Most people are familiar with the 1979 remake starring Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder, but the original is the one to rent. It also is the source for one of Hollywood's most amazing Oscar moments.
Wallace Beery stars as Champ, a former heavyweight boxer who reached the pinnacle of success only to lose the championship due to his addictions to gambling and alcohol. The only person who still believes in him is his young son, Dink (Jackie Cooper). After making the long haul to the Mexican border, Champ has an opportunity to fight again, but he blows it by drinking the day away.
At his lowest point, he is approached by his former wife and Dink's mother, Linda (Irene Rich). She left him after he lost his championship and money, but she has returned to take Dink away to live with her and her rich husband.
Will Champ keep Dink or let him go live with the rich mother he has never known? Can Champ clean up his act?
This was the first time Cooper and Beery teamed together on the big screen. Cooper is fantastic as the young child who loves the fallen Champ. His plight is touching and performance quite amazing when you consider that child actors were treated the same as adults at this time in Hollywood. It would not be out of the ordinary for Cooper to put in a twelve-hour day without schooling or recess.
It would be very easy to make the film overly sentimental, but Director King Vidor and Beery balance the film with a less than flattering portrayal of the Champ. Many of us would rather take the kid away from him, but we also realize that the Champ is the one person who truly cares for Dink. It is a fine line, but Beery walks it well.
Beery is able to create a complex, sympathetic, but pitiful character. The Champ is consumed with guilt over all he has lost, but can't clean up his act. He loves his child, but continues to expose him to dangerous situations and heartbreak. It is an Oscar-worthy performance.
Beery started out his career as the assistant elephant trainer in the Ringling Brothers Circus, but quickly found a career on the New York stage. He moved to Hollywood and became well known for his comedic abilities. In 1931, he got the role of a lifetime in The Champ.
Beery was lauded for such a wonderful performance and was nominated for an Oscar. At the ceremony that year, Frederic March was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor. March's performance is considered to be the finest ever of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, so no one was surprised that he won. However, that isn't the end of the story.
One of the accountants in charge of the voting recounted the votes after the ceremony and discovered that Beery came up one vote short. Under the Academy's rules at the time, a tie was declared if the winner did not win by more than two votes, so Beery was awarded a tie. Today, you will find him listed along side Frederic March for Best Actor of 1931/1932 (the awards were every two years back then).
You will find the film a little slow and it lacks a soundtrack, but the last 10 - 15 minutes are among the best in Hollywood history.
Directed by King Vidor
Written by Frances Marion
Wallace Beery The Champ
Jackie Cooper . Dink
Irene Rich Linda
Roscoe Ates Sponge
Edward Brophy .. Tim
Jesse Scott .. Jonah
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