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A boxing drama with comic and religious overtones, 1954's Tennessee Champ marked a return to Hollywood for star Shelley Winters, who hadn't appeared on the big screen in almost two years due to her marriage to Vittorio Gassman (which ended in June of 1954) and the birth of their child, Vittoria. The lull had occurred at a strategic point in her career, as the actress seemed to be on an upswing thanks to her roles in films like Winchester '73 (1950) and Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), not to mention her breakthrough tragic performance in A Place in the Sun (1951).
Here Winters plays Sarah Wurble, whose husband, Willy (Keenan Wynn), is manager for an illiterate, God-fearing boxer, Danny Norson (The Thing from Another World's  Dewey Martin). Gifted with a powerful punch and a nickname that provides the film's title, Danny's hiding a terrible secret, believing he impulsively killed another man, and his religious convictions turn out to be a source of conflict when Willy urges him to throw a fight. On top of that, fate has another twist in store that may either absolve Danny or send him into a tailspin. < BR>
Mounted as a title to fill out double and triple bills, Tennessee Champ was one of several films Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer shot in its pet process of Anscocolor, a ruddy-looking process also employed on the same year's Brigadoon. The quality of the finished film and its enduring appeal among film fans is fortunate given the studio's enormous output that year, which saw the film's promotion often overwhelmed by other, more prestigious titles from MGM around the same time like Executive Suite, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Beau Brummell, and The Last Time I Saw Paris.
In fact, Tennessee Champ had been gestating within the studio's offices for many years, with MGM records for it going back well over a decade. Writer Eustace Cockrell was noted for his short stories in various popular publications, several of which were optioned by MGM and sent around for consideration. Four of his stories from Argosy Weekly were picked up from his "Refugee Smith" series: "Marching as to War," "The Lord in His Corner," "Refugee Returns Home," and "Love Came Borrowing." A fifth Refugee Smith story, "Shoeshine Boy," appeared later in Collier's and was also snagged by MGM, and Cockrell himself submitted a 17-page treatment under the title Refugee Returns Home in October of 1942.
Later that same month and into February of the following year, Cockrell worked on an updated treatment, now called The Lord in His Corner, after which it evolved into the more generic title of Refugee Smith, with a new treatment written by Howard Estabrook. The project languished for several years but was put back on track when another Cockrell story was adapted by MGM as Fast Company in 1953, starring Howard Keel. In the meantime Cockrell had become a prolific TV writer, working (sometimes uncredited) on such programs as Maverick and Have Gun Will Travel and adapting another of his boxing stories, "The Count of Ten," for a 1954 episode of The Loretta Young Show.
The revived version of Cockrell's big screen sports drama was then entrusted to screenwriter Art Cohn, who had earlier written the 1949 boxing noir The Set-Up for director Robert Wise. In March of 1953, Cohn turned in a new screenplay from the same source material, now entitled Sunday Punch and largely using material from "The Lord in His Corner" along with elements of the other stories. Cohn also did significant research into the story's biblical references, turning in a taut 90-page final script. Producer Sol Baer Fielding also added six pages of additional scenes, and the final stamp of approval was given by September of the same year, at which point the title had finally reached its final incarnation as Tennessee Champ. Tragically, Cohn would die four years later in a plane crash with film producer and Todd-AO pioneer Mike Todd, about whom he was writing a biography.
Directing duties were handed to Fred M. Wilcox, a longtime MGM veteran (and brother of actress Ruth Selwyn) who began in the studio's publicity department during the silent era and directed such films as Lassie Come Home (1943) as well as an earlier Keenan Wynn film, Code Two (1953). However, his most famous film for MGM would be his last: Forbidden Planet, the 1956 science fiction classic featuring one of Tennessee Champ's scene-stealing co-stars, Earl Holliman.
Another co-star in the film, Charles Buchinsky, should also look familiar to movie fans. The young actor who plays "The Biloxi Blockbuster" in the ring had just appeared a year earlier in House of Wax, and within a year he would change his name to one that would make him one of the screen's most memorable tough guys: Charles Bronson.
Appropriately, Tennessee Champ premiered in Memphis, Tennessee on February 25, 1954. About to embark on the busiest and most acclaimed phase of her career, Winters received top billing and occupied the majority of the trailers and poster art, which alluded to one of the former titles with the tagline, "It's fun and thrills when Bombshell Shelley takes on a guy with a Sunday punch!"
Producer: Sol Baer Fielding
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Screenplay: Art Cohn; Eustace Cockrell (story)
Cinematography: George Folsey
Art Direction: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Conrad Salinger
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Cast: Shelley Winters (Sarah Wurble), Keenan Wynn (Willy Wurble), Dewey Martin (Daniel 'Danny' Norson aka Tennessee Champ), Earl Holliman (Happy Jackfield), Dave O'Brien (Luke MacWade), Charles Buchinsky (Sixty Jubel aka The Biloxi Blockbuster), Yvette Duguay (Blossom), Frank Richards (J.B. Backett), Jack Kruschen (Andrews, Fight Promoter)
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