Carnera: "worst boxing movie ever"

By George Kimball


Carnera: "worst boxing movie ever"

NEW YORK -- In the autumn of 1929, 15 year-old Budd Schulberg accompanied his father, the Hollywood mogul B.P. Schulberg, on a trip to Europe. A fellow passenger aboard the Ile de France on the crossing to Southampton was William Lawrence Stribling, Jr., a heavyweight boxer who had already, at 25, amassed 227 wins while fighting under the name Young Stribling.

Both Schulbergs, pere et fils, were devoted boxing fans, and became friendly with Stribling, who promised them ringside seats for his upcoming bout at the Royal Albert Hall against an oversized Italian named Primo Carnera.

“Sandwiched among the English fancy I saw the largest fighter I had ever seen win an awkward and unsatisfactory decision on a foul in the fourth round,” wrote Schulberg in his memoir “Moving Pictures.”

Persuaded by what he had seen of Stribling in the gym, B.P. Schulberg had made what his son termed “a casually reckless wager,” betting 1,000 pounds on the American, but, the younger Schulberg would later write, “the ungainly stray from a small Italian circus had been awarded a most peculiar decision, claiming he had been hit low by what seemed to be an invisible punch. They repeated their act again a few weeks later in Paris, this time with Stribling winning on a foul. By now I had seen enough to learn one of the sad realities of the sweet science: every so often the fix was in. In the case of Primo Carnera, as we would learn in time, the fix was always in, right up to the championship of the world win from Jack Sharkey. But when the mob who owned him had made their point, the handcuffs were removed from his opponents, and he was defenceless, thrown to lions like Max Baer and Joe Louis.”

Some eighteen years later, Schulberg would incorporate the essential elements of Carnera’s tale in his novel “The Harder They Fall,” which in 1956 became the vehicle for what would be Humphrey Bogart’s final film. That same year, Rod Serling’s award-winning teleplay “Requiem for a Heavyweight” appeared on Playhouse 90, starring Jack Palance as a Carnera-like boxer. In 1962, in somewhat altered form, “Requiem” also became a Hollywood film, this time starring Anthony Quinn, with Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney cast in decidedly un-comic supporting roles.

“The Harder They Fall” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” are widely acknowledged to be among the best boxing movies ever made. And while we had to wait half a century for it to happen, Primo Carnera also turns out to be the subject of the worst boxing movie ever made  -- “Carnera: The Walking Mountain,” which had its American premiere at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theatre Wednesday night.

The awkward subtitle of the movie – “Walking Mountain” – it is, one supposes, what happens when you translate Carnera's nicknmae, “The Ambling Alp” into Italian and then back into English, and it is also illustrative of one problem with Renzo Martinelli’s film, which was shot using (mostly) Italian actors whose voices were redubbed in English. The result is that Andrea Iaia plays an orthodontically-improved version of Carnera, speaking in accent-less American English, while an American F. Murray Abraham portrays the venal French fight manager Leon See by delivering his lines in a vaguely Gallic tongue.

The “Canera” web page describes its protagonist in terms not commonly associated with the Ambling Alp: “A man who endured hardships with dignity and triumphs with humility,” and “he led an extraordinary life with extraordinary courage. He had principles and values that were never compromised and followed him through his professional and personal life.”

You sure we’re talking about the same Primo Carnera here, Renzo?

A disclaimer accompanying the final credits concedes that some events portrayed in the film have been altered for dramatic license, but the disclaimer vastly understates the case. The film takes so many liberties with fact and history that the apparent premise of the movie – that Carnera was a bona fide Italian hero who legitimately became world heavyweight champion– is vitiated of any persuasive merit. The generally accepted view is that Carnera was either a willing mob stooge or a naïve victim of boxing’s netherworld whose career was built on fixed fights.

Take the two Stribling fights. Only the first one appears in the film, and while the movie shows Carnera going berserk and clubbing the referee in his effort beat Stribling senseless (which brings the occupants of both corners into the ring for a wild free-for-all unseen anywhere this side of the Judah and Mayweather family get-togethers), the movie result is not the real-life win via disqualification but rather a knockout victory. Three weeks later, Carnera lost via DQ to Stribling in the back-end of what many believe was a pre-arranged split of the two fights. No mention of the rematch was made in the movie.

In Primo’s first pro fight, a TKO of Leon Sabilo in Paris, Sabilo is introduced in the movie as “the champion.” According to Boxrec, Sabilo had nine pro fights at the time and lost eight of them. Boxrec may not have Sabilo’s complete record, but the site does show Sabilo being knocked out ten days before facing Carnera, making the movie’s claim that Sabilo was a “champion” seem very dubious.

The only hint of chicanery along the path of Carnera’s upward mobility, in fact, comes during his European apprenticeship, when F. Murray, as See, admits prearranging some of Primo’s early bouts. The film never even suggests anything that anything might have been amiss once he fell under the spell of Owney Madden in New York, other than the fact that Primo, despite his heroic efforts, keeps discovering that he is broke every time he goes to the bank.

(In a bizarre bit of casting, after the first such episode, Primo demands to speak to the bank manager, and is ushered upstairs into a cavernous office where, behind an elegant mahogany desk he finds the tycoon himself – Burt Young.)

Carnera’s actual immersion into the American fight game did not differ markedly from the one Schulberg chronicled for Toro Moreno in “The Harder They Fall,” where the giant boxer is sent out on the road where he can pile up a bunch of wins in the absence of scrutiny – “as far from the wise boys as possible,” explained Nick, Schulberg’s Madden character, “where the sharpshooters like Parker or Runyon don’t knock you off before we get started.”

Carnera’s first American bout, against Clayton “Big Boy” Peterson at Madison Square Garden in 1931, had attracted unwelcome attention. Although Big Boy obligingly went down for good in a minute and ten seconds, New York newspapers noted that he had displayed “no inclination to fight,” thereby inspiring the decision to dispatch Primo off to the sticks.

Carnera’s carefully-arranged barnstorming tour began in Chicago just a week later, when Elizear Roux fell down six times in less than three minutes on the way to a fist-round KO loss. The commission fined Roux $1000 and revoked his boxing license.

Subsequent opponents were apparently better schooled. In the first nine months of 1930, Carnera “won” 23 straight fights in backwater arenas all over the country, 22 of them by knockout and all them inside the distance, until he ran into Jim Maloney, who accidentally beat him in Boston that October. Primo was sent back to Europe to acquire a few more wins before he was pronounced ready for the big time.

In Martinelli’s revised version of history, by the way, Primo apparently never loses a fight, right up until and after his 1933 title fight against Sharkey. (He had in fact at that point already lost on six occasions.)

Some liberties are also taken with Primo’s love interests. His first dalliance, with a Soho waitress named Emilia Terseni, is cut short when See makes him choose between her and his boxing career, after which she disappears without a trace. (In fact, the actual Ms. Tersini successfully sued Carnera for Breach of Promise, and in 1933 was awarded the sum of 4,200 pounds.)

And, following what appears to be a five-minute renewal of a childhood flirtation, the woman who would become Mrs. Carnera, Giuseppina Kovavic, materializes in Long Island City for the Sharkey fight, whereupon the victorious Primo, still battered, cut, and bleeding, proposes as he stands in the midst of the deliriously cheering ringside audience.

The legitimacy of Carnera’s “knockout” of Sharkey is never called into question. (Although Jack swore it was on the level, Sharkey’s wife said it wasn’t. Most historians not named Renzo Martinelli are inclined to agree with Mrs. Sharkey.)

In the movie version, they marry before Carnera’s first defense, against Max Baer. In real life, Primo made two intervening defenses, against Paoilino Uzcudun in Rome and against Tommy Loughran in New York, and he and Giuseppina didn’t marry until 1939, when he had retired for the first time after losing a kidney.

If Carnera has been badly treated by Hollywood over the years, what of poor Max Baer? In “Cinderella Man,” Baer was portrayed as a malevolent villain, a homicidal maniac boasting of his two ring kills and threatening to add James J. Braddock to his list of victims. In Carnera, Italian actor Antonio Cupo turns Baer into a cackling idiot with a performance lifted straight from Jack Nicholson (as The Joker) in “Batman I.”

Against Baer – remember, by now the handcuffs were off – Carnera went down an even dozen times in less than 11 rounds, breaking his ankle somewhere along the way. In the movie, you’d think it was all bad luck.

With Primo still on crutches, Baer knocks on his door to offer him a rematch (there is no evidence that this ever happened), but Primo declines, opting instead to sail for Italy. As the film ends, Primo and ‘Pina are last seen sailing across the sea, returning, apparently, to Mussolini, with whom we had last seen him a few minutes earlier, triumphantly sharing a Fascist salute after the Sharkey fight.

In actual fact, Carnera did set sail after losing his title to Baer, but it was to South America, where he picked up three more wins before returning to New York to be knocked out by Louis. 

He made an ill-advised comeback in Italy after World War II, but after three straight losses to the same guy retired for good. Primo and Giusepinna then returned to America, where he had a modestly successful career in a more honest business: He became a professional wrestler.