DVD Review Of Champion
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/26/06
The other day I watched the recent Ron Howard boxing film Cinderella Man on DVD and found it predictably mediocre. Part of this came from the fact that it was a Ron Howard film, and part of it from the fact that it was a boxing film. Raging Bull is perhaps the only boxing film that can come close to being called great, although the first Rocky and films like Jimmy Cagney’s City For Conquest, John Garfield’s Body And Soul, and Paul Newman’s Rocky Graziano film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, have their moments. Far too often, however, boxing produces utter schlock, like any of the Rocky sequels, or the recent Oscar winning film Million Dollar Baby, where virtually all of the plot points are telegraphed well in advance to all moviegoers, save those under ten years of age.
So, after having bathed in Ron Howard’s weepfest I decided to pop in a DVD I picked up a year or two before, another boxing film, one that I first remember watching with my dad, many years ago, Kirk Douglas’s first big film, Champion, from 1949, directed by Mark Robson, a Val Lewton disciple, who later directed many films, including Von Ryan’s Express. I had many memories of the film, all positive, but how did it hold up over the decades, especially since based upon noted sports hagiographer Ring Lardner’s tale? Was part of my fondness due to watching it with my dad? The DVD, itself, is fairly low frills- with the black and white original version on one side, and a colorized version on the other, with a few extra production notes on the making of the film. At an hour and forty minutes it’s nearly an hour shorter than Cinderella Man. Legend has it that Douglas chose this vehicle as his first headliner, which a few people thought was foolish, since he could have starred in a much publicized film, The Great Sinner, rather than this independent film. This would be the first of many good artistic choices Douglas would display in his career, and it paid off with his first Oscar nomination. It also allowed him to break free of the studio system and become a big star in the 1950s.
The film follows Michael ‘Midge’ Kelly, and his brother Connie (Kirk Douglas and Arthur Kennedy)- who walks with a cane throughout the film, although why is never answered, who bum across the country to L.A., after they buy into a scam. They are forced to work as hashslingers at a diner. Midge screws around with the owner’s daughter, Emma, then dumps her after a shotgun wedding. Connie, however, is unrequitedly in love with Emma Bryce (Ruth Roman), but sticks with Midge when he tries to become a boxer, by tracking down a trainer/manager, Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), they’d met on the way. Thus begins his career as an up and coming middleweight, all the while keeping his marriage a secret.
Midge is a selfish, brutal, conniving character, willing to use whomever he can to get to the top. He keeps distancing himself from his wife, brother, manager, and anyone else he meets up with, including a blond floozy, Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell), who latches on to him after he defeats another star boxer, Johnny Dunne (John Daheim), the Mafia told him to lose to. When he KOs Dunne he, his brother, and manager, are beaten. But, he becomes a star in the press. Soon, he dumps Tommy for a manager, Jerry Harris (Luis Van Rooten), who is connected and gets him a title shot. He then seduces Jerry’s young twentysomething sculptress wife Palmer (Lola Albright). When Jerry finds out of their affair, he tells Midge he can keep his manager’s commission on the $65,000 he’s slotted to earn for the bout, if he’ll stop seeing his wife, and Midge does so, to her dismay. He then rehires Tommy to train him, and he re-connects with his brother and Emma, who are in love, and will be married once she and Midge divorce.
In the end, there is the climactic rematch with Dunne, the boxer whose blond he stole away, and Midge is losing badly in the last round, but rallies to win, after seeing the Harrises, Grace, and his brother in the crowd, and feeling they’ve all turned on him. He rages himself to a KO of Dunne. Yet, by this time the viewer is rooting against him. After his win, he breaks down in the dressing room with his manager, starts uttering lines from earlier in the film, as he deludedly relives his poverty, and dies of a brain hemorrhage. His brother and Emma, when asked for a comment by reporters, say he died a champion, even though both have been recently hurt by him- she by possibly being raped by him, and the brother in knowing this, then being beaten by Midge when confronted by him, and one can see that Connie wants to tell the world what a heel his brother was, even missing their mother’s death.
While the film’s cinematography, and use of black and white shadows is first rate, the script is laden with the stylized writing style of the period, and works more as a moral melodrama than a film noir. The acting also suffers from the non-naturalistic acting style of the 1940s, as well as some very fake boxing sequences. In one particularly bad moment- where a newsreel sports reporter wants to show a devastating KO by Midge, there is a replay in slow motion that only highlights the obvious- that the punches thrown land a good foot or more from the actors. Midge also takes punches no mediocre boxer would take, much less a champion. The training sequences are much better, and editor Harry Gerstad won an Oscar for it. Yet, the acting by Douglas, despite the stylization, is far more rooted in the real world struggles of boxing.
At its core, though, Champion- like Raging Bull, is not a boxing movie, merely a film whose structure uses boxing to tell its tale. Midge, like Jake La Motta, is not a nice guy. He’s a user, a liar, and egoist, and a bit of a sadist. We learn, in early scenes with Emma, that he was abandoned as a child, by a father who left and a mother who could only take care of sickly Connie, and grew up in an orphanage. One merely needs to hear the word orphanage to understand the rage that lights Midge’s eyes from the first shots of the film, as well as the few moments he speaks of his hatred for poverty and the condescension it brings. Yet, despite his personal decay, Midge is a savvy guy, realizing that boxing is ‘like any other business, only here the blood shows.’ And it does in this film, as well. If only Ron Howard’s film had such sanguine hues I may have never rediscovered this gem of a film, and bravura performance by Douglas.
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