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June 26, 2012
Shark Bite Theatre
The Champ: A TKO for MGM
by Andrew E. Lindsay

Wallace Beery and young Jackie Cooper in The Champ.

In 1931, the movie industry was still finding its feet. Production values had certainly improved, camera movement was getting more interesting, and sound was now a permanent part of the picture.

Still, the storytelling medium was being underused, with many movies little more than a play on film. Many silver screen actors had their start on stage and even in silent films and so were accustomed to a more over-the-top approach to acting, not yet understanding the power of subtlety in performing on film, where the audience is given a much more intimate view because of camera placement and the size of the screen.

Hollywood learned fast, however, because in just eight short years they would have what many consider the seminal year in moviemaking, producing a plethora of motion picture classics that would set a standard many modern moviemakers are still trying to live up to. 1939 introduced Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Love Affair, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, and The Wizard of Oz. And those were just the films that got nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards!

This is not to say that movies made before 1939 are not worth watching. On the contrary, there are plenty of films that are fun to see and helped pave the way for the aforementioned classics. But watching them can be a bit like watching footage from the early days of football, where men with baggy pants, no padding and not much more than a leather aviator's cap (if they wore anything at all) tossed around a pigskin (so-called because it really was a pig's bladder filled with air) and muscled their way up and down the field in a way that bears little resemblance to the highly-refined game of today.

Passing the ball was a later development, and early standout coaches and players like Jim Thorpe, Glen "Pop" Warner, and Knute Rockne all helped turn a rather crude and violent game into a national pastime. But when you watch these early incarnations and compare them with the high-tech, highly-orchestrated ballets of brute strength of today, they are obviously lacking the sophistication and conventions we have grown accustomed to.

But what they lack in polish they make up for with a quaint appeal and an enormous amount of heart. You can't help but be impressed with their sheer force of will and enthusiasm despite the ragged presentation.

So - back to 1931 and the movies. One story that stands out with a lot of heart (even if it is a little ragged around the edges) is The Champ. Directed by King Vidor (already a veteran director of nearly two decades), The Champ stars Wallace Beery as ex-heavyweight boxing champion Andy Purcell, who is no longer fighting in the ring because of his ongoing battles with booze and gambling. He is also the sole provider for Dink, his young son (played by Jackie Cooper) who idolizes Andy and calls him "Champ."

Despite Andy's promises to lay off the bottle and the dice, he never can quite clean up his act long enough to get control of his life and provide properly for Dink. They live in a tiny rented room in Tijuana, Mexico, and it's obvious that despite his small stature, Dink is the grownup in this relationship. He does everything he can to protect his father from himself, and tries desperately to help the Champ sober up and get back in the ring.

Andy's abhorrent actions include dragging Dink along to places little boys should never go, using the lad for luck in his drunken gambling binges. However, after a particularly lucky night, Andy uses part of his cash windfall to buy Dink a racehorse, something Dink has always dreamed of. They name him "Little Champ," and father and son's relationship blossoms for a season as they enjoy time together with the horse and entering him in races.

Sadly, the joy is short-lived. The Champ falls off the wagon again and manages to not only lose the nest egg he'd been saving up from the horse's winnings, but he loses the horse, as well. Dink is devastated but still determined to stick by the Champ. Andy promises to get the horse back and make good on his other promises, too, but quickly finds it impossible to keep his word.

Along the way, Dink meets Linda, a well-to-do woman who owns a horse at the track, and the two strike up a friendship. Linda's husband later bumps into Andy and, realizing that Andy is Dink's father, concludes that Dink is actually Linda's son whom she gave up as a baby when she divorced Andy.

Linda and her husband, Tony, are determined to help Dink, and Andy accepts a $200 bribe to allow Dink to spend some time with Linda and Tony. Andy buys back the horse for Dink and goes through another series of unsuccessful attempts to turn his life around before finally taking another payment in exchange for Dink going to live with Linda full-time.

Linda and family leave on a train with Dink, but his devotion to his father, failings and all, is so powerful that Dink runs away to be reunited with the Champ. The return of Dink finally inspires a lasting change in Andy, who swears off the bottle and the gambling and begins training to make his big comeback.

Linda, Tony and their daughter return to Tijuana, graciously understanding of why Dink ran away but still anxious to help. They are understandably concerned about Andy getting back in the ring, but Andy is determined to live up to the heroic image his son has of him.

His battle in the ring with the Mexican heavyweight champ is a bigger fight than most of the spectators see, as Andy goes mano a mano with his own personal demons to prove to himself and his son that he can be the man his son has always believed he was.

What makes this story so compelling is the very real and moving performance of the very young Jackie Cooper. Just eight or nine years old at the time, Cooper somehow understood instinctively how to take control of a moment, successfully stealing scene after scene from far more experienced, older actors. Yet his performance was not a caricature (like some of the other seasoned pros turned in); it was honest and sincere and believable, all while remaining childlike and innocent.

His tears burn our eyes, his pain is palpable, and his forgiveness of a failed father is a testament to unconditional love. And without giving away the ending, hearing Dink cry "I want the Champ," conjures up similar feelings to how I feel at the end of Old Yeller or Shane.

So this is a movie with race horses that isn't about horse racing. It's a movie about a boxer that isn't about boxing. This movie is a timeless story about a father and son relationship, about broken promises and wasted lives, a story about hope and love and redemption.

It's a movie that, by today's standards, is a little slow and a little rough around the edges. But The Champ is also a story about what makes life worth living, and about what's worth fighting for.

Copyright © 2024 by Andrew E. Lindsay Printed from