Champion, the 1949 boxing movie from director Mark Robson, based on a short story by noted sports columnist and writer Ring Lardner, is generally regarded as the film that made a star of Kirk Douglas, and is the latest release from Eureka Entertainment‘s Masters of Cinema range.
The film covers the story of Michael ‘Midge’ Kelly (Douglas), a man from rough beginnings who works his way up to Middleweight Champion of the World. While travelling across the country with his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy), he catches a ride from noted boxer Johnny Dunne (John Day) and his girlfriend Grace (Marilyn Maxwell). En route they stop off in Kansas, where Midge is offered $35 to take part in a four-round bout with a local boxer. Despite losing, the novice shows enough heart to bring him to the attention of boxing manager Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), who tells him there is work in the fight game in Los Angeles if he ever needs it.
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Once the brothers reach LA, they find that the restaurant deal for which they were travelling turns out to have been a con. Staying to work in the restaurant, Kelly strikes up a relationship with the owner’s daughter Emma (Ruth Roman). When caught with her, he is forced into a shotgun wedding, which he goes through with before abandoning his new bride to enter the boxing business with Tommy.
Making rapid progress over the next few years, Midge scales the rankings before being offered a fight with the now-highly-ranked contender Johnny Dunne, with the instruction to lose, in return for a shot at the title the following year. Midge breaks the agreement, winning the fight, and entering a relationship with Grace. Realising the only way now to get his shot is to align himself with the influential (and aligned to the criminal underworld) Jerome Harris (Luis van Rooten), he dumps his manager, disgusting his brother, who leaves immediately. In the final act of the film, he mistreats Grace, by chasing Harris’ wife, attacks his still-wife Emma, who is now attached to Connie, and prepares for the film’s final bout – a rematch with Johnny Dunne.
Although a mere 99-minutes in length, Champion feels a little like the film Raging Bull might have been, had it been made 30 years or so earlier (though of course it would not have been the story of Jake LaMotta in that case). Kelly is a thoroughly unlikeable, selfish man, with a tendency to treat those in his life as a commodity to be used and discarded as he wishes. Douglas makes little attempt to smooth the character’s nastier traits, whilst maintaining a charm that explains the easy way in which he is able to attract people to him.
Fight scenes are dated but decent, and carry a good deal of impact in the portrayal of violence, with Kirk proving an intense presence in the boxing ring. The sole nit-pick is that the tone of the film is a little inconsistent. A tough story, with corruption in boxing, implied sexual assault, and a lead character with few redeeming features, is a little undermined by training sequences that play as broad comedy. For all that it is a superb story, very reflective of the fight game of the time, and presented with a flawlessly restored picture.
Bonus features are fairly scant. There is a commentary with Professor Jason A. Ney, a film Scholar and English Literature lecturer. For once the commentator does take the time to outline his background and credentials. He is of the opinion that this is one of the finest boxing movies ever made, and sets out his task to explain why, by breaking the film down, in terms of structure and key scenes. As a film noir expert, he is able to draw parallels with films such as Double Indemnity and he explains how this work fits into the same genre.
He has good technical knowledge, with an ability to discuss lens choices and to describe day-for-night shooting techniques. He is also a historian of this era of film history, with a great deal of trivia about the stars, their careers, and even their personal lives, detailing Marilyn’s affair with Frank Sinatra, for example. As a literary scholar, he is able to discuss the difference between the story here, and in the original Ring Lardner work. As well as being informed, Ney is also very enthusiastic, making this a very enjoyable experience. On screen extras are rounded off with a stills gallery of around 60 photos covering character stills, shots from filming, and the promotional materials for the film’s release.
The now-standard issue booklet is, this time, 28-pages in length, and contains two essays. ‘How to Build a Golem’ by Richard Combs is a slightly unfocused piece of writing that, nonetheless, pays great credit to Douglas’s performance in this film, in and amongst discussing the movie’s place in film noir, and some of the themes of the film as a whole. Just as it is getting going, it ends, but is an interesting enough read. ‘In the Ring, On the Screen: Boxing and Cinema’ by SB Caves is the better offering. It starts by examining the inspired by Muhammad Ali The Greatest (1977), When We Were Kings (1996), Will Smith’s Ali (2001), Rocky (1976, based on Chuck Wepner, a 1975 opponent for Ali), as well as Chuck (2016) and The Brawler (2018), both biopics based on Wepner. The second half of the essay focuses on Champion in the context of this cinematic landscape as a whole.
Champion is a reasonably standard Masters of Cinema offering, elevated by the quality of the film and its presentation. The relative dearth of extras makes this a toss-up between this disc and a streaming offering, but, as always, even where the extras are slight, there is enough effort in them to make this worthwhile, as Ney’s commentary is a real treat for those interested in the films, the stars, and the business of Hollywood as it existed in this era.
Champion is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.