The Champ (1931)

13 08 2008

As far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely one of the very best films of the 1930s, if not the very best. It probably helps a great deal that King Vidor seems to have been a big influence on many of my favorite Japanese directors of the same time period. However, what is even greater is how the narrative goes a predictable route for so long only to spit in the face of every sports film cliché at the very end. It is probably also worth mentioning that this came before sports films clichés were even established, which makes the downbeat ending all the more remarkable.

Andy, or “The Champ” as he is often called, is a long retired boxer living alone with his son, Dink. He hopes his boxing career can make a comeback but booze and gambling seem to be his highest priorities. He is able to maintain a life for him and his son with a string of good luck, which goes so far that he ends up buying his son a horse. Dink is eager to enter his new horse, who he affectionately names “Little Champ”, into a race. At the racetrack, Dink bumps into Linda, who simply seems like a friendly lady, but as it turns out, is actually Dink’s mother. Now aware of her son’s existence, she tries to buy him from Andy, but Dink is too attached to his father.

By only watching one of his films, I can already tell that Vidor deserves to be mentioned alongside Shimizu and Renoir, who both seem to have been greatly influenced by him. He definitely hasthe same sort of visual resourcefulness, not to mention an equally poetic overall tone. Perhaps all of this is slightly abstract to explain, especially when a plot description of the film in question sounds melodramatic on paper, but needless to say, Vidor’s visual style is pretty fantastic. Just as bland shots of two people talking were beginning to become the norm in Hollywood, Vidor was busy filling his films with painterly compositions. It might sound a little extreme, but I don’t think a single shot in the film is a waste; every frame is essential.

Now, the much more difficult part to assess, the melodramatic “tearjerker” aspect of which the film has been categorized as. While I admit, Vidor provides obvious indications of when the tone is shifting, he doesn’t play to the audience’ expectations in the least. Well, at least modern audiences. Today, the ideal ending would be for Andy to win his fight and then triumphantly carry his son on his soldiers. Honestly, there are plenty of signs that it will end in such a way, which makes the ultimately “melodramatic” conclusion all the more abrupt and thus, all the more believable. It is a bit hard to explain in words, but it will make sense when one views the film. Perhaps this saying is used too much to describe films, but it is does indicate that Vidor’s accomplishment is exactly that, an accomplishment.