Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: The Champ (1931)
- Standing: Nominated for Best Picture of 1931/1932
- Type: Drama, Sport, Pre-Code
- Other AA Nominations: Best Director (King Vidor)
- Other AA Wins: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Wallace Beery), Best Writing of an Original Story (Frances Marion)
- Director: King Vidor
- Studio/Producer: MGM / King Vidor and Irving Thalberg
- Cast: Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich, Rosco Ates, Edward Brophy, Hale Hamilton, Jesse Scott, Marcia Mae Jones
- Production Notes: Screenplay by Frances Marion, Cinematography by Gordon Avil, Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons
- Viewing Order: 23 / 270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
Andy (Wallace Beery), a down on his luck heavyweight boxer, is trying to get back the former glory he once knew that earned him his nickname, The Champ. Unfortunately, frequent trips into the bottle keep hindering any chance at a comeback and his gambling habit ensures that his financial situation is less than stable. His biggest fan is his son Dink (Jackie Cooper), a scrappy youngster who wears many hats (son, friend, coach, maid, parent) in order to keep his dad on track. The two live lean, but are happy. Andy spends what extra cash he has at cards and wins Dink a race horse that the two decide to enter into a racing competition.
At the Tijuana racetrack, Dink talks up his horse to another race horse owner named Linda Carleton (Irene Rich) and the two develop a friendship. Linda’s husband (Hale Hamilton) happens to see that Dink is in the company of Andy and puts two and two together, realizing that Dink is the son Linda left when she divorced her first husband…none other than Andy the Champ. When news gets back to Linda she is desperate to reconnect with her son and the Carletons pay Andy to let them spend the day with Dink. Broke Andy can’t refuse the money, but does put his foot down about letting Dink stay longer. However, after a drunken episode lands him in jail he realizes that Dink deserves a better life than what he’s been providing.
Despite hardships, he’s not down for the count yet; no champ goes down without a fight…
Because The Champ was a melodrama sold as a “man’s picture” (i.e.: a film starring and primarily about men and including the typical masculine pastimes of boozing, sparring, gambling, and cavorting around a racetrack), men were given a sort of unspoken license to weep openly in the theatre without shame. And they did in buckets. Self-described hard-boiled critic Jimmy Starr admitted in November 14, 1931’s column for the Los Angeles Evening Press that he wasn’t the only critic during the screening dabbing his eyes, a “sissy trait,” that he rarely indulged in, but said The Champ was the exception that “tore me all up.” Nearly every critique of the film mentions audience members and critics alike leaving the theatre in tears.
One of the most intriguing aspects of The Champ is that gender roles in regards to parenting were flipped. This is a film about a man and his son, two guys on their own trying to make ends meet. While normally one would expect the mother to be the one raising the child and struggling while the husband left and remarried, in this case it’s the opposite. Dink’s mother relinquished custody to Andy, married rich, and moved into more elevated economic circles while Andy, the man, is struggling.
Irene Rich performed her part admirably, but the role itself was odd. It was hard to get behind a mother who would so easily leave her child and not think about him for years only to reappear, decided she’s suddenly all in, and attempt to uproot Dink from the life that he’s telling her he’s happy in. Yet, there was no moment where Linda was unkind, conniving, or otherwise portrayed as the enemy. The antagonist was always the bottle and the Champ’s own inability to get himself straight, not Linda. Still…it’s hard not to feel that you were in someway lulled into thinking this way…
Frances Marion wrote the role of Andy with Wallace Beery in mind and it shows. It’s genuinely hard to imagine anyone else in the role. While Beery would win the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of The Champ, I thought there was still a bit to be desired. It was a good performance, but not saturated in naturalness. Some of the blustering, boxing, and drunk scenes felt forced. Where he shone were in the small moments of one on one with Cooper as his son. That Andy and Dink are openly affectionate with each other makes for some genuinely sweet moments.
If the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award would have existed at this time, it should have gone to Cooper, who stole every scene he was in, including from Beery. Apparently, his did not go unnoticed by Beery and he vowed not to work with Cooper again, only to go back on this later with Treasure Island. When Cooper cried, you cried. When he laughed, you laughed. As Dink, Cooper’s connection to the story, the role, and the Champ were 100 percent.
Behind the Scenes:
Wallace Beery actually tied for his Best Actor award with Fredric March (for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
Franco Zeffirelli remade the film in 1979 starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway, and Ricky Schroder. While the original was heralded for its pathos and sob inducing ability, the remake was panned for being contrived and overly depressing with no payoff.
Why was it nominated for Best Picture?
Not only were Beery and Cooper applauded for their performances, director King Vidor and writer Frances Marion’s contributions were also singled out in making the film so enjoyable and successful.
With the Great Depression affecting moviegoers everyday lives at the time of The Champ‘s debut, it’s easy to imagine why a film about a financially unstable hard luck man who wants the best for his son would strike such an emotional cord with the public. It would become the fifth highest box office draw of 1932.
How does it hold up today?
Fairly well! Though undeniably dated in many respects, the true heart of the film and the father and son relationship shines through.
- IMDb rating= 7.3 out of 10 (with 2,578 ratings)
- Rotten Tomatoes rating= 88% fresh by critics (7 fresh votes vs 1 rotten) and 74% fresh user ratings (out of 674 ratings)
Would this be my pick for 1931/1932’s Best Picture?
Though I enjoyed elements of the film, especially the dynamic between Wallace Berry and Jackie Cooper, there are several other nominees which I found to be better pictures overall…
*UPDATE: See my full 1931/1932 ranking here