Saturday, July 23, 2016

Everyone Gets Hit

Films: Champion
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

Baseball might be America’s national pastime and football may well be our sport of choice, but when it comes to the Oscars, it’s all about boxing. There’s something about boxing that wakes Oscar up. In a world where the premier sports documentary (Hoop Dreams) can’t wrangle a nomination, it seems like every other film about boxing shows up on one or more of my lists. Champion from 1949 is yet another film about the fight game, putting Kirk Douglas in the ring and giving him plenty of battles outside of it as well.

Part of the lure of boxing is probably that there’s no need to manufacture drama. Oh, sure, we can add a bit here and there and plenty of filmmakers do, but once the two fighters step into the ring, the drama unfolds naturally. It’s about as pure a dramatic moment as can be imagined: two men step in to do battle until one of them falls or time is called. We don’t need anything more than that. It’s inherently dramatic, and so it’s a natural place to put a story.

Champion follows the career of Michael “Midge” Kelly (Kirk Douglas) from bum to the top of the world. As the film begins, Midge and his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) are heading from Chicago to Los Angeles by hopping a freight train. They’ve purchased a part ownership in a small restaurant and are going out to seek their fortune. But it’s not an easy trip. They get rolled on the boxcar and tossed out, but manage to hitchhike to Kansas City. There, they look for work at a boxing establishment but are told to leave. Midge loses his temper and knocks over a few cases of drinks but doesn’t have the money to pay for it. In a twist of fate, though, one of the boxers can’t fight that night, so Midge is offered the spot—it will clear up the money he owes and pay him $35 on top. Midge gets beaten soundly, but his tenacity attracts the attention of Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), a boxing manager from LA.

Eventually Midge and Connie make it to their diner only to discover that their friend lied and stole their money. They end up working there, and Midge gets a little too close and comfortable with Emma (Ruth Roman), the owner’s daughter. When he catches the pair in a clinch, it’s shotgun wedding time, and it doesn’t take long for Midge to back out of that, leaving his new wife behind and taking Connie with him. Instead of looking for work, they end up at Haley’s gym, and Midge is suddenly the new man in the ring.

What follows is what Champion is really about. Midge doesn’t have the ability to not spend his money and is quickly in debt. He’s also willing and able to sell out anyone who has supported him in the past. He unceremoniously dumps Tommy for a different manager (Luis Van Rooten), has forgotten Emma and takes up first with Grace (Marilyn Maxwell) and then his new manager’s wife Palmer (Lola Albright). Even Connie gets tossed to the side as Midge slowly rises through the rankings of middleweight fighters. When he’s told to take a dive against the number one contender, he doesn’t, and is forced to sell his soul a little more to stay in the ring.

In many ways, Champion is film noir, although it doesn’t hit every one of the notes of the style perfectly. Midge is too canny and too brash to be suckered in by the femme fatale that is Grace, for instance. It’s unquestionable that there’s a great deal of darkness at the heart of the film, though. Everything Midge does he does for himself. He’s close to amoral in that he’s not specifically evil, but is more prone to a sort of emotional solipsism. No one really matters but him, and while he thinks nothing of tossing someone else over the side, nobody had better try that on him. He’s kind of a classic tough guy in that respect, but Kirk Douglas plays Midge with something more than simply street smarts. There’s a brain at work behind that skull, even if it’s dulled by ego in a lot of instances.

The 1949 version of Kirk Douglas on the screen might well be the most physically fit Kirk Douglas to ever step in front of a camera. In that respect at the very least he’s someone who looks the part of a man who makes his living punching other guys in the face. He’s perhaps a bit too pretty for someone who takes a few beatings, but there’s a lot of film here with him a bit roughed up and patched up. It’s a hell of a strong performance on his part. Midge is a balancing act. He’s got to be enough of a brash asshole to have what happens be believable, but he’s also got to be interesting and sympathetic enough to make the final act of the film work. Arthur Kennedy had to walk a similar tightrope, although his is a bit wider. Connie has to be someone we can see as dedicated to his brother, but offended by what his brother does. We need to be interested in Midge, but we need to like and respect Connie. In both cases, we do. Kennedy was rightly nominated for Supporting Actor for this role, because he plays it perfectly.

In fact, the only real complaint I have here is that the boxing isn’t that good. I imagine that while boxing has that dramatic pull, it’s also the sport that is the most difficult to film with anything like accuracy or realism. The fighting here isn’t very good. Put Midge or any of his opponents in a ring with someone who knows what he’s doing, and they wouldn’t last a round. There’s not a ton of boxing in the film, though. Really, what makes the film interesting isn’t the boxing at all, but Midge’s life outside of the ring. It would be nice for it to be better, but ultimately it kind of doesn’t matter.

Champion is another film I went into basically blind. I knew little more than it was about boxing and starred Kirk Douglas and wanted nothing more than to clear another film off the DVR. How nice and unexpected to find a film that has aged well and still tells a story worth telling by people who make it worth seeing.

Why to watch Champion: A classic story about the rise and fall of a big personality.
Why not to watch: Frankly, the boxing isn’t very good.


  1. I think the reason that boxing films get the lion's share of attention over other sports movies is because they are a singular sport. One opponent against another and therefore the filmmakers can zero in on that individual story instead of having to pull in information about "the team". That makes them compelling on a different level, I know in real life you couldn't pay me to go to a boxing match but I'll always watch a film about it.

    They also seem to draw out the best in the actors who lead the film. Robert Ryan in The Set-Up, John Garfield in Body and Soul, Tony Curtis in Flesh and Fury, Errol Flynn in Gentleman Jim and Douglas in this film all give a performance that is among their best.

    With this particular film it helps that Kirk was one of the best at playing those selfish bastards that despite yourself you're still drawn too. It's that dynamic star quality that moved him to the top so quickly.

    Speaking of that certain characteristic it's interesting to see Douglas and Kennedy side by side in the film. I'm a big fan of Arthur Kennedy, a very fine actor-it's a real pity he's not better remembered, he's a better, more varied actor than Douglas but he didn't possess that indefinable something that makes a real STAR pop off the screen that Douglas and all the legendary performers do.

    Aside from all that the boxing world usually has a slightly seedy edge to it so the films tend to be a hybrid of sport film and gangster story offering a two for one experience. This one handles both ends very well.

    1. I think it might be the corruption element that really sells it. Tennis is a singular sport, too, but the number of great tennis movies can certainly be counted on one hand. There is something specific about boxing--the dirty connections, the violence of the sport--that makes it amazingly compelling on the screen, even when it's often the same story over and over.