Oct 22

The Leonard-Cushing Match, 1894

Leonard gives Cushing a pre-scripted beating.

Leonard gives Cushing a pre-scripted beating.

What’s the first commercial film made anywhere in the world?  Quick now, what is it?  If you said “Edison’s film of the 1894 fight between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing” then you can either go to the top of the class, or onto the naughty step if you’ve been reading ahead.

In 1891, Edison’s company first filmed a boxing match, under the name “Men Boxing”.  That, however, was a fake fight between Edison employees; 1894’s match was the real deal. Well, sort of… It wasn’t filmed at a real boxing match, but at Edison’s own “Black Maria” studio in West Orange, New Jersey, with extras instead of a real crowd.  The ending was scripted, and the winner pre-arranged, so that there would be a certain number of rounds that could be sold (which at $22.50 a round became a lucrative business for Edison).  So it wasn’t an official match by any stretch of the imagination.

But that said, remember this was 1894. There wasn’t really a film industry as we know it today – Hollywood was mainly a place where they still grew oranges, if anything. So this first foray into commercial film production serves as a historical curiosity – a ground-breaking first!

As a historical curiosity, however, it’s fascinating.  Leonard (in white) and Cushing (in black) are really going for it – landing proper punches on each other (although the hand-cranked camerawork does make it feel a little bit like you’re watching men box underwater). And all without the aid of modern boxing gloves, too (feel free to debate amongst yourselves whether the higher risk of brain damage is worth the smaller number of superficial facial injuries.)

Sadly, only 37 seconds of a single reel survives, the Edison company’s paper negative of a single reel being enough to establish copyright. It’s this reel the Library of Congress have put online as part of their excellent American Memories collections, which we thoroughly recommend. Footage isn’t particularly grainy, but the quality fluctuates and it’s sometimes difficult to follow what’s going on – but then just remember that you’re watching a film of an event that happened over 100 years ago!

You can watch it on the Library of Congress site, or download it in Real Media, MPEG or QuickTime format.  Additionally, you can watch it on YouTube, or even in the player in the boxing article on Wikipedia.

Oh, who won? Sadly, the final knockout appears not to have survived, but any customers who had persevered to the end of the sixth round would have seen the white-shorted Leonard prevail against the black-shorted Cushing – thus, perhaps, helping prefigure the cowboy white hat-black hat cliché seen even today!

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