*/**** Image B Sound C Extras C
starring Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich, Rosco Ates
screenplay by Francis Marion and Leonard Praskins
directed by King Vidor
by Walter Chaw So dated now as to seem nigh prehistoric, King Vidor's silent era-bound The Champ is broad melodrama of the underdog-uplift/precocious-kid variety, and though it's sorely tempting to condescend to it by placing it within its historical context, watching it now is like getting a screw drilled into your forehead. Doing road work with his lovable boy Dink (Jackie Cooper, more than a marionette, less than a creature of flesh and blood), The Champ (Wallace Beery) is a cartoon of a lush and a punch-drunk boxer who makes silly shadow-boxing gestures in long, unbroken takes, requiring Beery to ad-lib business that segues uneasily late in the film when the same Beery shtick must carry pathos. We can't think that a Vaudevillian's conception of a retarded drunk and a compulsive gambler is adorable and then reorient ourselves into thinking he's feeble without confronting the same conundrum the film itself presents a modern viewer. Either The Champ is fabulous--for a picture made in 1931, that is--or it's only accessible for a theoretical, contemporaneous audience, lacing any ascriptions of quality with that one major caveat and thus rendering them exactly as useless as that kind of equivocation always is.
But because it's a King Vidor picture, for all the shortcomings of the narrative the visuals are innovative and impressive. A pan up a staircase recalls a similar movement in his far superior The Crowd, while multiple tracking shots taken from what I imagine to be the backs of cars or dollies are modern and liquid. The visuals are sharp and it's not hard to imagine the film as something like a masterpiece sans sound--but, saddled with Beery's mugging and Cooper's twee (yet lauded) "Little Rascals" preciousness, it's irretrievably leaden and period-bound. The conflict of the piece is not whether the Champ is a fit father, but whether Dink will end up in the care of his estranged mother Linda (Irene Rich), now married to a well-to-do bloke (Hale Hamilton) and inexplicably far-removed from the life of her ragamuffin child. It's hard to root for the hard-gambling, hard-drinking, heart-troubled, and most likely brain-damaged Champ to keep sole custody of Dink; hard, too, to take Dink seriously as a real child with real feelings when Cooper's main gift is replicating a young child well-drilled in the art of delivering the precocious "aw shucks"-isms. The Champ is a burlesque of human behaviour and interaction and the kind of musty vault gem that proves more valuable in memory or theory than in actual practice. It's a bust, from the incessant drop-needle nickelodeon score through to a deadening, bittersweet denouement that proves the picture to be too cowardly--despite its ostensible darkness (and despite Cooper's patented waterworks)--to let the kid be the steward of his own life.
Warner fishes The Champ out of the archives and delivers a sometimes-overbright fullscreen transfer that suggests classic nitrate degradation arrested digitally. Still, for its age, there are remarkably few catastrophic flaws: the thing looks great and serves as a nice showcase for Vidor's incomparable way around a set-up. The mono mix, presented here as a DD 1.0 option, confines its information to tinny music and raspy dialogue. The supplemental Crazy House (13 mins.) is a Colortone Novelty scored by the great Dmitri Tiomkin and featuring Benny Rubin (somewhere between Andy Garcia and Alan Cumming) wandering through an asylum, meeting all manner of wacky inmates engaged in irritating Catskills sketches. While it's enough to put you off vintage reels for good, I guess you could appreciate it from a historical vantage. As an extra, I can only guess that it might have played before The Champ in some venues--it otherwise has nothing to recommend it. A Lux Radio Broadcast dated November 13, 1939 (60 mins.) finds Cecil B. DeMille hosting an episode of the classic program in which Beery reprises his role opposite Billy Watson and Josephine Hutchinson. A handsomely-restored trailer for The Champ rounds out the presentation. Originally published: May 2, 2006.