Primo Carnera, Reconsidered

BY Robert Mladinich ON April 23, 2008
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As a child growing up in Italy, the now 59-year-old filmmaker Renzo Martinelli was as skinny as a blade of grass. Martinelli’s mother would urge him to eat, so he could “grow up to be like Carnera.”

His mother was speaking about Primo Carnera, the 6’6”, 260 pound native of Sequals, Italy, who won the world heavyweight with a sixth round knockout of Jack Sharkey in June 1933.

He made two successful defenses of the crown before losing it less than a year later to Max Baer, who stopped him in the 11th round.

Carnera has long been described by boxing insiders with disrespect and disdain. Critics point to the fact that so many of his fights were fixed, and that the racketeers that he unwittingly aligned himself with managed to steal nearly every dime that he ever earned.

The central character of the 1956 film “The Harder They Fall” depicted a Carnera-like character as a clumsy and lumbering heavyweight who was taken advantage by just about everyone he came in contact with.

Martinelli paints a somewhat different picture of the battling behemoth in his new film “Carnera: The Walking Mountain,” which had its American premiere on April 22nd at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater in New York.

Among those in attendance for the gala was Martinelli, 26-year-old actor Andrea Iaia, who portrays Carnera, Academy Award winning actor F. Murray Abraham, who portrays one of Carnera’s unscrupulous managers, and scores of actors, athletes and other notables, many of whom are Italian or Italian-American.

Included among them were actors Burt Young, who appears in the film, Tony LoBianco, John “Cha Cha” Ciarcia, and boxers or trainers Nino Benvenuti, Emile Griffith, Vito Antuofermo, Carlos Ortiz, Lou Duva, Al Certo, Vinny Maddalone, Lou Savarese and Derric Rossy.

Martinelli said that contrary to public perception in America, Carnera was a true hero in his native country. While his rich legacy is not well known to people under 40, he said that people over that age are well aware that Carnera is the only Italian born heavyweight champion in history.

“Primo was a strong and powerful man, but he was also a very decent man,” said Martinelli. “He was a ring legend because life kept knocking him down and he kept getting back up. Young people in Italy don’t have knowledge about him, but hopefully that will change with this film.”

Iaia said that growing up he had little interest in boxing, but he became aware of Carnera when he began studying acting eight years ago, at the age of 18.

“I thought it would be very interesting to play a boxer because of the kind of life they have,” said Iaia. “When I learned about Primo, I thought I would love to play him someday. He would go out, get knocked down, get up again and fight more. He did it all for his family, so his children could get the education that he never had.”

That point is drilled home on many occasions in the film, which has as many strong points as it does weak spots. Martinelli takes liberal creative license while utilizing scores of boxing clichés.

In the most obvious, Carnera proposes to his future wife after beating Sharkey for the title. In reality, they had not even met each other at that point.

One gaffe that aficionados might find particularly annoying is in a scene where Carnera is wearing Grant boxing trunks. The reality is that Grant boxing apparel was created by the youngish Elvis Phillips in the past 20 years. Phillips’ parents were probably not even alive when Carnera was the champion.

Other loose ends in the film include the disappearance, without explanation, of Carnera’s initial love interest, as well as the Abraham character from his management team. Carnera apparently dumps Abraham and aligns himself with Burt Young’s character. However, Abraham later re-emerges and is seen cheering for Carnera.

All of that aside, the film does succeed in portraying Carnera as an intelligent, sensible and sensitive man whose family meant everything to him. That, says his daughter Giovanna Carnera, a Tampa psychologist who attended the premiere, is what meant the most to her.

“Watching the film was very emotional for me,” said Giovanna. “When I was born, my father was in his thirties and he was wrestling. I was unaware of his boxing life. Renzo and Andrea captured my father well: his eyes, expressiveness, goodness and courage.”

Carnera, who was born in 1906, compiled an 89-14 (72 KOS) record during a career that began in Europe in the late 1920s and ended in 1946. While many critics are quick to dismiss him as a non-entity, consider this: Against Baer he was down more than 10 times, which means he got up as many times as he was knocked down by a bone-crunching puncher.

He took a dreadful beating from Joe Louis before their 1935 fight was stopped in the sixth round. One scene in the film shows him becoming outraged when he learns that many of his fights are fixed. He pleads with his manager to legitimize his career because he believes so strongly in his own abilities.

It is obvious, and not just from this film, that Carnera, who died in 1967, was a decent fellow with a tremendous amount of personal pride. However, in his later years he was forced to become a professional wrestler to provide for his family. While many will question his ring legacy, no one can question his motivation for fighting in the first place.

Both of his children went on to college and have established praiseworthy careers that would make any parent proud. His son is a surgeon and his daughter is a psychologist.

While you can debate the boxing details of the film, Giovanna says Iaia’s portrayal of her beloved father was on the mark. She said that he captured all of his complexities, which included unbridled anger at times, frustration, fierce determination, and a loving heart that knew no bounds when it came to his family.

After the viewing, she and Iaia tearfully embraced each other for what seemed like an eternity.

“When I first met Andrea, I said he has to play my father,” said Giovanna. “And I knew Renzo was the right person to make this movie.

“My father always said a man without family and honor has nothing at all,” she continued. “After previous movies (such as “The Harder They Fall”), I was skeptical about how he would be portrayed. But they showed his passion, sincerity and kindness. Thank you Andrea, and thank you Renzo.”

For more information, log onto: thewalkingmountain.com.

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