The Champ (1931) [50 Films Older Than Me #46]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #46.

Spoilers ahead.  

The Champ

Directed by King Vidor

Release Year:  1931 (39 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Washed-up former boxing champion Andy “Champ” Purcell struggles to do right by his young son Dink, but his gambling and drinking addictions keep getting in his way. Linda–Andy’s ex-wife and Dink’s mother–runs into them by accident and seeks to take Dink away to a more comfortable life, but Dink runs away and returns his beloved dad. The Champ gets an opportunity for a special comeback match. He wins, but his heart gives out and he dies shortly after.

Starring Wallace Beery as Champ and Jackie Cooper as Dink. Also starring Irene Rich as Linda and Hale Hamilton as Linda’s husband Tony. Roscoe Ates and Edward Brophy play the Champ’s two friends Sponge and Tim. Jesse Scott is Dink’s friend Jonah, and Marcia Mae Jones is Linda and Tony’s daughter Mary Lou.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I didn’t know anything about this movie, and wasn’t even planning on watching it for this series. I watched it as a replacement for another Jackie Cooper movie that came out the same year–Skippy–which I couldn’t find.

Reality: The Champ is not really my kind of movie normally. For lack of a better description, it’s a tear-jerker–a movie designed to tug on heart-strings and elicit an emotional response. And mostly those emotional responses are heartache and sadness. It’s the kind of movie that you know even when things seem to be going well, that hardships are around the corner.

But these hardships are not arbitrary–they are intrinsic to the characters. Or specifically, to the central character, Andy “Champ” Purcell. He’s a well-meaning and loving father, but is possessed by fatal habits that make him incapable of genuinely taking care of his son Dink. So every time there is a success, there is a bigger failure looming on the horizon–a drunken fit, a bad bet, a general inability to make his victories count in the long-term.

There is something sadly recognizable in the Champ’s story: he’s a man completely incapable of bettering himself, in spite of his good-natured charm. And at times that’s how I feel as well. I’m not a drinker, I’m not a gambler, but I feel just as stuck in my flaws. They show up with pathetic regularity. So even though it can be tempting to get distracted by The Champ‘s highly emotional presentation, especially when looking at it with modern sensibilities, it is at its heart compelling drama and deeply authentic.

So much of the credit for the movie working falls on its lead actors, who had such evident chemistry that they ended up cast in three further films beyond this one. Wallace Beery plays the Champ in an emotionally convincing and affecting performance which won him an Oscar (technically, he came in second by one vote, but in those days that was close enough to count for a tie).

It’s one of the roles that helped propel Beery from successful character actor to one of the most popular leading men in Hollywood.

Just as critical to the film’s success is young Jackie Cooper, apparently the first major child-star of the 1930s. Cooper has got a lot of work to do in the role, as Dink needs to constantly process his hurt and disappointment while still remaining enamored with his father. Director King Vidor leans heavily on Cooper–just witness how the camera refuses to cut away from an inconsolable Dink during the movie’s intense final scene. It’s obviously not a “perfect” performance, but given that the role probably has the most screentime and actually demands a wider emotional range than the Champ, and that Cooper was not even ten years old at the time, it’s incredibly impressive work.

Jackie Cooper also gets some fun stuff to play as well. There’s a cute scene where he’s waiting to go see the woman that is really his mother and he just starts climbing around the room of the house! I thought the movie was going to get the kid into an accident in order to amp up the drama, but it turned out it was just an opportunity to let the boy have some fun (like I said, the movie avoids artificially forcing anything like this that isn’t intrinsic to the characters and their flaws).

And then right after there’s a really funny conversation between Dink and his half-sister (though he doesn’t know that is what she is) about how the story of Sleeping Beauty doesn’t make any sense: Dink asks, how could a girl sleep for a thousand years without eating anything? Have you ever tried skipping breakfast?

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Even though it’s not the kind of piece I’d normally gravitate towards, The Champ works because Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper do such a good job creating an emotionally-rich father-son dynamic. In spite of the obvious flaws in their relationship, the bond they have is believable, which then anchors the entire drama.

See here for the Master List

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