The Champ (1931)
Starring: Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich, Roscoe Ates
Directed by: King Vidor
Released by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Synopsis: Andy "Champ" Purcell (Wallace Beery) is a prizefighter. He is also an alcoholic, and his drinking problem has caused the collapse of his career. With his eight-year-old son, Dink (Jackie Cooper), Champ lives in squalid conditions and enters bottom-of-the-card matches with up-and-coming young fighters simply to put food on the table and feed his liquor habit.
Review: I confess that I am a sucker for underdog stories. Can you blame me, though? There is something amazing about seeing someone who has struggled throughout his or her life trying to achieve a dream and then despite all the circumstances they had to face, they manage to get what they wanted thanks to a lot of hard work and dedication. Hollywood knows this and thus has created some truly amazing movies with this train of thought. The Champ is a movie that tries to follow these basic concepts, but I thought it was too depressing for it to be an uplifting film.
Right off the bat, you see that the main characters are very flawed. Champ is a gambler and alcoholic that neglects his son, Dink, despite his apparent love towards him. This is where the first of my many issues with this film come in. Dink, played by Jackie Cooper, is extremely loyal to his father despite the fact that he does nothing but neglect in a manner that could easily be labeled as child abuse. I understand that some children idolize their parents to the point where they see the idealized hero first, the real human being second, and Dink’s case is no exception. However, it’s amazing that he manages to be so loyal and forgiving that he, being an eight-year-old, can take being lied to, accepting gifts instead of proper apologies and many other things.
Then there’s the Champ himself. In terms of overall performance, Wallace Beery does a really good job in the role. He was a very talented character actor, and as the Champ he is very convincing. As a character, however, I too have issues with him. Once again, he claims that he loves his son, but still puts him through some very harsh situations, like being so drunk that Dink has to drag him home, undress him and share the same rotten old bed. At times he realizes that he needs to be a better father in order to make him happy, but most of the time he goes throughout the movie making the same mistakes over and over again without anyone taking notice of the situation (except for one character in the movie which comes very late, I won’t spoil it).
Now, I get what they are trying to do here. The Champ follows dysfunctional people trying to get into more and more dreadful situations without any hope of salvation. That’s one of the most basic premises in many inspirational films. The key thing, however, is that there are other characters that try to make sense of the situation while the main characters themselves come to a realization and try to become better people. This does happen in the movie, but feels forced after it keeps showing us how rotten these people are in the end.
Then there’s the extremely depressing ending that comes out of nowhere and has no real reason whatsoever. I know that films don’t need a happy ending for it to be good. But here’s the thing: even if the ending isn’t completely happy what’s important is that the efforts of the characters are rewarded and inspire other people in the process. A good example would be Rocky, another underdog movie about the boxing world. Even if the ending isn’t what we expected we are very touched and inspired by Rocky’s desire to be the best. In The Champ, the film ends on a tragic note without any real reason to. It doesn’t have a build up to it nor does it prepare the audience for it. It doesn’t make sense and I don’t understand what they were trying to do with it.
Now, I wouldn’t call this the worst film ever made. It really isn’t thanks to some very solid performances and a great chemistry between Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery. It’s just that for a film that has been labeled by experts as inspirational the story is far too depressing and dysfunctional for its own good. There have been many similar films like that, but even if the subject matter is really dark as long as they have a build up to something great it can be forgiven. The Champ doesn’t do this and instead we wonder why these characters care for each other so much and groan at the downer of an ending.
Rating: 2 filmstrips out of five