Sunday, November 29, 2009

Champion (1949)

Champion is usually described as a cautionary tale about the bitter price of success and the perils of ruthless ambition. Rubbish. The character of Midge Kelly is heroic, admirable, and downright glorious. A son of a bitch? Certainly. But I envy him, and you should too.

Champion airs from time to time on TCM and has been available on DVDfor a decade, so this essay assumes the reader knows the film. Besides, Champion is difficult to consider if the ending is ignored. For those who need a refresher, the story goes like this: Michael "Midge" Kelly and his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) are heading west in search of their fortune when they get rolled and are forced to hitch. They cadge a ride from a pug (John Day) on his way to fight a main event in Kansas City. Hoping to earn a few bucks Midge takes a fill-in spot on the undercard. He's beaten badly but attracts the attention of manager Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), who offers to help him become a real fighter. When Midge and Connie reach California and discover their prospects vanished they are forced to get jobs. Both are attracted to a waitress, Emma (Ruth Roman), who Midge is forced to marry in the wake of a tryst. Feeling trapped, Midge abandons Emma for Los Angeles, and takes Haley up on his offer. Midge's toughness and ambition make him a natural fighter, and after a while he rates a bout with number one contender Johnny Dunne - the same fellow who taxied him into Kansas City. Midge is ordered to take a dive in exchange for a legit title shot down the line, but he stuns everyone when he quickly knocks out an unsuspecting Dunne. Although irate gamblers viciously beat Midge, his refusal to cheat makes him a public hero and he gets a title shot anyway, which he wins. Midge the champ is able to have all the things he ever wanted, though he alienates everyone that ever helped him. When Midge gives Dunne a rematch, he takes a terrific beating - until the jeers of the crowd and the ringside announcers spur him to KO Dunne out in the last round. A triumphant Midge returns to his dressing room where he collapses and dies.

Everyone involved scores points for making a great picture about an asshole, but Kirk Douglas deserves the lion's share of the credit. His Kelly is one the most interesting and complicated boxers in screen history, which is a significant accomplishment considering how droll the character likely would have become through the interpretation of a lesser talent. Champion was a landmark film in Douglas' early career and justly earned him an Academy Award nomination. Most of what has been written about the movie praises his virtuoso performance or affirms the film's status as a morality tale of a man. While Douglas is indeed the stuff of legend, the "What Price Fame?" angle just doesn't wash. Champion is a harshly cynical movie about a hard-as-nails man; made during an era when all the little kids didn't get a trophy. If it were merely a cautionary tale it would have ended differently - after all, in those movies the hero eventually discovers the error of his ways and seeks redemption, even if in death. The character of Midge Kelly isn't redeemed at the end of Champion - redemption isn't required - if anything, he dies in a state of grace. Let's come back to that later, first Douglas deserves his due.

Kirk Douglas was a great performer who if nothing else understood what made him a movie star. He was blessed and cursed with a hyper-magnetic screen presence - everything about him was exaggerated on screen. No actress could wrench the spotlight from him, which is why he isn't remembered as one of the great romantic leads. Don't believe me? Next time you watch him in a romantic scene and things start to heat up, take note of who grabs your attention. I'm betting your eyes will be fixed on Douglas. That was his great gift - he was bigger than the story, bigger than his cast, bigger than his directors. While this occasionally kept him out of some parts normally played by the pretty boys, it made him ideal for others - the grittier roles - the guys who exist closer to the razor's edge and maybe even tread it from time to time. Spartacus, Vincent Van Gogh, Chuck Tatum, Doc Holliday - and Midge Kelly.

Let's get back to Midge. Here's a kid who came up tough - physically and emotionally. His father took a powder when he was a small child. His mother, unable to care for both sons, sent Midge to the orphanage and kept the Connie at home. Midge grew up abandoned and institutionalized. When he reached adulthood he did what every other young man did: he fought the war - and eventually returned home to what? A loving family? What could he possibly owe to them or anyone else? Midge had been dumped on all of his life. He'd been rolled, robbed, cheated, chastised, taken for granted, and swindled. How was he expected to treat others? Still, Midge took on the thankless role of provider for his mother and brother, and bore them no grudge. Sure, he stepped on people along the way, but didn't he get stepped on first? Didn't he just treat people as life taught him to treat them? Remember this as well: We are the ones who have a problem with Kelly's behavior, not him. He didn't agonize or feel guilt, didn't beat himself up. He's probably the most upbeat character in the film. He raised himself out of a hellish upbringing through his own grit and force of will to become champion of the world. All he wanted out of life was the respect of other men, which success in the ring offered. Boxing exacts a steep price in exchange for that success, and Midge knew better than those around him that he alone had to pay it.

Who gets hurt? The story places Midge in three romantic entanglements. First with Emma, the waitress who he deserts after being forced to marry. Of the film's three women she's the most innocent and most deserving of happiness. She eventually finds it - though with Connie, who pined for her since they first met. Although she gave herself to Midge she knew he didn't love her. Her mistake with him caused much short-term distress, but it was through him that she met Connie and eventually found what she was looking for. Midge's second woman was the aptly named Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell), a good-time girl who treats fighters like Kleenex. She is an opportunistic user who meets her match in Kelly. The idea that he could wound someone who herself is so despicable is silly. His final girlfriend is Palmer Harris (Lola Albright), the naïve, spoiled, and slumming wife of Kelly's fight promoter. Their romance is brief, and ends when Kelly barters their relationship for a bigger percentage of the gate. Undoubtedly one of his more cold-blooded choices, but it bears repeating Midge is poorly equipped to make a woman happy, especially not one already married. Quite frankly, Midge is a pig when it comes to women and he never tries to hide it. All the women in the story are well rid of him, and none were so far gone as to suffer enduring harm.

That leaves the brother and the trainer. Arthur Kennedy's Connie is the sympathetic conscience of the film. And while he seems perpetually exasperated with his brother, he displays little gratitude for the one who paid his ticket, and shows even less guilt for having not been sent to the orphanage. Hell, Connie survives the film and gets the girl - what does he have to grouse about? As for the trainer, Tommy Haley is the only guy in the picture who knows the score all along. He knows that he'll be dropped when the bigger purses come, yet still returns to train Midge for his climactic title defense. As he says time and again, "I can't keep away from it, I like to watch a good boy in action." The idea of a fighter leaving one trainer for another happens as often on screen as it does in real life. It's a cliché in both worlds. It's important to realize that both Connie and Tommy want Midge to take the dive, they want him to cheat. Champion is a noir film in which none of the characters come away clean.

If the movie has a flaw it's that it doesn't fully depict the harsh realities of the prizefighter's life. The fight scenes themselves are beautifully photographed, but the story's preoccupation with the crooked aspects of the sport doesn't do justice to the extraordinary talent and effort required of fighters. The film features a Rocky-esque training sequence, but the tone is surprisingly comic. In Champion the victories and accolades seem to come quickly and easily to Midge, while in reality the achievement of a world's championship, or even a spot on the undercard of a championship bout, was a pipe dream for most pugs. Take for instance the story of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. The real-life LaMotta is somewhat similar to the fictional Midge Kelly (though LaMotta really did throw his fight), a not-so-nice guy whose exploits were credited more to the ferocity of his will than to his talent. Yet for all LaMotta's grit and tenacity, it still wasn't enough to exceed Sugar Ray. To achieve at such a level required a man of extraordinary talent and will - especially in those days when boxing was king. Champion's failure to give boxing its due damages Midge in the eyes of the audience. It's hard to generate sympathy for a character when we aren't fully aware of what he must endure.

Douglas is miraculous in his final scene. Bloody and victorious, having returned to his dressing room after ferociously pummeling Dunne, he leers and gesticulates at the camera, his battered face a desperate reflection of his maimed but resilient soul. Kelly's life comes full circle with his defeat of the man who opened the door to a life in the ring - a dichotomous life that offered not only the illusory pleasures of fame, fortune, and women; but more importantly the respect and legacy Midge craved. Cinematic convention keeps us expecting that he'll see the light and turn a Scrooge-like corner at the end, yet he never does. His refusal to compromise or live on anything but his own terms is a worthy valediction, and imbues his life with a strange and unexpected integrity. It also makes him an iconic hero of film noir. It's fitting that Midge's should die after he wins the final fight; he has nothing in the world left to prove. We can see as plainly in Champion as in Raging Bull that some men are not meant to suffer old age.


Written by The Professor

1 comment:

  1. Real nice jabs Professor. (You ain’t related to Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider are you?)

    But, here’s the betting-line. ‘The Set-Up’ knocks out the ‘Champion’ in the fifth round. And ‘The Set-Up’ K.O.s ‘Body and Soul’ with a swift uppercut in the second round.

    Ryan and Wise are noir heavyweights. Welter and bantamweights don’t stand a chance against them sluggers. Okay…Kirk does a real good job acting as a boxer in the ‘Champion,’ but he ain’t no boxer. Ryan was a champeen boxer at Dartmouth. “When you’re a fighter, you gotta fight,” Robert Ryan, ‘The Set-Up’ (1949)

    And, Wise hung around the rings, soaking up the grit, checking out the fighters, mugs, and lingo. Blood-sport realism, UFA expressionism, and noir existentialism are the champs from Paradise City.

    Anybody want to arm wrestle about it at the Ringside Café?

    Hard Boiled Rick


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