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To say that Champion (1949) is one of the best boxing films ever made might sound like high praise but it's actually an inadequate appraisal of this dark character study that launched Kirk Douglas's career. Simply put, Champion is one of the best American films from the post-war forties. It's a tight and powerful story of a driven man who goes to any lengths to become the top contender in his sport, no matter who gets hurt along the way. The film gathered six Oscar nominations, winning one (for Best Editing), and its film noir visuals and uncompromising story still make a strong impression today.
Champion opens with war veteran Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas) planning to open a diner with his handicapped brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy). While hitchhiking the two men encounter Johnny Dunne (John Day), a small-time boxer, and his flashy girlfriend Grace (Marilyn Maxwell), who persuade Midge to enter the ring to earn some extra money for the diner. At first he only sees boxing as a short term financial opportunity but soon he's hooked by his success and slowly slides into a spiral of con games, seduction, betrayal and violence.
Producer Stanley Kramer bought the rights to a few Ring Lardner, Jr. stories and in 1948 filmed one as So This Is New York. That wasn't a big success but it didn't stop him from working on the next Lardner adaptation because he believed in it so strongly. In his autobiography, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Harcourt Brace & Co.), Kramer said he intended Champion to "be the first film to show the fight game as it really was: brutal and corrupt. My attraction to this story grew out of what I'd seen as a kid growing up on the streets of New York. It seems as if half the kids with whom I had run around in the slums of Hell's Kitchen had become professional fighters....They fought because it seemed like a way to make some quick, easy money, but every one of them was sorry before he was finished. First of all, they didn't make any money. They would take a fight for $80. The manager grabbed $40 of that, and the trainer $25. The boy was fighting for $15, often taking a torturous beating." For his film, Kramer found financing from a Florida clothing manufacturer and a California lettuce grower before signing on writer Carl Foreman and director Mark Robson. But he still lacked an actor for the lead role.
Kirk Douglas was a rising but still little-known actor who felt that his career was stalling so he took a chance on this obscure independent producer, foregoing an offered role in the big-budget MGM film The Great Sinner (1949). Instead of taking a secondary role to Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in that film, Douglas ended up with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and star status when Champion turned out to be a bigger hit than anybody had anticipated.
In his autobiography, The Ragman's Son, Douglas recalled that prior to being cast in Champion, Kramer and Carl Foreman did have some reservations about his acting. "They'd seen my performance as the weak district attorney in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers , and as the sensitive schoolteacher in A Letter to Three Wives . Now, although they were trying to be delicate about it, they were wondering whether I could play a boxer. I finally realized what they wanted. I thought, This is what the starlets do. I took off my jacket and shirt, bared my chest and flexed my muscles. They nodded approvingly, satisfied that I could play a boxer. I was probably the only man in Hollywood who's had to strip to get a part. I didn't want to use a body double, so I worked out....Mushy Callahan, the ex-welterweight champ, taught me how to punch the speed bag and the hard bag. We developed a boxing style suitable for my character: always moving forward, no matter how many times or how hard I got hit. Even when I got smashed in the face, I kept moving in. I was relentless. Many of the boxers I fought in the picture were real life ex-pugs."
One thing that Douglas doesn't mention in his autobiography is that he had some plastic surgery on his face just before filming began on Champion. Kramer was incredulous: "You mean to say you had a nose job just when you're about to making a boxing picture?" Apparently, Douglas felt some slight cosmetic changes to his face would make him a more attractive leading man. At any rate, Kramer stated, "there was little choice but to continue with him and figure out some way to protect that infernal nose....we made sure they [the boxers] were serious about only one thing - avoiding contact with his nose....Douglas had to suffer some hard body blows as a result, but his nose remained intact." Their careful maneuvering paid off, for the boxing matches in the film are brutally realistic and even sports writers found little to criticize in the sequences.
When Champion opened theatrically, it grossed almost $18 million (an impressive sum considering its modest budget), made Kramer one of the most sought-after producers in Hollywood and transformed Douglas into an overnight star. In fact, Douglas's performance was an inspiration to Shirley MacLaine, who later told the actor that his cruel kiss-off scene with Marilyn Maxwell inspired her to become an actress. In 1999, clips from Champion's boxing scenes would be used as flashbacks for Douglas' character in the film Diamonds.
Producer: Stanley Kramer
Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: Carl Foreman, based on the story by Ring Lardner, Jr.
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Editing: Harry Gerstad
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Midge Kelly), Marilyn Maxwell (Grace Diamond), Arthur Kennedy (Connie Kelly), Paul Stewart (Tommy Haley), Ruth Roman (Emma Bryce).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Lang Thompson