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Champion (1949)

One of the great things that can happen to a classic movie fan is when your offspring want to see so many of the great films of yesteryear. So a couple times a month I’ll get the question, “Hey Dad. Wanna watch……” Music to my ears and even more so when number 2 son Kirk says he wants to watch that other Kirk in his star making vehicle of 1949 from producer Stanley Kramer.

In Kirk Douglas’ self penned, The Ragman’s Son he writes that against the wishes of his agent, he turned down a sure fire payday appearing opposite Greg Peck and Ava Gardner in The Great Sinner to make a small budgeted boxing film at a much lesser rate of pay for a guy named Stanley Kramer. Not only did it save Kirk from playing rather weak minded characters as he had been to this point early in his career, but it made him a star that has never really dimmed since. As a matter of fact, I think we were all reminded of that fact upon the celebrations surrounding his 100th birthday in 2016.

Champion, from a story by Ring Lardner and script courtesy of Carl Foreman begins on screen where it will end and is told via the flashback. Kirk Douglas and his brother, Arthur Kennedy who has a pronounced limp are a couple of vagabonds hoboing there way across the country. They’ll get rolled and tossed off a train only to find themselves hitchhiking and getting a ride with the middleweight champ of the world and the blonde on his arm. There’s a foreshadowing here of what is to come in Kirk’s future but for now he and Kennedy are carefree and heading to a supposed ownership in a small diner. The early part of the film casts Kirk with a very child like quality of innocence and discovery which surely endeared him to audiences of the day. On the suggestion of “The Champ”, they seek work as pop vendors at the venue of his latest fight. When Kirk’s temper gets the better of him, he climbs into the ring in an undercard bout to square a debt and takes a beating. Smiling the whole time as he and Kennedy resume their trek following the fight despite an offer of management from Paul Stewart.

The tone of Kirk’s character is about to take a turn towards the heel variety when the pair arrive at the diner they believe they have a piece of. They’ve been swindled but hire on as help around the place. Working for her father/owner is Ruth Roman who instantly falls for that Douglas grin. Flirtations and sex soon follow as does a shotgun wedding that Kirk and Arthur immediately run out on leaving Ruth behind. Broke and with nowhere else to turn, Douglas goes back to find Stewart and enters the fight game where his ego will soar leaving no prisoners on the road to the top.

“Nice guys don’t make money.”

I can’t help but think of the great line from John Ford’s Liberty Valance, “Print the legend.” as the film moves on to it’s inevitable conclusion. Douglas is a first class heel as he goes through one opponent after another. Forgetting just where he came from and who has stuck by him, Kirk will abandon both his own brother and Stewart to sign on elsewhere chasing the title shot. When he KO’s that same champ who gave him and Kennedy that ride earlier in the film, the statuesque woman in that car very quickly moves into Douglas’ corner. She’s expensive and knows it. It’s bombshell Marilyn Maxwell playing the part of a woman who likes to be well kept. Kirk on the other hand likes to use people and hasn’t yet forgotten the way she turned up her nose at him on that first meeting and his ill fated attempt of a first fight.

Still to come is Lola Albright who will also learn how self centered the new Champ is. When the time comes for the final bout of the film, Kirk attempts to turn the clock back as he begins to realize what most fighters deep down have to, that Father Time is catching up to them and their skills are beginning to erode. It will prove to be too little too late for Kirk’s Midge Kelly. Middleweight Champion of the World.

Grabbing this character by the throat, Kirk Douglas dynamically changed the course that his movie career seemed to be headed. Had he not appeared here, I see a Wendell Corey type career in his future unless of course another such role presented itself to him busting him out of the secondary leads he’d mainly been cast in thus far. Boxing films were and still are a reliable source for screenwriters to mine worthy plots from. Handling director chores here was Mark Robson and one notable shot included in Champion that caught my eye is a slow motion “newsreel footage” replay of Kirk scoring a knockout. Something a bit different from the studio era that stands out as inventive.

Douglas scored his first Academy Award Nomination here as Best Actor. Though he lost out on the Oscar, the role set him on a new path when it came to casting agents looking for an actor with a penchant for proving explosive on screen. A far cry from the weak husbands he’d been playing in flicks like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. A montage of footage from Champion was used as an introductory for the Douglas character of an aging stroke victim who had at one time been a boxing champ in the 1999 movie Diamonds. A film that was tailor made to fit the real life recovering stroke victim of which Kirk had become.

Champion really serves as a prototype of what was to come in the career of Kirk Douglas but can still stand on it’s own as a great film of the era and beyond as well as being one of the better movies built around the fight game of which there are many.

As Arthur Kennedy says at the fadeout that fits into that “print the legend” idea, “He was a champion. He went out like a champion. He was a credit to the fight game to the very end.” When the day eventually comes, I suspect we’ll be saying the very same thing about Kirk Douglas and his role as both a movie star and a member of the human race.

Am I a Kirk Douglas fan? Anyone who has drifted here to Mike’s Take knows the answer so feel free to check out many of the other Douglas films and articles I’ve been known to feature.

15 Comments »

    • Yes, he thought it was a top notch film of the era. He’s been discovering plenty of films. Each week he loads his duffel bag with 2 or 3 titles as he goes off to his college apartment an hour up the road from home.

  1. I have a lot of time for this film. The fact it’s so important in determining the shape of Douglas’ career is one part of it, and then there’s the matter of it being a boxing movie – two big pluses for me right there.
    I was delighted when the movie appeared in a restored form a few years ago as the prints available before that had been pretty shoddy.

  2. This is an altogether superior film. Apart from Van Heflin, I think Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell deserve an accolade. Douglas is grand, when given suitable material: he delivered a sterling performance in: ‘A Letter To Three Wives’ (one of his best portrayals). I think it a pity he was wasted in so many westerns and swashbucklers (he loses his dynamism in these, is often ridiculous because of an intensity which in these genres is uncalled for).

    I do think an additional accolade is due the beautiful ‘forty-seven Cadillac convertible, used in one of the early scenes of: ‘Champion’.

    • Don’t know my classic cars that well but the one you are speaking of is probably the one they hitch a ride in and yes, very stylish. something cars kind of lost over the years. Wasted? In some cases I guess so but never dull.

  3. Great review, Mike. I love this film so much. I think Kirk gives one of his best performances here. It’s a terrific boxing film, and shows the personal/emotional cost of his character becoming selfish and giving everything he’s got to his profession. He might get some glory and fame, but in the end he will have no one left who cares about him. Is it worth it? This is a film I wish was much more better known. Maddy

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