“Do you think you can chisel me out of a fortune and then prance over here and try me on like a secondhand suit?”
Champion was Stanley Kramer’s second film as a producer. A film intended to show the fight game as it really was — brutal and corrupt, Kramer liked to think it was the first such film to do so. In reality Body and Soul (UA, with John Garfield) had already done that very effectively a couple of years previously. Nevertheless, it was a great fight picture. The script was gritty and the role of the lead character interested Kirk Douglas greatly. The result was an independent film that was one of the best of the year and really launched Kramer’s career.
Republic Pictures (distributed by Artisan) have now brought out Champion on DVD as part of a Prizefighter DVD Collector’s Pack that also includes the above-mentioned Body and Soul. Restorative work was carried out on Champion by the UCLA Film Center several years ago and those efforts provided the basis for Republic’s previous VHS and laserdisc and current DVD releases of the film.
Midge Kelly is determined to rise above the poverty of his early life and soon realizes that the boxing racket offers one route to do so. Deserting a young wife whom he was forced to marry by the girl’s father, he and his handicapped brother hook up with a reluctant fight trainer to aim for the top of the middleweight division.
Midge gradually works his way up through the contenders list and is signed to fight the top contender for the middleweight crown in New York. Informed that he is to lose this fight and that his chance will come later, Midge first agrees but once in the ring changes his mind and readily KO’s the top contender. He incurs the wrath of the mob that controls the fight racket, resulting in thorough beatings for himself and his brother. Refused any further fights, he eventually becomes desperate and agrees to fire his old trainer in order to sign with a local fight backer who can guarantee Kelly a shot at the middleweight title.
Midge’s self-centered push for the championship results in numerous cast-offs as his brother leaves him and two other women are discarded in favour of money and fame. There’s one other victim of Midge’s rise, however — one that demands the ultimate sacrifice in the end.
Kirk Douglas is a commanding presence in Champion. He’s on-screen virtually throughout the film and he provides a riveting performance of a man who first commands respect, but then loses it as fame and fortune become his watchwords. Douglas had shown good promise with his first screen roles in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Paramount) and Out of the Past (1947, RKO), but his more recent roles had been less rewarding. When he saw the script for Champion, he realized the opportunity it offered and lobbied Kramer hard and successfully for the part, even though it paid only $15,000 compared to $50,000 he could have gotten for appearing in the The Great Sinner (1949, MGM, with Gregory Peck). His efforts paid off in his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Douglas was ably supported by the often-overlooked Arthur Kennedy as his brother, reliable Paul Stewart as his trainer, and three superb actresses as the discarded women in Midge Kelly’s life — Ruth Roman, Marilyn Maxwell, and Lola Albright.
Kramer hired Mark Robson to direct Champion. Robson came over from RKO where he had been apprenticing with the Val Lewton unit and brought with him the film noir sensibility that characterizes segments of Champion. The nature of the story of course lent itself to the noir style, particularly the dark and shadowy hallways of the fight arenas, and Robson saw to it that such opportunities were taken advantage of. Similarly, the femme fatale nature of Marilyn Mason’s role is well played up. Kramer too was in tune with the look that Robson gave the film as he was on set every day to make sure that Robson saw the story as he did.
Champion was completed in 24 days for $500,000 (36 days and $750,000 had been budgeted) and opened in a number of major cities in April 1949. Early reviews were positive and the eventual box-office gross was almost $18 million. The film received six Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Douglas), Best Supporting Actor (Kennedy), Best B&W Cinematography (Arthur Planer), Best Film Editing (Harry Gerstad), Best Musical Score (Dimitri Tiomkin), and Best Screenplay (Carl Foreman). It won for editing.
Republic’s DVD of Champion provides an image that is quite sharp for the most part. There are a few occasions of softness and some of the very dark scenes lose substantial shadow detail, but generally, the image delivers the goods quite effectively with deep blacks and sharp contrast. The film is presented in B&W, full frame in its OAR of 1.37:1, and with 29 scene selections on one side of the disc. The other side of the disc contains a colourized version that subverts the noir mood of the film. Considered strictly as a colouring exercise, however, the colours do appear to be for the most part realistic and flesh-tones are acceptable. The sound is Dolby Digital mono and is workable, although audible hiss is present from time to time. Supplements are restricted to a set of on-screen production notes which is reasonably comprehensive as these things go.
When Republic issued the laserdisc of Champion, it included a very comprehensive audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder that deals with the performers and crew, the production history, and the historical context. Unfortunately, Republic has not seen fit to include this commentary on the DVD for some reason. The addition of a colourized version is no substitute for this omission. There may, of course, be some legality that prevented the commentary’s inclusion, but given it’s the same company that issued the laserdisc and DVD, you’d have thought that something could have been worked out. Lack of the commentary is a major gaffe by Republic. If you’ve got the laserdisc, keep it for that reason alone.
Champion is Stanley Kramer’s first success as a producer and an excellent example of a film of the fight genre. It contains a first-rate performance by Kirk Douglas worth the price of admission alone. Republic’s DVD provides a quite serviceable presentation of the film and even if they botched the supplements aspect, it’s worth getting for the film itself. At present, the title is apparently only available in a two-pack as mentioned above. That means you get Body and Soul too (all for a SRP of $29.99) which makes it quite a deal for two of the best boxing films ever made. Recommended.