ALL HAIL THE RETURN OF KING VIDOR. Sorry, I just love his name. Anyway; I started The Champ, and the swell-tempo ragtime music over the opening credits actually had me thinking this might be a rousing picture of feel-good proportions (with, of course, a hefty streak of comedy laden throughout). About 10-15 minutes in, I knew that this had been a poor marketing ploy by some waylaid producer, and that my preconceptions of the film as a rough-textured drama about a washed-up man trying to win back the good life for his young son were much more on the mark than the opening titles would have me believe. Wallace Beery would end up winning Best Actor for this film, in currently the only tie in the history of the category, and truly, this is Beery’s picture. But there’s more to The Champ than it would seem at first glance, at least as far as I saw.
Beery plays Andy ‘The Champ’ Purcell, a former heavyweight boxing champion now stuck in Tijuana gambling and drinking to try and get by. Living with him is his son, Dink, played by Jackie Cooper, and who has one of the strangest names for a son I think I’ve ever heard, and which would not make a lick of sense outside the silver screen. Champ and Dink care for each other, but Champ is so washed-up that he can barely keep himself going aside from his vices, and when he manages to scrape enough money together to buy Dink a racing horse, he quickly manages to lose it after a bad night at the tables. Compounding things is the reappearance of Dink’s mother Linda, who quickly sees the conditions Dink lives in and wants to rescue him from his father’s poor influence. So now, it’s up to the Champ to make good on his word and be a role model for his son, who’s been his #1 fan throughout everything that’s happened in both their lives. Gosh, I feel just swell writing that plot summary, and thankfully, it’s not a corny kind of swell that’s manufactured for an audience to elicit as many aw-shucks as a film can muster; while that might have indeed been the idea with The Champ, for me, it actually came across as fairly genuine, mostly thanks to the two men at the heart of the picture. Beery, while being an admittedly awful example of a father and how to raise a kid, somehow still manages to be endearing all the same, and the only times he isn’t the heart and soul of the picture is whenever Jackie Cooper is on screen, doing his Jackie Cooper thing. Contrarily, there’s Irene Rich, who plays Dink’s mother, whose acting seemed to be stuck in melodrama mode, which got annoying especially when she was up against Cooper and Beery, who knew what kind of film they were doing, but thankfully, her screen-time is minimal. And, of course, there’s the token stuttering character slash supposed comic relief, who I recognized even before he opened his mouth – actually, it might’ve been the same actor as one of the previous films I’ve seen, which makes a little bit of sense, but it still didn’t make the character any more tolerable; it just made me wonder if it was a genuine speech impediment with the actor instead.
I didn’t say much about Vidor’s direction and how the film was shot, which was very well done, but I think that was because the film, at it’s core, is an actors’ film. It was thanks to this film that Wallace Beery ended up becoming the highest-paid actor in the world at the time, and while I can fully see how it was thanks to some studio finagling on his part that ended him up with that title, I can still condone his win (a tie, but still a win according to Academy rules back then) for Best Actor; if it wasn’t for his muggish charms, this picture wouldn’t really have any real selling points to it at all. I liked this quite a bit; it was feel-good, in the right way instead of trying to be too much, and while I wouldn’t say to watch this picture to get any ideas from Champ as to how to raise a kid south of the border, it’s still worth your time should you have any desire to see it.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10