserving of a place amongst his filmography. And as a sports drama, it’s refreshingly not your classic scrappy underdog tale. A string of famous boxers lend some credibility by making appearances throughout the film, too, from Jersey Joe Walcott to Max Baer.

I’m by no means a boxing fan…so why does “Max Baer” sound so familiar? Ah, right: Baer was the antagonist in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, the story of — yeah, you guessed it — scrappy underdog boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) and his miraculous victory against heavy favorite Baer (Craig Bierko). As scripted by Akiva Goldsmith and Cliff Hollingsworth, though, Baer was more than the antagonist, more than the final boss Braddock fights in the climax. Cinderella Man‘s Baer is straight-up evil, bloodthirsty, seeming to revel in killing two men in the ring and actively seeking to do the same to Braddock. He offers to “console” Braddock’s wife if he’s killed in the ring, and in general he’s very public about his love of violence. As played by Bierko, Cinderella Man‘s Baer is a wild-eyed menace trying to stay famous even if he has to kill to do so.

That’s a far cry from the real Baer, as critics were quick to point out after the release of Cinderella Man (see here, here, and here, for a few examples). Not only was Max Baer not a sinister evildoer, but by all accounts he known for his friendliness and was generally well-liked across the board. His humor, too, was the stuff of legend. On the day he died he called down for a doctor, and received a response immediately that the house doctor would be calling shortly. “A house doctor?” Baer said. “I need a people doctor.” On top of the glaring discordance in personality, Baer was at the time the first Jewish heavyweight champion of the world. While Cinderella Man paints its Depression-ravaged cast as supporters of the underdog Braddock, many at the time actually saw Baer as somewhat of an underdog in his own right, representing the Jewish people on the world stage.

A cheerful Max Baer with Humphrey Bogart on the set of The Harder They Fall / Craig Bierko as a decidedly-less-than-cheerful Max Baer in Cinderella Man

The movies get history wrong all the time. Heck, sometimes they get it wrong on purpose (think Tarantino or Alex Cox) and it still works. But there’s poetic license for the sake of narrative, and then there’s defaming a guy just so that your narrative has a Big Villain and your hero has a “personal stake” in the final battle. To say nothing of the fact that an unlikely athletic comeback while your family suffers at the height of the Depression might just be “personal” enough, what Cinderella Man does to Max Baer is essentially the same thing Nick Benko does to Toro Moreno in The Harder They Fall: distorting the real man to fit the narrative. Not only do Toro and Cinderella Man‘s Baer get beat in their respective final boxing matches, but the Almighty Narrative has ensured that history will likely end up remembering them wrongly, having never actually known them in the first place.

At the end of The Harder They Fall, Eddie Willis resolves to crusade for athletes trampled underfoot by the system. Toro has been used like a marionette and exploited by his own manager, and the boxer that the media has immortalized is a false Toro, designed to fit a familiar narrative. But if Willis were to stride onto the set of Cinderella Man a half-century later, he’d be ticked to find the same treatment still being extended to Max Baer, with the boxer’s name now more commonly associated with murderous villainy than with good humor and sportsmanship. With such underhanded libel at play, Cinderella Man might have made use of the poster tagline for The Harder They Fall: “The only thing that’s on the square is the ring itself.”

The Harder They Fall (1956)

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