Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||King Vidor|
|Produced by||King Vidor|
Harry Rapf (uncredited)
Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
|Written by||Frances Marion|
|Edited by||Hugh Wynn|
|Box office||$1.6 million|
The Champ is a 1931 American pre-Code film starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper and directed by King Vidor from a screenplay by Frances Marion, Leonard Praskins and Wanda Tuchock. The picture tells the story of a washed-up alcoholic boxer (Beery) attempting to put his life back together for the sake of his young son (Cooper).
Beery won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance (sharing the prize with Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Frances Marion won the Academy Award for Best Story, and the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. In February 2020, the film was shown at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, as part of a retrospective dedicated to King Vidor's career.
Andy "Champ" Purcell (Wallace Beery) is the former world heavyweight champion, now down on his luck and living in squalid conditions with his eight-year-old son "Dink" in Tijuana, Mexico. Champ attempts to train and to convince promoters to set up a fight for him, but his efforts are consistently stymied by his alcoholism. Dink is repeatedly disappointed and let down by his father's irresponsible actions and frequent broken promises to quit drinking, but his utter devotion to his father nonetheless never wavers.
In addition to his drinking problem, Champ is also a compulsive gambler, another vice which he repeatedly promises Dink he will surrender (but never does). After a winning streak, he fulfills a previous promise to buy Dink a pony, whom they subsequently name "Little Champ" and decide to enter into a race. At the track, Dink happens across a woman who, unknown to either of them, is actually his mother Linda. She is now remarried to Tony, a wealthy man who owns one of the other horses in the race.
Linda and Tony observe Dink and Champ together and realize that Dink is her son. Champ allows Linda to see Dink, who accepts that she is his mother. But Dink feels no emotion toward her, as she has never been part of his life. Linda resolves to remove Dink from the negative atmosphere in which he's growing up and have him live with her family.
Catching Champ during an all-night gambling binge, Tony asks him to turn Dink over so that Tony and Linda can put Dink into school. Champ refuses. As the exhausted Dink sleeps on a nearby table, Tony bluntly observes that Champ is not a good father. The night of gambling ends with Champ having lost Little Champ, which devastates Dink. Champ asks Linda for enough money to buy the horse back, and she gives it to him. But before he can buy the horse back, he starts gambling again and loses the money Linda loaned him. He also winds up in jail, breaking Dink's heart once more.
Ashamed of his actions and with his spirit broken, Champ finally agrees to send an unwilling Dink to live with Tony and Linda. On the train ride home, Tony and Linda try their best to welcome Dink into their family. Dink does not dislike them, but he is consumed only by thoughts of his father. He runs away back to Tijuana, where he finds that Champ has a fight scheduled with the Mexican heavyweight champion. When he sees Dink, Champ immediately returns to good spirits. He trains hard for the fight and, for the first time, really does stay away from drinking and gambling. Champ is determined to win the fight, make Dink proud of him, and use his prize money to buy back Little Champ.
Tony and Linda attend the fight, bringing genuine best wishes and assurances that they will make no further efforts to separate Dink from Champ. The match is brutal, and Champ is seriously injured. Dink and the others in his corner urge him to throw in the towel, but Champ refuses to allow that. He musters a last burst of energy, and knocks out his opponent. After the fight, he triumphantly presents Little Champ to Dink. But after witnessing his son's overjoyed reaction, Champ collapses.
Champ is brought into his dressing room, where a doctor determines that his injuries are mortal. Champ urges Dink to cheer up and then dies, leaving Dink inconsolable. Despite the best efforts of all of the men and boys in the room, who one by one attempt to calm him, Dink continually wails, "I want the Champ!" Finally, Dink spots Linda enter the room. Dink looks at her, cries out, "Mother!" and runs into her arms. She picks him up and he sobs, "The Champ is dead, mama." She turns and carries him out of the room as he buries his face in her shoulder, crying.
- Wallace Beery as Andy "Champ" Purcell
- Jackie Cooper as Dink Purcell
- Irene Rich as Linda
- Roscoe Ates as Sponge
- Edward Brophy as Tim
- Hale Hamilton as Tony
- Jesse Scott as Jonah
- Marcia Mae Jones as Mary Lou
Screenwriter Frances Marion wrote the title role specifically for Wallace Beery, whose formerly flourishing career, which had almost abruptly ended with the advent of sound, had been revitalized in 1930 with an Academy Award nomination for The Big House and the huge success of Min and Bill with Marie Dressler. Director King Vidor eagerly took on the film since it emphasized the traditional family values and strong belief in hope—qualities he felt were essential to a good motion picture. Wallace Beery claimed to have turned down a $500,000 offer from a syndicate of Indian studios to play Buddha in order to take the role in The Champ. Cooper was paid $1,500 a week while working on the film. A special outdoor set, rather than location shooting, was built to accommodate the Tijuana horse racing track scenes. Shooting began in mid-August 1931 and ended eight weeks later, at which time Jackie Cooper's contract with Paramount Pictures was transferred to MGM.
The Champ debuted on November 9, 1931, at the Astor Theatre in New York City. Beery flew his own plane from Los Angeles, California cross-country to attend the premiere. After the film's debut, Beery declared Cooper was a "great kid" but that he would not work with the child actor again, a promise he broke within the year for the remake of Treasure Island.
The film, along with Beery's role in Min and Bill, catapulted Beery's career. Beery signed a contract with MGM shortly thereafter specifying that he receive a dollar more per year than any other actor on the lot, effectively making him the world's highest-paid actor. The picture also made nine-year-old Jackie Cooper the first child star of the 1930s, an era noted for its numerous, popular child actors.
At the time the movie was released, critics criticized the film's lack of originality. For example, The New York Times declared that "something more novel and subtle" was needed, although it also praised Beery's acting. Variety, too, very much liked Beery in the film, noting that he delivered a "studied, adult" performance. Time called the film repetitive, blasted Cooper for sniveling, and accused director King Vidor of laying "on pathos with a steam-shovel." Nonetheless, Time praised the movie, declaring it "Utterly false and thoroughly convincing..." Many critics cited the "special chemistry" between Beery and Cooper, which led the two actors to be paired again numerous times. Cooper and Beery had no such chemistry off-screen. Cooper accused Beery of upstaging and other attempts to undermine his performances, out of what Cooper presumed was jealousy. Critics today still highly praise The Champ.
The Champ has been described as an inverted women's film, because men in the film are not generally depicted at the top of the socio-economic ladder but are shown as a primary childcare provider. The famous final scene, in which the camera is thrust into Jackie Cooper's weeping face, has been compared to similar aggressive and intrusive camera work in classic motion pictures such as Liebelei (Max Ophüls, dir.; 1933) and Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, dir.; 1919), and the films of Roberto Rossellini.
The Champ has had significant cultural effect. A number of motion pictures in the 1930s, some of them also starring Wallace Beery, repeated the basic story about a man surrendering to drink and redeemed by the love of his long-suffering son. Film critic Judith Crist has argued that almost any film pairing an adult actor alongside a child actor must be compared to The Champ in terms of the chemistry between the actors and the effectiveness of the film. The film had an immediate effect on world cinema as well. The Champ is considered one source film which inspired Yasujirō Ozu's classic Japanese film, Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro, 1933). The film was, in part, the inspiration for the father and son in the Berenstain Bears books.
- The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles, California: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
- Osborne, Robert. 70 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards. New York: Abbeville Press, 1999; ISBN 0-7892-0484-3
- "Berlinale 2020: Retrospective "King Vidor"". Berlinale. Retrieved February 28, 2020.
- Balio, Tino. Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1995. ISBN 0-520-20334-8
- ""The New Pictures"". Archived from the original on August 15, 2007. Retrieved January 3, 2009.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link), Time, November 23, 1931.
- Gallagher, Tag. "Max Ophuls: A New Art - But Who Notices?" Archived December 10, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, Senses of Cinema. 22:2002.
- "'The Champ' Rejects Fortune." The New York Times. November 15, 1931.
- "Cinema's Art Directors." The New York Times. November 22, 1931.
- "Here and There in the Studios." The New York Times. August 16, 1931.
- "Projection Jottings." The New York Times. October 18, 1931.
- "Screen Notes." The New York Times. October 31, 1931.
- "Screen Notes." The New York Times. November 4, 1931; "Players On The Go." The New York Times. November 8, 1931.
- Pendergast, Sara and Pendergast, Tom. The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. 4th ed. New York: St. James Press, 2001. ISBN 1-55862-477-5
- Maltin, Leonard and Bann, Richard W. The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang. New York: Crown, 1992. ISBN 0-517-58325-9
- Slide, Anthony, ed. Selected Film Criticism. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982. ISBN 0-8108-1570-2
- Hall, Mordaunt. "Father and Son", The New York Times, November 10, 1931.
- O'Neil, Thomas. Movie Awards: The Ultimate, Unofficial Guide to the Oscars, Golden Globes, Critics, Guild & Indie Honors. New York: Perigee, 2003. ISBN 0-399-52922-5
- Norden, Martin F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8135-2104-1; Romano, Frederick V. The Boxing Filmography: American Features, 1920-2003. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. ISBN 0-7864-1793-5
- Halliwell, Leslie and Walker, John. Halliwell's Who's who in the Movies: The 15th Edition of the Bestselling Encyclopedia of Film, Actors, Directors, Producers, and Writers. New York: Published by HarperCollins, 2003, p. 42. ISBN 0-06-053423-0
- Thise, Mark. Hollywood Winners & Losers A to Z. Milwaukee, Wisc.: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2008. ISBN 0-87910-351-5
- Cooper, Jackie. Please Don't Shoot My Dog. Morrow, 1980, pp. 54-61. ISBN 978-0-688-03659-1
- Lutz, Tom. "Men's Tears and the Role of Melodrama." In Boys Don't Cry?: Rethinking Narratives of Masculinity and Emotion in the U.S. Milette Shamir and Jennifer Travis, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-231-12034-6
- Dooley, Roger Burke. From Scarface to Scarlett: American Films in the 1930s. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. ISBN 0-15-133789-6
- Crist, Judith. Take 22: Moviemakers on Moviemaking. New York: Viking, 1984. ISBN 0-670-49185-3
- Kerpan, Michael. "Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro)" Archived July 13, 2009, at the Wayback Machine, Senses of Cinema. June 2004.
- Berenstain, Stan and Berenstain, Jan. "The Bear Beginnings." Publishers Weekly. October 7, 2002.
- Williams, Randy. Sports Cinema 100 Movies: The Best of Hollywood's Athletic Heroes, Losers, Myths, and Misfits. Milwaukee, Wisc.: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2006. ISBN 0-87910-331-0
- Canby, Vincent. "Zeffirelli's 'The Champ': A Return Match", The New York Times, April 4, 1979.