Dink Purcell loves his alcoholic father, ex-heavyweight champion Andy "Champ" Purcell, despite his frequent binges, his frequent gambling and their squalid living conditions. And there's ... See full summary »
Dink Purcell loves his alcoholic father, ex-heavyweight champion Andy "Champ" Purcell, despite his frequent binges, his frequent gambling and their squalid living conditions. And there's nothing Andy wouldn't do for Dink. When Andy wins a race horse gambling, he gives it to Dink and they race it at a Tijuana track. There, Dink meets Linda Carleton, a race horse owner herself, and they have an immediate rapport. But Linda's rich husband sees Andy and realizes Dink is Linda's son, who she gave up when she and Andy divorced. Andy is bribed $200 to allow Dink to visit with Linda, but refuses to allow Dink to spend six months with the Carletons. When Andy loses the horse gambling and winds up in jail after a drunken tirade, he realizes Dink's place is with his mother. Dink tearfully goes but sneaks out and returns at his first opportunity, filling a depressed Andy with a desire to make good. So Andy goes into training after his managers arrange a boxing match with the Mexican champion. Written by
Arthur Hausner <email@example.com>
In the worst years of the depression, the most popular stars were not the most glamorous or attractive. As revealed in the highly respected Quigley poll (which surveyed movie theatre owners on who their audiences were most likely to come and see), the biggest draws in the early 30s were friendly, earthy types whom audiences could relate to at a time of poverty and desperation. These included genial comic Will Rogers, middle-aged frump Marie Dressler, and burly pug-face Wallace Beery, who played his greatest role in 1931 feature The Champ.
Beery's physique meant he was often cast as villainous thugs, but he had demonstrated enough acting prowess to get a decent number of "gentle giant" lead roles. In The Champ he gets to combine the two, one minute the swaggering pugilist, the next a devoted father. He gives a performance full of tiny gestures, expertly dancing from one expression to another. When he gets to show his character's emotional vulnerability, the scene is doubly poignant coming after the macho confidence he normally displays. The knowledge that off the set Beery was reputedly a wife-beating brute who bullied everyone around him perhaps spoils the effect slightly, but even with this in mind his performance is captivating, believable and utterly flawless.
Supporting Beery behind the camera is a director who was both a poet and a craftsman of the cinema King Vidor. Vidor excelled at coaxing naturalism from his players at a time when theatrical hamming was the par. His camera focuses on Beery for long takes, allowing the actor to potter about doing his little bits of business and developing the character. Vidor also gives the picture bite with some neat tracking shots. These are usually in the field of depth, so in other words we are either backing away from the actors or following them. The former kind, with the players advancing on the camera as in the shot that opens the picture, gives the characters presence and show them as a force to be reckoned with. The latter kind, where the camera follows the character, physically pulls us into their world. Vidor used these kinds of shot a lot, and they are a neat way of making the audience feel involved without drawing too much attention to the artificiality of the form.
It may come as a surprise that this story of male bonding was written by a woman, Frances Marion. But like Beery, Marion defied expectations simply by being very good at what she did. Her plot for The Champ earned her the second of her two Oscars. It does not perhaps describe the most realistic of situations, but the emotional content is very sincere, and its depiction of determination and human feeling during hard times must have struck a chord with audiences of the day. The dialogue, which is credited to three separate people, is appropriately punchy with lines that sound believable yet are memorable and evocative.
Aside from Beery, the rest of the cast are a good bunch. Of all the lead players, Irene Rich is the only one who doesn't stand out, and she seems simply there to fill the wealthy, motherly type. But having said that she is not at all bad and her presence doesn't harm the picture. The Champ also sees Roscoe Ates in one of his largest roles, and for once getting to appear as a normal person rather than the stuttering fool he was usually required to play. Finally there is Jackie Cooper, one of the greatest child stars of his or indeed any era. While it seems clear that fame has gone to the youngster's head (he's not quite as good as he thinks he is), he is certainly up to the task of carrying his end of the picture. He plays a genuine child when with Beery, but when he is around others he deepens his voice and adopts mannerisms as if trying to be an adult. It's a touching and appropriate performance and very suited to the tone of the picture. And this was perhaps also the only time in which a child actor like Cooper could become a personality in his own right. As the popularity of Beery, Dressler et al proves, this was the age of the unconventional superstar.
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