Hidden under the guise of a ‘down on his luck boxer’ movie lies one of the most vibrant and authentic father/son relationships ever put on film. It’s this relationship that is at the heart of the 1931 film “The Champ”. Throughout the decades to follow a number of movies would follow a similar blueprint in exploring the father/ son dynamic. “The Champ” is unashamedly melodramatic, but it’s very effective thanks to a strong script and two fantastic lead performances.
The Best Actor Oscar went to the film’s star Wallace Beery who plays a washed-up former boxing champion named Andy Purcell. He lives in a small run down apartment in Tijuana, Mexico with his adoring eight-year-old son Dink (played by Jackie Cooper). Andy’s self-destructive behavior keeps him from making things better for himself and his son. Every time an opportunity comes his way Andy finds a way to squander it and it could eventually cost him what he holds dearest.
Frances Marion’s story (which also won an Oscar) paints a vivid picture of the unwavering confidence and blind love that small children have in their parents. Dink sees his dad as a larger than life superhero of sorts. Yet he is constantly let down by his father’s drinking, gambling, and carousing. Jackie Cooper was such a treat. Watching him deliver young Dink’s roller coaster of emotions was a surprise. He avoided most of the traps that many golden era child actors often fell into and gave the film a ton of heart.
Cooper had caught attention with his work on “Our Gang”. Hal Roach, seeing Cooper as a potential film star, sold Cooper’s contract to MGM. “The Champ” soon came afterwards and it marked one of several collaborations Cooper would have with Beery. The two had a charming and believable chemistry which is a surprise considering that Beery made their off camera relationship difficult.
At the time this film was a part of Beery’s career resurgence. He had been a popular silent film star but had seen his star fade with the influx of ‘talkies’. “The Champ” solidified his return and spotlighted his knack for deeper and more dramatic performances. Beery gives us a character that is hard to like yet there is something about him (aside from our affection for Dink) that makes us want him to turn things around. Beery grounds Andy in reality which connects us to him and his circumstances.
“The Champ” is heavy on melodrama and some could argue that it milks emotions dry. I think all of that works because we never lose our investment in the two lead characters. Beery and Cooper drive the film which is full or heart, humor, and authenticity. It’s a very straightforward and unashamed look at one of the most important relationships we can have. More importantly, the movie doesn’t just look at it. It presents it in a way that touches the audience deeply. That in itself is an accomplishment.