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Capitalism - No Magic Slipper
Make no mistake, "Cinderella Man" is a crackerjack movie which thoroughly justifies the praise lavished on it. The true story of Depression Era boxer, James J. Braddock, who rose from the welfare rolls to winning the world heavyweight championship, thereby earning his nickname, "Cinderella Man" (courtesy of Daman Runyon) is totally absorbing and powerfully directed by Ron Howard, who never lapses into mawkishness and moralizing. Russell Crowe as Braddock and Renee Zellweger as his wife, Mae, give outstanding performances. The supporting cast of Paul Giambetti, as Braddock's manager, Joe Gould, and Bruce McGill as a stony-hearted promoter (is there any other kind?) are excellent.
Braddock's story was representative of his time. The movie begins in the late 1920s, when he lived in a nice suburban house and was a leading contender for a world title. It resumes when the Depression was at its worst in the early 30s and Braddock's career was at its lowest ebb, hence his standard of living. As the Depression gradually recedes, we follow his rise to a shot at the title, at odds of ten to one, and victory over the seemingly unbeatable Max Baer, who was (dis)credited with two ring deaths.
"Cinderella Man" clearly depicts how tough times were in the early 30s, which doesn't mean it's a happy-go-lucky romp in Elysian Fields today. When Braddock's daughter asks for an extra slice of baloney, Braddock, who hadn't eaten that day, pretends he isn't hungry. When a guy comes to their tenement apartment to switch off the hydro, Mae Braddock, who is unable to pay the gas or milk bills either, attempts to dissuade him. He tells her, "I've got kids, too. If I don't switch it off, I'll lose my job." Mae and her three children tear the slats off a billboard for fuel, risking trouble with the authorities.
Braddock takes whatever work he can find, when he can find it, which is mainly working on the docks for four bucks a day. In desperation, he begs for loose change from former friends in Madison Square Garden. When he has no alternative, he signs on at the welfare office for $24 a month to feed a family of five. Though his pride has sustained some fierce body blows, his spirit is unbroken. Braddock's strength comes from his closely-knit family and the belief in his capabilities by Joe Gould, who, unbeknownst to Braddock, sells his own furniture to pay Braddock's training expenses.
As we follow Braddock's new-found success, it becomes clear this movie is about the indomitable human spirit. As Ron Howard said recently, "It's a film about people finding the strength to carry on and do the things they have to do." Most of us like to see the underdog triumph. Most of us like to see a comeback, and here we have both. Therefore we can enjoy this film. Although it's perfectly OK to enjoy "Cinderella Man", it's not OK to be taken in by it. Sure, it's a paen to the never-say-die, gotta-give-it-my-best-shot feeling that exists in all of us. In that sense it's uplifting and a film in tune with the times we are living in, let alone the 1930s. But on a deeper level the message of the movie is, "Hey, take it easy buddy, capitalism ain't so bad. Sure, there are times when it's tough all over, but if you hang in tough and keep struggling like Jim and Mae Braddock did, you'll find things will work out just fine." This viewpoint was echoed by Russell Crowe on the David Letterman show on June 8th, and has become the main mantra of the media.
Recently, on "American Film Institute's Greatest Movie Quotes", satirist Bill Maher referred to the movie, "Wall Street" with this pearl of wisdom, "Unfettered capitalism has become the highest goal that anyone can aspire to." Unfettered is certainly the operative word here. A capitalism unfettered by the interference of politicians, of whom there is scant mention in the dialogue.
On the docks, Braddock befriends an ex-stock broker who lost his job, his mortgage, and his belief in politicians the day the market crashed. When Braddock suggests things might improve now Roosevelt is president, his friend replies, "F.D.R. hasn't got me my mortgage back." In inferring that we shouldn't trust politicians, they are saying the right thing for the wrong reason. Politicians of all kinds stand for a continuation of capitalism, a system that causes the conditions within which the Braddock family, like most families, struggled. The pity of it all is that Braddock, like most members of the working class, didn't learn much, but continued to believe that society didn't need changing. In 1928, a year before the Wall Street crash, he lost $20 000 when the Bank of The United States went belly-up. This was the year Herbert Hoover was elected president on the promise of continued prosperity. According to Mr. Hoover. "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land." A prime piece of real estate named after the great prosperity-bringer is featured. This is "Hooverville" in Central Park. Step up, Step up, ladies and gents and inspect the merchandise - a shanty town right smack dab in the centre of the financial capital of the world. Ain't capitalism wonderful?
Another sad reflection of the times was that boxing was perhaps the best job a working class boy could get. It was in this tawdry sport that boxers worked the horsehair of their gloves away from the knuckles and where boxers pummeled defenceless opponents, when referees refused to stop the fight for fear they may be disqualified for not trying. Obviously, this lack of supervision sometimes caused death, which, in the case of Max Baer, caused the death of the inner man.
Braddock, who was paid $32 000 for beating Baer, eventually gained greater prosperity by a deal that was thoroughly in keeping with boxing's, hence capitalism's, shoddy ethics. When Joe Louis had emerged as the outstanding challenger, Joe Gould informed him that he could sign ten percent of his earnings over the following ten years, to Gould and Braddock, should he win, or forget about a title fight. Knowing he could be denied a title shot for years because he was black, Louis signed. After the fight, which Louis won by a knockout in the eighth round, a reporter, who scurried to Braddock's dressing room, said, "He hadn't got behind his eyes yet."
Braddock died in his sleep on November 30th, 1974 at the age of 69. The next day in the New York Times, Red Smith wrote, "If death came easily, it was the only thing in his life that did."
The fact that Braddock was able to get out of poverty is no justification for its existence. The establishment of socialism is the only way to abolish conditions where no one goes without food, heat, and electricity; where no one has to beg to survive; where no one has to risk their lives in the boxing ring. The Cinderella Man may have found in the Heavyweight Championship his magic slipper, but, for most of us, capitalism is no magic slipper.