Thursday, May 21, 2020

Nate Hood's Quarantine Qapsule #46 The Champ [1931] ★★★★½

Child actors in the early days of Hollywood weren’t really expected to act the same way adults did. They were coached to act like adults, adopting their vocal cadences and physical mannerisms while delivering their lines at the top of their voices like they were yelling into a WWII walkie-talkie. Even in the days before naturalistic acting when performances were deliberately mannered and stagy, child acting frequently felt like broad pantomime.

And for most of King Vidor’s The Champ, child actor Jackie Cooper gives a typical child performance for his era. He plays “Dink,” the eight-year-old son of Andy “Champ” Purcell (Wallace Beery), a former world heavyweight champion boxer who crawled into a bottle after losing a championship bout and never came back up again for air. When Dink isn’t stomping around like a hood three times his size, he’s flicking his emotions on and off like a light switch, all sudden weepy hysterics that appear and vanish in a moment. But there’s one scene where Cooper’s pretense of adulthood vanishes. While visiting his birth mother’s palatial mansion, he loiters around a candy bowl, greedily grabbing all he can stuff into his pockets before jumping over a nearby handrail and pulling himself onto the roof. It’s a magnificent little scene where we see a child actor being an actual child on camera.

This moment is only one of the many small miracles in The Champ, a masculine weepy masquerading as a sports flick. Written by Frances Marion (for which she snagged her second Academy Award), the film is pure machismo melodrama, a devastating portrait of sacrificial fatherhood. Beery gives a career-best performance as Champ, a hurricane of a man whose gruff demeanor masks a sentimental devotion to his son for which he’d happily humiliate himself—just as long as he isn’t too busy destroying himself with booze and gambling.

Cooper too is a portrait of wide-eyed familial devotion. (Another of the film’s small miracles: an early scene where the two share a hotel bed and Dink curls up next to Champ after he hogs all the covers in his sleep.) Vidor, with his enthusiastic belief in family and mankind’s better nature, was the perfect choice for director as he never rolls his eyes at his material; what could’ve come across as schmaltz hums with the belief that what we’re seeing is somehow sacred and true.

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