December 18, 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 rotten 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 DVD for a decade, so this essay assumes the reader knows the film. Besides, you just can’t dig into this thing without considering the ending — proceed knowing that spoilers await. 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 (the brilliant Paul Stewart), who offers to help him become a real fighter. When Midge and Connie reach Cali and discover their prospects vanished they are compelled to find scut work. 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 in the ring, 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 batters an unsuspecting Dunne. Although irate gamblers exact revenge, Midge’s refusal to cheat makes him appear heroic and he gets a title shot anyway, which he wins. Now able to have all the things he ever wanted, Midge alienates everyone around him. When he gives Dunne a rematch, he takes a terrific beating — until the jeers of the crowd and the ringside announcers spur him to final victory. Staggered, leering, and 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. While Douglas is indeed the stuff of legend, the “What Price Fame?” angle just doesn’t wash. Champion is a coldly cynical movie about a hard-as-nails tough guy; made during an era when all the little kids didn’t get a participation trophy. If it were merely a cautionary tale it would have ended differently — after all, in other movies the hero eventually discovers the error of his ways and seeks to redeem himself and make amends by doing the right thing. Midge Kelly isn’t redeemed at the end of Champion — he's validated! 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 wrest the spotlight from him, which is why he isn’t remembered as one of the great romantic leads. Don’t buy it? 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 quality occasionally kept him out of some parts normally played by 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, 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 in the first round of Midge’s life. His mother, unable to care for both sons, sent Midge to the orphanage and kept 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 exactly how life taught him to? 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. If these realizations left Midge feeling entitled, who are we to judge? 

Who does Midge hurt? The story places Midge in three romantic entanglements. First with Emma, the wife / waitress whom he deserts. Of the film’s three women she’s the most innocent and most deserving of happiness. She eventually finds it — with Connie, who long carried a torch for her. Although she married Midge she knew going in that 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 Midge. The idea that he could wound someone who herself is so despicable is silly. His final girlfriend is Palmer Harris (Lola Maxwell), the naïve, spoiled, and slumming wife of Midge’s fight promoter. Their romance is brief, and ends when he agrees to end their relationship in exchange 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, but 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 lasting 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. In quintessential noir fashion, he knows that he’s fated to be dropped when the bigger purses come, yet he nevertheless 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 Champion is a noir film in which none of the characters come away clean. Dig it: when Midge finally gets that big fight with Johnny Dunne, both Connie and Tommy want him to take the dive — they want him to cheat. 

If the movie has a flaw it’s that it doesn’t fully depict the harsh realities of the prizefighter’s life. The ring scenes (directed by Stanley Kramer rather than Mark Robson, who Kramer says didn’t know enough about boxing) are exquisitely photographed, but the narrative’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-style 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 Ray Robinson. To achieve at such a level requires a man of extraordinary talent and will — especially in the days when boxing was every bit the national pasttime that baseball purported to be. Champion’s failure to give boxing its just desserts diminishes Midge’s sacrifices and accomplishments in the eyes of the audience. It’s hard to generate sympathy for a character when we aren’t fully aware of what he has endured.

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 an improbable Ebenezer 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. It imbues his life with a strange and moving integrity. It also makes him an iconic hero of film noir. It’s fitting that Midge should die after he wins the final fight; he has nothing in the world left to prove.

We can see plainly in Champion, as in Raging Bull, that some men are not fated to suffer old age.

Champion (1949)
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Director: Mark Robson.
Cinematographer: Franz Planer
Screenplay: Carl Foreman, based on a story by Ring Lardner.
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Marilyn Maxwell, Ruth Roman, and Paul Stewart.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 99 minutes

11 comments:

  1. I just love that third picture of Douglas! What a hunk!

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  2. Champion certainly set the tone for Douglas's self-immolating style, and for a while it seemed necessary that his characters drop dead by the end of the picture. Ace in the Hole and The Vikings are other notable examples. This trope is almost a paradoxical vindication of Douglas's life force as something the conventional world can't contain.

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  3. Oh for petes sake! Midge was no hero. He was garbage. You take away any responsibility for his behavior from him.
    He is the only person who was ever kicked around?? He steps on people and he could not care less, he rapes one woman and I have not seen the movie in a while, 'tho I do own it, does he kill anyone?

    And his wife manipulated him into that marriage, she was no innocent. I can see not blaming her if you think she believed it was the only way to get away from her father, but she still could have been honest.

    Midge's brother is quite loyal to him no matter what, I think that is enough gratitude, since, "the no matter what," is pretty horrible.

    I like your point about the ending. The hollywood ending of kirk learning his lesson, would have been, whatever, but the way the movie actually ended, with his staying true to what he was, as lousy as that may have been, made for a terrific ending.

    Didn't the movie really kind of reveal boxing as a lowdown, slimy, gangster controlled swamp that made Kirk even worse a person than he already was?

    You do not think it really did, or strongly enough?
    Maybe they were not allowed to make that point to strongly.

    addie B)

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  4. Samuel Wilson--
    That is very funny, Kirtk Douglas really did play a lot of characters that needed to die at the end of the movie. lol

    addie B)

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  5. Addie -- Good stuff, thanks for the great comments!

    I don't remember a rape, or even the coded suggestion of one in Champion....help me there.

    I'm not trying to take the responsibility away from Midge, though I see how one could read what I wrote that way! I'm fully aware of who and what he is, and the film exacts a fair price (death) for his behavior. I am saying that I understand why he is who he is -- How can we not empathize with a guy whose ma gave him up to the state while keeping his brother at home? Ouch! What makes him admirable to me is what the character is able to achieve in spite of his upbringing. As you say, plenty of people get kicked around, but Midge got kicked around and became champion of the world.

    I'm certainly harder on Connie than you are. What you call loyalty no matter what, I call "along for the ride on the gravy train" no matter what. :-)

    On the boxing angle - I think the film was giving lip service to the crooked aspects of the sport, but those attitudes were no secret. Everyone, including Joe Public, knew how the game worked. I think that's why the film gives Midge such a strong response from the public when he refuses to take the dive.

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    1. There is definitely the coded suggestion of a rape in Champion, but it's easy to miss. Toward the end of the film, Midge (Kirk Douglas) forces himself on Emma (Ruth Roman), kisses her, says "It's still there, isn't it?" She walks away from him and says, "Leave me alone." He walks toward her and says, "You're my wife." She looks scared, and the screen fades to black.

      Plenty of classic films show women yielding to an aggressive man, but I think it's significant that the fade to black happens without showing her acquiesce to a kiss or yield in any pleasurable way. His line "You're my wife" strongly implies that he is going to have sexual intercourse with her whether she likes it or not. It's his legal right, and the concept of "marital rape" was not a criminal act in 1949. But it's a rape, and it's a violation of his brother's trust, since Midge and Emma were married in name only. His brother's rage in the next scene is also a pretty clear indication that something awful has happened.

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  6. I think I know what you mean now. On the beach with his future wife, Midge talks about rising above his terrible past. Which he does as a boxer. Really where he becomes so rotten is mainly from the being used, like by his, "wife," she tricked him and by the boxing promoters.
    And he is willing to work hard.

    Connie going along with Midge, you see more as Con's weakness not loyalty? Yes, I remember that now.

    He lets Midge support him and does not really stand up to Midge even when he gets mad enough to quit going on the road with him. You are right, leach city.
    But it is not like Kirk gets nothing from Arthur Kennedy.

    Late in the movie, when his wife has decided to marry his brother, like she should have in the first place (women!) they are alone together in a cabin, I think it was his training camp, they were getting ready to pack up and he forces his intentions on her then.
    After that is when Con shows a little something and gets very angry at midge and really gives him what for. It is right before that last fight.

    It is nearly a hollywood ending even though no one is happy. Kirk Douglas gets some redemtion after losing his mind because he basks in the love of the fans, like he is a kid again and then he dies.

    You are too kind to the females in this movie. The first one tricks him into marriage, not for money, but still and the two others are prostitutes really, they go with him for just for his money.

    That is a great description of Kirk Douglas, "Hyper-magnetic screen pressence."
    He comes across with so much umph, that sometimes after watching him in movie that has tremendous Highs and Lows, like Spartacus, I feel like I have been beaten up. lol I cannot even watch, "Lonely are the Brave."
    You got me going with your article, I have to watch some Kirk Douglas today.

    addie B)

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  7. Hi Mark,
    I'm just stopping by to say you have been award the Kreativ Blogger Award-the details are found here.
    here.

    I love your writing and the more obscure the noir, the better.
    Your constant reader,
    Moira

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  8. this was a great read! i always do a blog tribute to Kirk on his b-day, including some great pics from Champion, take a look if you like :)

    http://artmovieswoodandwhatnot.blogspot.com/2009/12/happy-b-day-kirk-douglas.html

    http://artmovieswoodandwhatnot.blogspot.com/2008/12/kirk-douglas.html

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  9. Kirk Douglas exuded menace in Out of the Past. His character is a jerk in Champion. It's interesting to compare this film with Rocky released almost 30 years later.

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  10. Midge Kelley is the Sammy Glick of boxers.

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