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The success of 1949's Champion established the partnership of independent producer Stanley Kramer with writer Carl Foreman, an association that would continue until Foreman's exile under attack by the HUAC committees. Although Kramer would eventually be typecast for his issue-driven 'controversial' films (The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Guess Who's Coming for Dinner), his early efforts released through United Artists and Columbia were a mix of social uplift and pure entertainment. Champion is a boxing picture showcasing the talents of its rising star, Kirk Douglas.
At the time Douglas was a featured supporting star specializing in urbane weaklings or villains in films noir: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Out of the Past, I Walk Alone. This show presents Douglas for the first time as a lady-killing he-man: "Hard Hitting! Fighting or Loving, He Was the Champion!" Along with more theater-oriented fare, like Mourning Becomes Electra and The Glass Menagerie, Douglas continued to play troubled characters with difficult personal problems. He was brilliant as the reprehensible Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, but the movie was a noted failure, In subsequent roles Douglas dialed the excess misanthropy way back. His happy fur trader in Howard Hawks' The Big Sky is a great guy even if he doesn't get the girl. For Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Douglas underwent a family-friendly image overhaul, sharing a fish with a trained seal.
The screenplay was adapted from a story by Ring Lardner, not the noted Hollywood Ten blacklistee Ring Lardner, Jr., but his father, a famous sports columnist and short story writer. Brothers Midge and Connie Kelly (Kirk Douglas & Arthur Kennedy) drift westward en route to a roadside eatery Midge has bought into in California. Midge picks up some cash prizefighting, losing badly. He turns down an offer from manager Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart) to continue fighting. Discovering that they were defrauded in the cafe deal, the boys must accept menial jobs waiting on tables. But Midge makes sparks with the owner's young daughter Emma (Ruth Roman). When they're caught sleeping together, Midge is forced to marry Emma. She promises to make the bad start into a good marriage, but Midge instead deserts her, looks up Tommy Haley and goes to work learning how to be a real boxer. More ruthless than ever, Midge immediately wins bouts and shows great promise. He uses his money to pursue the favors of Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell), the high-maintenance consort of another boxer. Barred from the ring for refusing to throw a fight, Midge ditches the loyal Haley for the representation of Harris (Luis Van Rooten), a promoter who can fix things with the crooked fight promoters. He also moves in on Harris' wife Palmer (Lola Albright), a sculptress. By this time Connie has walked out as well, and has connected with the lonely Emma. As he prepares for his mob-approved title bout, Midge can't resist the opportunity to seduce poor Emma one more time.
Champion definitely has things to say about corrupt modern values, but the leftist writer Carl Foreman does not follow through with a blanket statement comparing the crooked world of boxing with a wider critique of America. We don't see Midge Kelly as a victim of The System, but rather a self-made heel. Robert Rossen's Body and Soul with John Garfield insisted that Capitalism is a great evil compromising all decent human values. Released just one week earlier than Kramer's picture was Robert Wise's excellent The Set-Up. It sketches the rigged world boxing in microcosm, isolating the great Robert Ryan as the compellingly sympathetic boxer-as-victim. Champion also admits that boxing is a crummy racket, but we're mostly convinced that that S.O.B. Midge Kelly thoroughly deserves everything he gets, and more.
The film's first act has some similarities with the popular noir The Postman Always Rings Twice. The scenes on the Malibu beach contrast nicely with the claustrophobic boxing material that comes later. Paul Stewart provides authenticity as Midge's manager, talking a cynical line while obviously staying true to an honest personal code. Some critics have not been kind to Midge Kelly / Kirk Douglas's style in the ring, which has often been criticized as unrealistic, perhaps most convincingly by a group of sports experts once convened by Turner Classic Movies to compare the credibility of various boxing films. During fights Douglas just keeps charging forward while putting up little or no visible defense. He takes a ridiculous number of punches to the face without apparent damage. Yet the experts did not feel that Kirk was the most unrealistic offender among cinematic pugilists; that honor goes to Sylvester Stallone in Rocky.
Champion was an excellent showcase for the new rough-tough Kirk Douglas. His acting as Midge Kelly is certainly dynamic, and his powerhouse final scene is beautifully judged. Audiences had not yet been treated to reels of the actor uttering feral, nasal growls while chewing scenery, an affectation that nevertheless succeeded more often than not. No actor would turn down a role that allows him to woo, bed, and outrage not just one, but three luscious women. Highest-billed Marilyn Maxwell is all white fur and gleaming blonde hair. Her Grace is such a gold digging leech that we're rather happy to see Midge give her the heave-ho when he finds a better deal. Ruth Roman's screen image is unfairly colored by her dull character in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. When given the opportunity to flash her glamorous dark eyes and show some personal heat, Ms. Roman seems very alive and vital. Lastly comes the underused Lola Albright, a brilliant actress with intelligent, questioning eyes. Her Palmer Harris shows real surprise and excitement as she's bulldozed by Midge's caveman act. While posing for Palmer, Midge is compared to a Golem. He soon thereafter mashes Palmer's clay study as a prelude to a quasi-rape. Kirk Douglas gets his Bad Boy ticket punched so often that his comeuppance seems a sure bet. Champion may be a vanity show but it certainly delivers the goods as tough-guy entertainment. It made a big enough splash to attract six Academy Award nominations, including a citation for Douglas as best actor.
Composer Dimitri Tiomkin would also continue with producer Kramer to the big Oscar winner High Noon. Tiomkin assembles several active music passages for editor Harry Gerstad's peppy montages. The main training sequence is a self-contained montage that expresses Midge Kelly's rapid advancement from klutz to proficiency, complete with running jokes. To some extent it predicts the Tiomkin music-driven "metronome" suspense montages in the later High Noon. Cameraman Franz Planer takes low-key noir lighting effects to an extreme in some scenes, allowing characters to be lit by a single light source, or suggesting a long arena corridor with diminishing pools of light from overhead fixtures. The dank cocktail lounge where Connie finds Emma waitressing captures just the right atmosphere of empty leather booths and a bartender keeping watch from the other side of the room. And although Champion is a relatively inexpensive effort, the plush interiors of production designer Rudolph Sternad and set decorator Edward G. Boyle's show few hints of budgetary scrimping. It's a nicely proportioned, class-act movie.
Champion's director is Mark Robson, on his first job since leaving the legendary Val Lewton 'B'-picture unit at RKO three years before. Robson would continue with producer Kramer on the racially themed war movie Home of the Brave. His direction of Kirk Douglas is first rate, amplifying the energy and muting the excesses of the bigger-than-life star.
Olive Films brings the taut, well-paced Champion to Blu-ray in a sharp, rich B&W presentation. So much happens in this well-paced film that we're surprised to find that it's only ninety minutes long. The opening title scene displays a distracting level of negative dirt. The flurry of white specks goes away and doesn't return except for a few shorter patches around reel changes. We of course would like to see the dirt gone, but a quick digital fix would likely soften the image, and the best thing about Olive Films' transfers is that they retain the granularity and crispness of original film presentations.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Champion Blu-ray rates:
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