A gentle pianist accompanied by a symphony, quietly quotes Damon Runyon in newspaper font. The screen fades from black to an enlarging newspaper photo of the opponent of James J. Braddock, a big-time light-heavyweight boxer who has never been knocked out, is shown nobly trotting around the ring after winning a big fight. James, or Jim, Braddock was a puppet of the boxing industry making thousands per match. James’ success before the Great Depression is shown in the first 5 minutes. The Great Depression hit Americans hard; whether you were in a stable job or not. At the time men provided for their families. 10 million men were unemployed including James, who was lucky to even get a fight to pay the bills, and he still couldn’t feed his family. Cinderella Man by Ron Howard is a true story of how a boxer inspires the working class during the Great Depression. The life story of James Braddock during this time is full of sacrifice, dedication, and an un-relinquishing love for his family and friends.
Before we get to see what happens to James in the Great Depression, the beginning of the film shows the camera turning into James’ bedroom. As we look over his shoulder, we can see that he is a religious, family man by his multiple crosses and picture of his wedding photo. He drops his money and watch onto the dresser, and the camera pans into the darkness as he gets ready to sleep. In the same shot, we come out 4 years later out of the darkness, as James is getting ready to find work on the docks early in the morning on a different, less-fancy dresser. James gives his breakfast to his hungry child who has to drink watered down milk because they are so poor. The camera following James shows walking down the streets with a song about the Depression. He gets to the docks, yet he isn’t picked. When he comes home, Mae, his wife, tells him that his son Jay had stolen a salami stick from the butcher. A wordless scene of James and his son apologizing to the butcher is a powerful statement of time era, as explained after they exit the shop, Jay tells his father that he is scared that he will be sent away like his friend because his parents couldn’t find a job. Even though Jay is aware of the Depression, James is able to comfort Jay by helping him learn a life lesson and keeping a promise he might not be able to fulfill. So far we saw the turn from optimism to depression through the life of a big time boxer. Though he had a solid job, his family was forced to terrible conditions. When he didn’t box, he worked on the docks, that is if he were picked. He feels as if he is a pawn in the ring when Joe calls his opponent a ‘bum’. Joe finds that James hurt right hand, but will continue to let him fight because James explains to him that he owes everybody money. This is a showcase of the integrity Braddock holds, because he considers himself a bum too in these times. James is able to be the same person despite the changes around him when in two scenes, one before the depression and one during, which I thought was what made him so honored.
The further disappointments of the Depression are shown as Braddock’s hopeful return is stifled when he breaks his right wrist in a fight. Entering the ring he is hopeful of giving the crowd an entertaining show. The beginning of the fight shows Braddock and his opponent landing hits on each other, switching back and forth from the crowd cheering, coaches bellowing, and men betting. Also in the beginning of the fight, we see the crowd booing at the fighters when they hold their bodies close, or they are not landing punches. People wanted their money’s worth, especially in the Depression. Braddock then shakes up his opponent upon the ropes, and when his opponent in rebounded off the ropes, he bows his head to Braddock’s knockout punch. James breaks his wrist on the crown of the fighter’s head, shown with the flash of an old camera light, an x-ray of the wrist breaking, and Braddock clutching his wrist in slow motion upon a white background which shows the media is utilizing his hardships to make an exciting story. First a close up on his grim face looking into the crowd, then a pan of the crowd shows elegantly how hard Braddock is instinctively fighting for the crowd, and his employers. He continues to fight, but ends up clutching his opponent. The crowd boos in displeasure, then the bell brings us back to the corner. Jim’s unresponsive mug face in the corner is cringe worthy, especially when he is trying to hide his injury, knowing he has to put on a good fight. He resorts to his weaker left hand, which the crowd does not like. After embarrassingly tapping his opponent with his left hand he ends up in another clutch. The camera shows his face in pain. The crowd is yelling for something better. James uses his right hand to try to please the crowd, shown with the blurry-to-clear close up shot of yelling face of a fan. The round ends, the crowd is shown exiting, throwing their food, as James has his towel thrown on him. Joe is shown having no control in his business when his boss revokes James’ license. He does not want to come home to his wife and kids without pay and a job. His boss denies him a second chance, and leaves in a chauffeured car.
With his right hand now broken, he is still willing to work on the docks where he is picked, and partnered with the broker. Wilson, doesn’t want Braddock to slow him down. When Braddock was shown in a lower position than his able partner when his boss asks “What’s wrong with the god damn hand?”, his partner is able to trust Braddock when he realizes that he is a working man who also was hit by the Depression. He stoops down to James’ elevation in the shot as he backs up Braddock’s production level as they continue transporting burlap sacks. In the pub they talk about their failed stocks and investments. James expresses how he can’t believe the taxi cab stock dropped. Wilson wants to riot to the government, a feeling common among the people living in Hoovervilles. Wilson eventually loses his job and gets killed in a riot in Hooverville. This was the sad outcome of the working class, since they couldn’t feed their families let alone themselves. They were not content with the government.
Next, James is too short to pay the electric bill. A broken hand prevented James from working and Mae is trying her best to make decisions for the best of their children as their health worsens. Even though Mae sent the kids away, James keeps his promise by stooping down to his old employers to beg for enough money to pay the bills. Braddock is relentless and will not back down from a fight when it comes to taking care of his own.
Joe then gives James a fight: the 2nd Heavyweight contender for $250, no preparation. We’re brought back in Madison Square locker room, where James still lacks clothes and a proper meal. Joe gives Russell Crowe clothes and a plate of corned beef hash and in every moment he is thankful for the opportunities given to him. Mae does not like his husband boxing but Braddock’s uninterrupted optimism is able to bring her back on the boat. Although she tries to give a Joe a piece of her mind, she is sedated at the sight of Joe’s empty apartment and his wife’s perspective on their husbands. She explains how men felt responsible for the disappointments of the Depression. “Every day they feel like they are failing us, really it’s just the world that’s failed you know?”
After winning his first fight without being able to eat his only meal of the day, A shot of James after the fight shows him finishing his corn-beef-hash, then being bombarded by media is a powerful shot. James, despite defying all odds, just wants to eat. But the boxing community wanted more. The media craved for ‘juicy’ stories and they still do today.
After a sequence of training scenes and getting motivation from Mae, Wilson, and Joe, Braddock is able to wear the ‘underdog’ status confidently, spurring hope in Americans like him. He has two fights, both fueled with shots of Braddock’s family in poverty, but James wins both, not after a good bout and a couple broken ribs. Both fights were full of doubt, but we had hope in the Cinderella Man. From a Roger Ebert review, the fact that “Using his left arm because of his injured right hand… is also the secret to the left hook that will eventually get him named “Cinderella Man” by Damon Runyon.” Intrigued me because instead of backing down, he turned his misfortune around and became a better boxer without knowing.
He returns his debt to welfare, and bring his wife a bundle of roses. Though this is abruptly followed with the news that Wilson had been fired and has been missing for 3 days. Shots of Hooverville shows the terrible conditions of the time. Mike’s funeral proceeds with a rising shot of the coffin, and abruptly back to a press conference. This scene shows the media picking apart Braddock by asking questions about his financial struggle and his next fight.
James Braddock’s final fight with Max Baer solidified the work that James had put in. James and the rest of the working class won that night as they felt the warm smile off of James’ pulverized face, shown as the camera is rising from his face showing a bird’s eye view with the boxing ring in the middle with the color fading to black and white, ending the fairy tale in an appropriate era.
The political discourse was heavy in this boxing movie. Because it was released in 2005, I think there were a lot of comparisons to be made about life now and life in the worst economic times of American History. Although, they displayed James’ integrity and determination through his encounters in the ring and outside of the ring.