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The Champ

The Champ(1931)

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The Champ (1931)

SYNOPSIS

Former World Heavyweight Champion Andy "Champ" Purcell is reduced to gambling and racing horses in Tijuana because of his alcoholism. The only light in his life is his son, Dink, who keeps trying to get his father back on the wagon. At the track where his father races his only horse, Dink is spotted by Linda, a wealthy woman who realizes he is the son she left behind when she divorced the Champ. Although the Champ refuses to turn over his son to his ex-wife, his continued gambling and drinking leave him so destitute he can think of no other hope for the child, unless he can score one last fight to win back his place in the ring.CAST AND CREW

Producer-Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Leonard Praskins, Wanda Tuchock
Based on a story by Frances MarionCinematography: Gordon Avil
Editing: Hugh Wynn
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Wallace Beery (Champ), Jackie Cooper (Dink), Irene Rich (Linda), Roscoe Ates (Sponge), Edward Brophy (Tim), Hale Hamilton (Tony), Jesse Scott (Jonah), Marcia Mae Jones (Mary Lou)
BW-86 m.

OVERVIEW

The Champ is an early sound example of a popular silent sub-genre, the "waif" film, depicting the trials of an economically deprived young man or woman. Earlier examples include D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919), several of Mary Pickford's films and Charles Chaplin's The Kid (1921), the latter a clear inspiration for Frances Marion's screenplay. The genre would continue with some of the films of Shirley Temple and Margaret O'Brien.

With its depiction of an emotionally vulnerable leading man struggling to raise his son under strained economic circumstances, The Champ has been called an inverted women's film. As such, critics have discussed its treatment of masculinity in terms usually reserved for depictions of women.

With its focus on the adventures of a father and son, the film is in many ways a precursor of the buddy films that became popular in the late '60s and '70s. The deep emotional bond between the Champ and his son renders this a much deeper depiction of "bromance" than those later films.

Also ahead of its time is the depiction of Dink's multi-ethnic group of friends in Tijuana, particularly his close relationship with African-American child Jonah.

With its continuing emotional power, the film is often hailed as the definitive male weepie.

The Champ revived Wallace Beery's career and made him one of MGM's top stars. It also brought him his only Oscar® for Best Actor.

Jackie Cooper was the first of MGM's great child stars, though he was still under contract to Paramount while making The Champ. His move to MGM after completing the picture helped set into motion the studio's string of sentimental family pictures drawing on a roster of character actors and memorable juveniles to portray studio head Louis B. Mayer's dreams of American home life.

By Frank Miller

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The Champ (1931)

With The Champ in the can, MGM bought Jackie Cooper's contract from Paramount Pictures. He was the studio's first child star, to be followed by Freddie Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, and Dean Stockwell, among many others.

Six weeks after the film's premiere, Cooper put his foot and handprints in cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Beery had already been commemorated there along with Marie Dressler in conjunction with the premiere of Min and Bill (1930).

The Champ's popularity made Beery one of MGM's biggest stars of the early '30s, leading to roles in such classics as Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933) and Viva Villa! (1934).

After seeing how effortlessly Cooper stole scenes from him, Beery informed the press he would never work with the young actor again. Under the terms of his studio contract, however, he could not refuse assignments without going on suspension and forfeiting his salary. The two would reteam in 1933 for The Bowery and go on to make two other films together.<

The father-son relationship in The Champ inspired Yasujiro Ozu's classic Passing Fancy (1933), about a struggling widower whose son resents his father's interest in a young woman.

MGM reissued the film in 1938.

Beery reprised his role twice for the Lux Radio Theatre, first in 1939 and again in 1942.

MGM remade the film as The Clown in 1953, with Red Skelton as a faded comic raising his son (Tim Considine) by Jane Greer.

Stan and Jan Berenstain have credited the film as the inspiration for the relationship between Papa and Brother Bear in their best-selling series of books, The Berenstain Bears. The series debuted in 1962 with The Big Honey Hunt and has gone on to inspire 300 books along with numerous television shows, a stage show, a feature film and profitable toy lines.

In 1979, Franco Zeffirelli directed a big budget remake starring Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway, with Ricky Schroder making his film debut as their son.

By Frank Miller

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The Champ (1931)

Because The Champ was made before the repeal of Prohibition, Frances Marion set the story mostly in Tijuana. That prevented protests from reformers and censors, who might otherwise have objected to the title character's easy access to liquor.

Until the final scene, when "There's No Place Like Home" plays on the soundtrack, all of the music in the film comes from environmental sources.

According to Hollywood legend, when director King Vidor couldn't get tears out of Jackie Cooper for one scene, he pretended to fire assistant director Red Golden, a friend of the child star's, in order to get the child worked up. As soon as the scene was finished, Vidor rehired Golden as a "reward" to Cooper. In his memoirs, however, Cooper claims never to have liked Golden.

Another legend surrounds Wallace Beery's Oscar® win. Minutes before the end of voting, actress and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper raced into the Motion Picture Academy®'s offices to hand in her ballot. As a friend of MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who had helped her land her job as a columnist in an effort to diminish rival columnist Louella Parsons's power, she most likely had voted for Beery. Some insisted she had actually run in to deliver her ballot at Mayer's personal request, to make sure Beery won. If she did vote for him, her last-minute ballot put him within one vote of winner Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), who was the actual winner. Under Academy® rules at that time (since changed), the results were considered a tie.

By Frank Miller

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The Champ (1931)

Wallace Beery had been a major star in the silent era, though his career floundered a bit with the coming of sound. He had scored a surprise hit as the child-like killer in The Big House and as Marie Dressler's on-screen sparring partner in Min and Bill (both 1930), but before long, Hollywood insiders were saying his days as a leading man were over. Determined to prove them wrong, screenwriter Frances Marion, one of the most influential writers at MGM, wrote the story of The Champ as a vehicle for him. She did this with the full support of studio head Louis B. Mayer and his production chief, Irving G. Thalberg, who had noted the audience's positive response to the actor's performance in The Big House. Beery was so pleased with the part he claimed to have turned down an offer of $500,000 to play the Buddha for independent producers in order to make the film.

Attracted by the script's depiction of family values and its optimism, King Vidor gladly accepted the chance to direct, even though the story was more sentimental and less innovative than such earlier pictures of his as The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd (1928), Hallelujah (1929) and Street Scene (1931). The experimental nature of some of his most famous films also left him feeling obligated to give MGM a more traditional film that would have a better chance at the box office than The Crowd or Hallelujah.

After scoring an Oscar® nomination at the age of nine for Paramount's Skippy (1931), directed by his uncle Norman Taurog, Jackie Cooper was the biggest child star in Hollywood. MGM borrowed him from Paramount at a cost of $1,500 a week.

By Frank Miller

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The Champ (1931)

The Champ went into production in August 1931 and finished shooting in October. It was ready for theatres by November.

The racetrack scenes were shot on the MGM back lot, with a few establishing shots taken at Agua Caliente in Baja California, Mexico. The film also includes some location shots taken in Tijuana.

Although the Champ was a great role for Beery, he was none too thrilled to be working with Jackie Cooper, sharing most adult actors' distrust of child stars. Cooper would later accuse the star of trying to upstage him and treating him like "an unkempt dog," behavior he ascribed to jealousy. (Cooper, quoted by Mark Thise in Hollywood Winners & Losers A to Z)

The film did fine at its first preview until the last reel. As originally written, Beery loses his comeback boxing match, then dies as his son weeps. After going along with the sentimental story until that moment, audiences felt cheated by the downbeat ending. As a result, production chief Irving G. Thalberg ordered the final scene reshot so that Beery won the match. At the next preview, the audience cheered at the end.

MGM advertised the film as "The knockout picture of the year!" They also used the line "Don't fail to get a ringside seat!"

By Frank Miller

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teaser The Champ (1931)

MGM production chief Irving G. Thalberg proved himself a master of re-making movies with The Champ (1931). Not only did his persistence and perception give the studio one of its biggest hits of the early thirties, it also helped make Wallace Beery an Oscar® winner, and one of MGM's biggest and most unlikely stars.

Although MGM is most often thought of as Hollywood's house of glamour, Thalberg and studio head Louis B. Mayer weren't beyond taking a chance on something grittier. They'd done that in 1930 with the prison picture The Big House, a film that's still being imitated today. One of that picture's biggest assets was Wallace Beery, playing a simple-minded but vicious killer. Beery was far from the glamorous matinee idol type that usually achieved stardom at MGM, but Mayer and Thalberg noticed how audiences responded to the wounded little boy hiding behind his pug ugly face and decided to give him the star build-up.

Frances Marion, the scriptwriter who won an Oscar® for The Big House created the perfect role for Beery, a washed up boxer who's only a champion in the eyes of his son. For the latter role, MGM signed its first child star, Jackie Cooper, who had scored a huge hit in the children's film Skippy (1931). Then, while the rest of the studio's stars were working on glittering vehicles dressed up in the latest fashions, they sent Berry, Cooper and director King Vidor on location to the seamier side of Tijuana to shoot their story.

As the rushes came back, they knew they had something special. When the film previewed, the audience was enthralled until the last reel. That reel was waiting for Thalberg when he got into the studio the next day. One look and he knew what was wrong. For the film's climax, Beery goes back to the ring for one more fight, just to show his son that he can. But he loses the match and dies. Thalberg ordered retakes so that Beery would win the match, and the next audience cheered the film.

When the Oscar® nominations were announced, Beery was considered the frontrunner for Best Actor. How could they not recognize his deeply felt star-making performance? But at the ceremonies, the winner turned out to be Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. March thanked the makeup artist who had transformed him into the horrific Hyde, and as the evening continued many in the audience grumbled that the Oscar® should have gone for his makeup, not his acting. Meanwhile, the voting committee was double-checking the ballots and noticed that March had beaten Beery by just one vote. At the time, that was enough to declare a tie (it now takes an equal number of votes), so Beery was called up to the podium and presented with an Oscar® of his own, which earned the evening's loudest ovation.

But a strange Hollywood rumor has sprung up about that award. On the last day of voting, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper raced to Academy® headquarters to hand in her ballot -two minutes before the deadline. Everybody in town knew that Hopper was a friend of Mayer's and owed him her job. Before long, people were saying that he called her at the last minute to get her to vote for Beery, just to make sure his star won.

Producer/Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Frances Marion
Cinematography: Gordon Avil
Film Editing: Hugh Wynn
Principal Cast: Wallace Beery (Champ), Jackie Cooper (Dink), Irene Rich (Linda), Roscoe Ates (Sponge), Edward Brophy (Tim), Hale Hamilton (Tony).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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The Champ (1931)

The Champ cost $361,000 to make and brought in over $1 million at the box office, a solid figure for its time.

"Without much to lean on in the way of a story, the ponderous Wallace Beery and the diminutive Jackie Cooper, under King Vidor's expert direction, last night succeeded in stirring the emotions of an audience in the Astor in a film called The Champ. This picture is a further example of clever acting saving the day, for there is little in this narrative of horse racing and pugilistic bouts that possesses much akin to originality, except possibly the loyalty of the boy to his father, an ex-prize-fighting champion, who is addicted to drink and gambling." -- Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times

"A good picture, almost entirely by virtue of an inspired performance by a boy, Jackie Cooper. There is none of the usual hammy quality of the average child actor in this kid. What also makes The Champ a good talker is a studied, understanding adult piece of work by the costar, Wallace Beery, who had to step to keep up with Jackie, and a Frances Marion original story that isn't bad for a boxing story." -- Variety

"The film is both wise and tragic in accepting that love and kindness may exist in radically incompatible terms. As obvious as that may be, it wasn't so common in Hollywood during the next thirty years in art because of the Hays Code ban on sympathy going to immoral characters." - Raymond Durgnant and Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American

By Frank Miller

AWARDS & HONORS

In a Film Daily poll of national critics to name the best film of 1932, The Champ came in second to Grand Hotel (1932).

In the third Academy Awards® balloting, The Champ was nominated for four Oscars®, including Best Picture and Best Director, the third of legendary director King Vidor's five nominations. It won Frances Marion her second Oscar® for Best Writing. Initially, that was the film's only win, with Norma Shearer announcing that Fredric March's performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) had beaten Wallace Beery's. The audience was not pleased. Beery had been considered the front-runner, and many grumbled that the award should have been given to March's make-up man, not the actor.

As MGM head Louis B. Mayer was accepting the Best Picture Oscar® for Grand Hotel, members of the Academy® were checking the votes and discovered that Beery had only lost the award by one vote. Under Academy® rules, that constituted a tie, so current president Conrad Nagel took the mike after Mayer to announce the discovery and hand Berry an Oscar®. The announcement drew one of the evening's biggest ovations.

At the party afterwards, March noted that in addition to sharing Best Actor honors, he and Beery had each recently adopted a child. "It seems a little odd that Wally and I were given awards for best male performance of the year," he said.

The Academy®'s rules have since been changed to stipulate that a tie will only happen when both nominees receive exactly the same number of votes. That has only happened five times since then, most notably when Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand shared the award in 1968 for The Lion in Winter and Funny Girl, respectively

By Frank Miller

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