King Vidor’s The Champ (1931) is the ultimate ‘tragic’ boxing story. The narrative is almost entirely seen through the optimistic eyes of child Dink Purcell (Jackie Cooper) who loves his alcoholic ex-heavyweight champion Andy (Wallace Beery) despite their squalid living conditions Andy’s frequent gambling and drinking debts have created.
The plot thickens when Andy takes Dink to a race tract in Tijuana. There, Dink is introduced to the lovely, wealthy Linda Carleton (Irene Rich), a woman who obviously is more than just a friend.
The kicker comes later: that Dink is actually her and Andy’s son – conceived years before when Andy was ‘the champ’ in all things. Linda's rich husband Tony (Hale Hamilton) figures out this link before anyone else and bribes Andy – not only into seeing Dink more frequently, but as blackmail - $200 against telling Dink who his mother really is. The prospect of having his son uncover the truth sends Andy on a binge.
He loses badly at horses and gambling and ends up in prison after a drunken tirade. Realizing that Dink’s place is with his mother, Andy promises to return for Dink when he’s made his comeback as ‘the champ’ – a misguided venture that leads to his ruin, for Andy isn’t nearly as young as he used to be and the mismatch of his last bout with the reigning Mexican champion in the ring ultimately dooms him.
The Champ is syrupy melodrama a la MGM of this vintage – a would-be gritty tale, made smooth around the edges by the studio’s lavish approach to every strata of society, whether or not that strata leant itself to such glorification.
Ultimately, the tale centers around the unique and poignant father/son charisma generated between Beery and Jackie Cooper; a quality absent in their relationship off camera – but convincingly embodied in the characters they play. We believe the tears, feel the pain, and ultimately come to love a character that otherwise might not be ours to embrace. All in all then, The Champ is a winner. It was remade in the 70s with John Voight and Rick Schroeder – painfully proving my point: that when it came to fanciful make-believe, no one quite managed to suspend reality as readily or with more success than MGM.
Warner Home Video’s transfer is very solid. Occasionally, a hint of edge enhancement crops up but nothing that will distract from the otherwise near pristine black and white picture. Grain is prevalent throughout. The image is sharp with fine detail available even during the darkest sequences. Whites are generally clean. Blacks are solid and deep. The audio has been cleaned up and is presented at an adequate listening level. Extras boil down to two short subjects and a trailer. Ho-hum.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)