The Champ (1931)
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