The Champ (1931, King Vidor)

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Five names effortlessly call forward memories of The Champ: Irving Thalberg, King Vidor, Frances Marion, Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. While not the best work of any of the above save possibly Cooper, the film is unmistakably the quintessential example of what each brought to MGM in those halcyon days of the early ’30s. Thalberg was the ruthlessly dedicated brain trust of Metro then, Marion the studio’s star screenwriter. Thalberg also took risks (Freaks), which this wasn’t, and Marion wrote bolder scripts, one of which (The Big House) featured a grittier and more believable performance by Beery. As for director Vidor, if you’ve seen The Crowd, one of the few perfect films ever made, you know how trivial a silly sentimental picture about a down-on-luck boxer and his cute kid would have in comparison to be by default.

But all of the above knew how to tug the heartstrings of a whole massive swath of humanity in a bare, devoted fashion almost unheard of in Hollywood since. Films like Rocky and Benji would periodically take the mantle of cynicism-free, bold-strokes crowd-pleasing and/or tearjerking entertainment in years to come, but the elegance of The Champ would be hard to duplicate even when almost specifically referenced. Marion in particular was a master of audience manipulation, of making her characterizations just broad enough to achieve maximum simultaneous escapism and familiarity, all with a touch of oblique homeyness. It’s fascinating to see a film like this now and witness the groundwork being laid (as with The Big House and Underworld) for an entire Hollywood genre — two in this case, the sports picture (the boxing film specifically) and the family drama.

Without so much as seeing a trailer for the film, on the small chance that you’ve never caught one of the MGM retrospectives that trot out its key plot points and the cultural phenomenon that grew out of it, you can make a keen guess at the premise of The Champ and where it goes. Beery is the title character, Andy Purcell, an ex-heavyweight champion on skid row in Tijuana and a big-lug tough guy who drinks hard, lives harder and is extremely unlikely to die of old age. The sole factor in his life that keeps him from the bottom rung of trouble is his of-course adorable young son Dink. That’s Cooper, who was born to play a boy named Dink. These two hated one another offscreen — both were apparently quite irascible people, Beery to a downright dangerous extent — but have incredible chemistry on film, and much of the film’s appeal comes from watching them interact. The champ gets a horse for Dink, and at the track Dink meets the woman who turns out to be his real mother — the film’s largest stretch of credibility since it’s well-nigh impossible to imagine stuffed-shirt Linda (Irene Rich) ever having a fling, much less a marriage, with the scruffy champ, in good times or bad. At any rate, the polite custody debate you’d expect begins there, plus jail time, horse separation anxiety, and Dink’s simultaneous happy tolerance and disappointment at his dad’s constant inebriation.

Vidor directs the film beautifully (with some outstanding location work, unusual for this studio); he was undoubtedly a master of pathos, and he’s ideal to present this film that is so unabashedly sentimental. There’s something to be said for the direct way that The Champ tackles its emotional content so head-on and fearlessly. It trades in pretty strong, potentially troubling triggers: of parentage, divorce, responsibility and finally death — and Cooper’s wailing by the conclusion is raw and haunting. At the same time, however, this can make the film a distressingly mawkish experience, because of course there’s nothing like heavy syrup to overstress a story. But all the overstatement struck a chord, and The Champ serves as an accidental documentary of how much movie audiences have changed, and much more cruially, how much they haven’t. One imagines that the cheering and crying wouldn’t dissipate much in a 2013 multiplex versus a 1931 movie house.

It all builds to one of the crucial moments in 1930s MGM: the climactic fight in which Champ tries to reclaim his title. Excerpted over and over again ever since its release, a roadmap to follow and standard by which other movie moments of its kind have been measured, it’s deservedly iconic and a showcase for all involved, especially Vidor and Thalberg. But I think the death-by-love finale is a bit too trite and easy, not to mention unsatisfying since the character of Linda is never established well enough to make something cathartic out of her carrying Dink away.

Seeing this in full after all these years of hearing about it, two things surprised me most: that the lead performances of Beery and Cooper were both varying levels of brilliant (Cooper is better at anger and contentment than he is at crying, but so what), and that the film is still influential, probably without most of those copying its tropes even realizing it. Watch it and tell me you don’t see Paper Moon and Paris, Texas in it — and an untold number of tearjerkers involving sports or children or both. The Champ is a little creakier than a lot of the films of the early ’30s that set Hollywood’s tone permanently thereafter, but it’s a crucial building block of the movies as we know them and is not to be missed. You’ll certainly be affected; this was a crafty bunch.

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