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.
I have never heard of this! Sounds very intriguing. Thanks for the review
Hey thanks for reading and commenting. Yes this was a pretty highly thought of movie and there was actually a remake that starred Ricky Schroeder and Jon Voight. This one really won me over. I definitely recommend it.
It’s funny how those films fall through the cracks when they won Oscars at the time. Two of my favorite like that are the surrealist musical Lili and the comedy Talk of the Town. 2 of my favorite that most haven’t heard of.
Actually two that I haven’t seen! Thanks for mentioning them!
I haven’t seen this, Keith, so I’m glad you had a chance to review it. I sure loved the remake version starring Jon Voight. I wonder how the two compare?
I’ve never seen all of Voight’s but this one is sooo good. Hopefully you can check this one out too.
Never even heard of this movie…but looks interesting, especially with that score. Reminds me that I need to continue with my Blindspot movies as well…I’m running behind.
Definitely check it out. This is one I had put off watching over and over. So glad I finally saw it. That’s one of things I like about these Blind Spot things.
I’ve not seen this, but I have the Voight/Schroeder remake way back when it first came on TV. That’s the only movie I’ve ever cried over. Pretty much been avoiding both ever since. Excellent review as it does sound like an absorbing film.
It’s really good Wendell. Such good chemistry and a really piercing story. I’m surprised at how much I responded to it.
Haven’t seen (or heard of) this one before, Keith. An interesting read and I’d be keen to watch it.
It’s quite good. It had slipped by me several times and I’m glad I finally sat down and watched it.
So is this film remade later on w/ Jon Voight? I’ve seen that one and my, that’s heartbreaking! Interesting to see a very young Jackie Cooper, I’ve only seen him as Mr White in the Superman movies 🙂
Yep that’s the one. It’s really great. So glad I caught up with it.
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