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This legendary boxer was the first ever movie star

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The big picture

  • James J. Corbett was the first movie star to move from boxing to the big screen thanks to Thomas Edison.
  • Corbett's fight with Peter Courtney led to the first widely seen film:
    Corbett and Courtney in front of the kinetograph,
    shapes cinema history.
  • Corbett appeared in additional films in the early 20th century, cementing his legacy as the earliest film star in history.



Many of the most famous actors in the film business never made it to the big screen. Professional athletes in particular are among the best performers ever. Arnold Schwarzenegger He famously started out as a bodybuilder, giving him a physicality that made him perfect for savage barbarians and murderous cyborgs. Modern icons like Dave Bautista And John Cena They also got their big break with wrestling, a genre based entirely on over-the-top, staged roles that would eventually become the most recognizable faces in the film world. Just because someone didn't always plan to be a movie star doesn't mean they can't be great at it.


If you ever hear someone getting snooty about an actor taking up another profession (or if you yourself are an actor who has taken up another profession), all you have to do is point to the very first movie star – James J Corbett. Now, like the previously mentioned actors, he was not a movie star in the traditional sense. Corbett was a boxer! He spent most of his life working in this industry, albeit in a partnership with Thomas Edison, also became the subject of the first motion picture ever made available for public screening. Their first collaboration would be Corbett and Courtney in front of the kinegrapher. In the silent film, Corbett took part in a boxing match against him Peter Courtney, the underdog of the two fighters. Nevertheless, Corbett was declared the winner in the sixth round. In the meantime, The film that documented this fight later shaped cinema history as one of the most popular releases of its time.



James J. Corbett is an iconic figure in boxing history

James Corbett promo shot
Image via the Library of Congress

James J. Corbett may not be the most famous movie star of all time, but he was the first. Corbett was born on September 1, 1866 in San Francisco, California. Long before he could ever appear on screen, he had to endure the boxing ring. Corbett's sporting career began in 1891. His first fight was against Peter Jackson (No, not ThePeter Jackson), an Australian heavyweight boxer. Although he was a newcomer to the sport, his first game ended in controversy after 61 rounds. He didn't win the fight, but neither did Jackson, who was already deep into his own career. This is how you know Corbett was the right one!

Thomas Edison made James J. Corbett the first movie star


Elsewhere, Thomas Edison was busy preparing to introduce an entirely new form of technology. It was the mid-1890s, and news of “moving pictures” spread like wildfire. After finally sorting out the process, Edison invited Corbett to his home in New Jersey to box for him. Corbett was no longer a rookie fighter. In the mid-1890s he was considered one of the best boxers of his time. It goes without saying that such an offer must have been strange for him. The athlete was initially cautious. However, when he learned that it would be one of those “moving films” and that he would receive a large percentage of the box office, Corbett was on board.


Corbett and his manager, William A. BradyThey came together and began planning what would become of it the first widely seen film. It would be a fight between Corbett and another boxer who he could knock out with one punch as soon as the camera started rolling. If he wasn't able to do that, it would take a whole day to prepare the camera for another shot, so they had to find the right fighter. That man turned out to be Peter Courtney. Even though Courtney had a career under his belt, he was still considered an underdog in this fight. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for film history, he would be a perfect fit for Corbett to stun on screen.

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The first film ever was a boxing film

“Corbett and Courtney in front of the cinematograph”
Image via the Library of Congress


The actual film, ultimately named Corbett and Courtney in front of the kinegrapherwas directed by William KL Dicksonone of the first directors in the history of filmmaking – a pioneer himself! Kinetographer was filmed at Black Maria, a studio in Orange, New Jersey, where Edison developed this technology and worked regularly. One would think that Edison would simply take his new invention into a real boxing ring to work with Corbett and film the event. Oddly enough, You would never believe that Kinetographer was filmed in a studio. This is movie magic, baby, all the way back to the first movie!

Don't get your hopes up Corbett and Courtney in front of the kinegrapher, although. It didn't turn out to be what Brady had hoped, either. Instead of Corbett immediately knocking out his opponent, they actually fight for six rounds, each lasting a minute. However, the actual film itself only lasts one minute and three seconds. As far as content goes, making the very first movie a boxing match is a pretty good idea! You don't have to deal with the awkward acting or poor (but funny) special effects of the 18th and early 20th century films. A boxing match is just that – a hard-hitting, bare-knuckle fight… right? Well, as soon as you start this footage, you'll notice that it looks like two geeks are rubbing their gloves together. There's a strange amount of smiling, far too many slow punches, and a physicality from both of them that makes it seem like neither believes in their ability to actually box. Both of them awkwardly stroll around the ring every minute of every round. It's so strange, but of course you can't expect top notch acting in the very first film ever made in the 19th century!


Corbett and Courtney in front of the kinegrapher became an extremely popular image with audiences. Still, Corbett didn't necessarily go into the film business. He made a few other film appearances and appeared in projects until the 1930s At the round table, but he would continue to live his life primarily as a boxer. Corbett died on February 18, 1933, leaving behind a legacy as one of his sport's most celebrated athletes.

Corbett may have spent most of his life as a fighter, but his contributions to cinema are arguably more important. It proved to be a practice that studios and distributors returned to again and again, using his name to sell the already exciting rise of motion pictures. Over time, we began to call such faces “movie stars.” Forget being a great boxer, nothing is cooler than being the first movie star. That was Corbett.

Corbett and Courtney in front of the kinegrapher can be viewed on the Library of Congress website in the USA


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