The reason no earlier matches have survived is due to two factors: One, the cellulose nitrate film stock used at the time required careful storage to prevent total deterioration. Otherwise, the film stock breaks down and eventually turns to a rust-colored powder. Old film stock was also extremely flammable, and if not handled carefully, could burst into flame. Many cities, such as Los Angeles, London and New York forbade the transport of film canisters aboard public conveyances. It was estimated by film historian Dave Kehr that approximately 90% of silent movies and 50% of sound movies made before 1950 are lost to posterity. Two, the main clue of lost films was the studios themselves. They often “recycled” existing films for their silver content. According to film preservationist Robert A. Harris: ”Most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios. There was no thought of ever saving these films. They simply needed vault space and the materials were expensive to house.” Silent films were especially prey to this wanton destruction, since after the advent of sound films they had little or no commercial value.
Some wrestlers decided to stick around and make a living in the movies. Of these, three stick out: the original Bull Montana, Constantine Romanoff, and Ivan Linow. They moved up from stunts to minor supporting parts where they were given the chance to speak lines.
Bull Montana was born Luigi Montagna in Voghera, Italy on May 16, 1887. He came to the U.S. as a child and would eventually come to work in the old carny circuits of New York and New Jersey, where his husky build would lead him to the AT as a wrestler. Are has given the ring name “Bull Montana” at a wrestling card held on Coney Island. In the ‘20s he was reimaged by promoters in Texas as a cowboy. His career spanned more than 30 years, mostly in the middleweight and light heavyweight ranks, though he faced such top stars as Ed Lewis, Jim Londos, Frank Gotch and the Zbyszko. As early as November, 1910, he was arrested in Beaver PA, along with future Boston promoter Paul Bowser and someone named Joe Rusek for “conspiracy to engage in a wrestling match.” (Mark Hewitt research). When his active days were over, he slid into the role of referee. His ring act, complete with menacing scowl, impressed Douglas Fairbanks, who hired him as a stuntman and later moved him up to featured extra. He would amass 90 credits in movies from 1917 to 1937, his most famous being for playing an apeman in 1925’s The Lost World and an uncredited part as Monkey Man in the 1937 serial Flash Gordon starring Buster Crabbe. In his later years Montana fell victim to heart disease and passed away on January 24, 1950 at French Hospital in Los Angeles at 62 years of age.
He began his film career in 1921 in an uncredited role in a Harold Lloyd short titled Among Those Present. By the time Romanoff retired from films in 1951 he had amassed 126 credits, a large majority uncredited. For wrestling fans, he played the champ fought by Paul Gregory in Sit Tight from Warner Bros. in 1931.
Ivan Linow was born Janis Linaus in Latvia in 1888. He entered wrestling sometime around 1914 and was booked in Jack Curley’s famous New York tournament in 1915 as Ivan Linow, the Finnish Lion. During his heyday he worked was billed as “the Cossack” or “the Russian Man-Eater” and faced such opponents as Ed Lewis, Joe Stecher, and Earl Caddock. From 1919 to 1926 he also wrestled under the name of Jack Linow and in his final match in 1933 against Young Sandow (Henry Roch), he was billed as Jack Leon. Turning to Hollywood in 1921 his first film was an uncredited appearance in Cappy Ricks. In a career that stretched until 1935 he racked up 57 credits, his most famous coming as the strongman Hercules, Lon Chaney’s henchman in the sound remake of The Unholy Three (1930) and as Sailor Muller World’s Champion wrestler who faces challenger Joel McCrea in The Sports Parade (1932). Linow died of a heart attack while in London on November 21, 1940.
This series will be a combination of reviews of wrestling-themed films and articles on wrestlers who went into the movies. There will be no chronological order. Rather it is hoped you will enjoy our efforts as a further tribute to the men who made their living stepping between the ropes.
– The Phantom of the Ring