Today on Ghosts of the Criterion Collection, we take a look at the 1931 classic from King Vidor on MGM Pictures, “The Champ”. I picked this one to coincide with this week’s episode of the Ghosts of the Stratosphere podcast in which they discuss the classic Daredevil epic “Born Again”, and I thought given Daredevil’s dad was a boxer, it sort of had a thematic feel.
There are many great movies from the golden age of Hollywood, but this great masterpiece really stands the test of time well, and it has definitely been imitated numerous times in the almost 90 years since it’s release.
The movie is (the now) classic tale of a down on his luck man and his relationship with his son. You could easily argue who takes care of who, but you soon realize that the pair need each other to survive the world where they live. We are introduced to Champ (Wallace Berry), a former heavyweight world champion boxer, who has fallen on hard times. Living in a small apartment over a Greek bar in Tijuana, he’s trying to make ends meet and give a decent life for his son, Dink (Jackie Cooper).
We quickly learn that not only is Champ an unemployed, out of shape, former boxer, but he’s also plagued by a number of vices. Mainly gambling and alcohol, but he also has quite a few issues with authority. More than once throughout the movie, we see that Dink tends to take much better care of his father than his father does of him. Today, on modern television and films alike, this seems like a more common element of family dramas, where the children have to grow up quickly to take care of not only themselves but their adult parents too, I imagine in 1931 it would be something of a novel idea to put that on the silver screen!
Where’s Dink’s mother, you may be wondering? Later in the film, we learn that while she and the Champ were once married, she had to leave him. We meet his mother, Linda (wonderfully portrayed by Irene Rich), at the horse race track. Dink is there to enter a horse that Champ bought for him after having a lucky streak at a casino. Along with Linda is her new husband, Tony (Hale Hamilton), and we immediately know that Linda and Tony are well-off as they place a large bet on Dink’s horse after having a quick conversation with the boy.
As the film goes on, Champ lets Dink down again and again. Champ is even thrown in jail for a time. Champ then decides that Dink should go away and live with Linda and Tony and their daughter in New York City. Dink doesn’t agree, and he even hops off the train headed for NYC to return to the Champ in Tijuana.
It’s then that Andy, The Champ, decides to turn his act around, this time for good. Giving up alcohol and gambling, going into training and even lining up a championship fight with the current Mexican heavyweight champion. With a $20,000 purse on the line, he dreams of finally being able to provide a “good” life for himself and Dink. His ex-wife and her current spouse even come to the fight to cheer him on, he knows that this will be the biggest fight of his life.
Ten rounds later and his and Dink’s fate are decided. I’m not going to give away the ending, you’ll have to watch it if you want to know how this classic plays out. Honestly, I’ve probably given away too much already!
The Academy loved “The Champ”. With wins for Best Actor (Wallace Beery), Best Story (Frances Marion), and nominated for Best Picture and Best Director (King Vidor), it really did have an all-star cast and crew behind it. Also, it was the film that introduced Jackie Cooper to Hollywood.
Wallace Beery was one of the highest paid actors at the time in Hollywood. Over his lengthy career of over 250 films he would have a contract that stated he would be paid $1 more than any other contract player in the project he was working on. MGM was his home in the 30’s and he starred in several pictures of note, including “Min and Bill” and 1934’s version of “Treasure Island”
King Vidor had a long and celebrated career in Hollywood. Spanning seven decades, and gathering five Academy Award nominations, as well as being given an Honorary Oscar for his achievements in a lifetime of film, Vidor also won several awards from foriegn film award programs. Some of his better known films (besides “The Champ”) are “The Big Parade” (1925), “The Crowd” (1928), and “Duel in the Sun”.
Irene Rich, who played “Linda”, Dink’s mother was well known as a Western or Frontier actress. She worked in both silent and later “talkies”, and she even had some radio work over her long career in show business. She partnered with Will Rogers for 8 films early in her career. Later she’d star along with John Wayne in the movie “Angel and the Badman” and she starred in the Calvary classic from John Ford, “Fort Apache”.
As mentioned earlier, the movie “The Champ” introduced the world to Jackie Cooper as Dink. Jackie would later change his professional name to John Cooper, Jr, and he is noted as being the youngest actor nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor at the age of 9 for his performance in the film, “Skippy”. He would hold this honor for almost 50 years!
“The Champ” is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel. Not a member yet? You can sign up for a free 14 day trial over at: www.criterionchannel.com.
Until next time, stay home if you can, stay as safe as your life allows, and keep leaving feedback either here on Ghosts of the Stratosphere or feel free to drop me an e-mail at email@example.com. You can also follow me on Letterboxd (www.letterboxd.com) under the user name: whetzelj82
All the best,