Oscar Vault Monday – The Champ, 1931 (dir. King Vidor)
God I love this film. It’s so sweet and melancholic, as are most of Vidor’s films. If you read last week’s post, you’ll notice this film was released the same year as Skippy, however since that film was released before August of 1931, it was part of the 4th Academy Awards and The Champ, which was released in the fall, was considered for the 5th Academy Awards. This is because for the first six years, the Oscar year was August 1st – July 31st, until 1934, when it was changed to January 1st – December 31st, as we now have it. The Champ was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning two: Best Actor Wallace Beery (won; tie, more on this later), Best Story Frances Marion (won), Best Director and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were Arrowsmith, Bad Girl, Five Star Final, One Hour With You, Shanghai Express, The Smiling Lieutenant and winner Grand Hotel.
King Vidor directed his first film in 1913 and his last film in 1980 (it was a documentary short, but still, that’s impressive). He was nominated for Best Director five times, though he never won: The Crowd (1928), Hallelujah (1929), The Champ (1931), The Citadel (1938) and War and Peace (1956). Vidor lost in 1931 to Frank Borzage for Bad Girl. I also highly recommend The Big Parade, Show People, Duel in the Sun and Beyond the Forest. The Champ was written by one of my favorite screenwriters: Frances Marion, who was nominated for an Oscar three times, winning twice: The Big House (1930, also a Best Picture nominee), The Champ (won) and The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933). She has over 160 credits from 1912 to 1945. I highly recommend Camille and Dinner at Eight.
For his work as alcoholic prizefighting father Andy “Champ” Purcell, Wallace Beery won the Academy Award for Best Actor, though his win was a tie with Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. March got one more vote than Beery, which per the rules at the time was considered a tie. This is the only time that happened and since then rules have changed that it must be a true tie. Frances Marion wrote this role specifically for Beery, who had also received a Best Actor nomination for 1930’s The Big House, a film she had also written. Beery was also in Best Picture winner Grand Hotel. You can tell this role was written for Beery as it fits his persona like a glove. You truly cannot imagine anyone else in this role.
After his work in Min and Bill, The Big House, Grand Hotel and The Champ, Beery transitioned from a character actor to a bonafide star, commanding high paychecks and bringing in big money from the box office. I guess it shows you how much the business has changed in eighty years, when once upon a time tender, heartfelt performances in dramas like this commanded the big money, and now you’re lucky if a film like this can get made.
Jack Cooper gives another powerhouse performances as the Champ’s son Dink. Cooper had been nominated the year before for his work in Skippy, and remains the youngest nominee in the lead actor category. This film was too early for the Best Supporting Actor category, which wasn’t created for another four years, or Cooper would most definitely have received a nomination for his staggering performance in this film.
What really makes The Champ something special is the chemistry between Cooper and Beery. You almost don’t feel like you’re watching a film, but rather a documentary about a real life father and son. they’re so at ease with each other. I’ve read that you can’t talk about adult-child pairings on film without comparing it to this film, but I feel like that’s an over-simplification. All pairings on film ought to be as easy and dynamic as this.
Cooper is the Champ’s eight-year-old son Dink and the two live in Mexico, where the Champ continually tries to get a trainer to promote him in a fight, but his alcoholism continues to hamper these plans. Dink’s constant disappointment, but at the same time admiration and hope for his father is heartbreaking to watch. You can see echoes of their dynamic in films like 1973’s Paper Moon or even 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer.
Irene Rich plays Linda, who we later find out is Dink’s mother. A good deal of the film is about Linda trying to reconnect with the son she’s never known and convince the Champ to let her and her husband (who is rich, naturally), take the boy and raise him in a better world. The complicated relationships explored in the film are handled so deftly by all involved, that what could have been soapy, instead holds a weight and universality that makes this film a truly timeless classic.
It’s also an early boxing picture, a sub-genre that would become very popular with the rise of radio and television broadcast matches in the 30s and 40s.
This is 1931 and filmmaking and film language is still adjusting to the change from silents to talkies and Vidor, as master of the former, became a pioneer of the latter. The film was shot by Gordon Avil, whose credits only began towards the end of the silent era. One aspect of cinematography the two explored was shooting in the dark. There’s one scene in particular that stands out. Cooper shuts of the light and for a few frames the film goes completely black. We don’t see the boy again until he rests in front of an open window and is illuminated by moonlight. It’s a beautifully shot scene that seems to be more than little inspired by German Expressionism. I also think some of the shots in this film later inspired Charles Laughton and Stanley Cortez for their masterpiece The Night of the Hunter.
Vidor also experimented with the use of dolly and tracking shots. One of my favorites follows Dink and his friend through a crowd of people as they make their way towards the Champ. This is the kind of movement that made late-era silent films so expressive and breathtaking, but with the transition to sound, these kind of shots were often ruined by the clunky sound of the equipment. Sound engineers like Douglas Shearer for MGM did a lot to improve the recording of sound. Director Dorothy Arzner is credited with the invention of the boom microphone, which is still used today.
There is a sequence in the film where Dink goes up on a balcony, steals cigarettes, dangles from a grate and walks on a titled roof. This would never be done today – especially with an eight-year-old child. This was apparently not in the script, but rather an improvisational scene that Vidor came up with on the spot. It was filmed using the dressing room of starlet Marion Davies (whose work in Show People you ought to be familiar with and if you aren’t go rent it right away).
I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, so I’m just going to say, if it doesn’t make you wail, you probably need to see a cardiologist, because your heart is missing.
Posted on August 12, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1931, Frances Marion, Gordon Avil, Irene Rich, Jackie Cooper, King Vidor, The Champ, Wallace Beery. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.