THE CHAMP (1931)
This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Jackie Cooper.
The Champ, in some ways, is slight and manipulative. However, it is hard not to respond to this story of the love between a father and a son.
Andy Purcell (Wallace Beery) may be a washed-up ex-world heavyweight boxing champion, but to his son Dink (Jackie Cooper), he is a hero he always calls "Champ". Dink is not blind to Champ's flaws: his drinking, his inability to keep his word, his gambling and related financial irresponsibility. Dink is accepting of them, however, seeing the good, caring, and loving father Champ is.
After buying a racing horse Dink names "Little Champ" to make more money, Champ is startled to see Linda (Irene Rich), his ex-wife and Dink's mother. Linda has remarried the wealthy Tony (Hale Hamilton) and has a daughter, but Champ is the one with legal custody. Linda and Tony pressure Champ to if not let Dink live with them, to at least start opening a relationship between Dink and Linda.
Champ agrees, eventually pushing Dink away for what he thinks is his own good. Despite how good Tony, Linda and his half-sister are to Dink, he still yearns to be with Champ. Running away to Tijuana to reunite with Champ, Dink's return revives Champ for him to make his comeback, clean and sober. The fight, however, takes everything out of Champ, and we see that while Dink has something of a happy end, it won't be with his beloved Champ.
I understand that one of Jackie Cooper's greatest appeals to contemporary audiences was his ability to cry. He certainly did a lot of crying in The Champ, though his character has reason to. He sees his beloved horse sold off, which is a sad moment given how attached he was to Little Champ. A more painful moment is when Champ pretends to reject Dink to send him to Linda.
As Cooper and Beery play off each other, it is near impossible not to be moved by both their performances. Major credit should be given to King Vidor in his directing of Beery and Cooper, especially the latter given how hard such strong performances can be for child actors.
Beery, who tied with Fredric March that year for Best Actor*, really gets you in this scene. We see that Champ really loves Dink, the one good thing he has but which he keeps failing at. As he resorts to physically pushing Dink away, it is the audience that also is crying.
Cooper completely breaks your heart in The Champ. It is Dink's total belief and devotion to Champ that makes his performance so beautiful. Cooper is so good in selling Dink's innocence with an acceptance and tolerance of Champ's faults, flaws and failings.
The last scene where he tries desperately to rally Champ as his father is dying is absolutely heartbreaking. "Ain't you proud of your old man now?", a worn-out Champ asks. "Ah, gee Champ, I always was," is Dink's answer. Champ tells him his familiar refrain of "Keep your chin up," pushing Dink's head upwards. As Cooper tearfully forces a smile, we are aware that Champ has died. Dink's overwhelming grief simply tears at the viewer. No matter how everyone around him tries to console him, Dink's cries of "I WANT CHAMP!" grip you.
This scene is an excellent showcase not just for Beery and Cooper. It is also a clever character reveal in Francis Marion's Oscar-winning original story. For most of The Champ, Dink calls his parents "Champ" and "Linda". In this final scene, however, Dink for the first and probably only time calls Andy "Daddy", and upon seeing Linda, tearfully cries out, "Mother!". It's an excellent but subtle display of how Dink has evolved.
The Champ is also quite surprising in how it treats the minor character of Dink's best friend Jonah (Jesse Scott). Apart from someone mentioning that Jonah is "colored", no mention is made of Jonah's race. More surprisingly for the time, Jonah being black has no impact on how everyone around him treats Jonah. He is easily welcomed as Dink's best friend and occasional helper, treated as an equal by Dink, Champ and everyone else. It is a small thing, but a good sign for how things should have been.
If there is a flaw in The Champ, it is from the performances of Rich and Hamilton as Linda and Tony respectively. While the film does well to show that they are genuinely loving to Dink, Rich comes across as a bit more theatrical in her manner. That, however, should be seen as how early sound film acting was with some actors. Hamilton at times was a bit too jovial, but perhaps that is more the character than the actor.
The Champ should be shown every Father's Day, as it is a beautiful film about that great bond between a dad who struggles and the young man who loves and idolizes him. You can love your father without being blind to his failings, and The Champ, with standout performances from Beery and Cooper, gives one that truth so well-told.
*Technically, Beery was one vote short of tying March, but the Academy rules at the time stated that if there was a three-vote difference between first and second, it was considered a tie. The rules were later amended to where it had to be an exact tie for there to be two winners.