Saturday, May 1, 2021

#2,561. Champion (1949) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


It wasn’t until 1996 that Kirk Douglas finally got his hands on an Oscar statuette, and even then it was only honorary (for his “50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community”).

Prior to that, he had been nominated on three separate occasions for Best Actor, the first of which was for his portrayal of boxing champion Midge Kelly in 1949’s Champion (he was later nominated for The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life). Directed by Mark Robson, Champion is a gritty drama / film noir about a fiercely independent fighter who is often his own worst enemy.

Clawing their way up from skid row, Midge and his kid brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) bounce around from job to job until Midge finally takes the advice of boxing manager Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), who, after seeing him stand in for an injured fighter, felt he had the potential to be a great boxer. Dedicating his every waking moment to the sport, Midge wins fight after fight, eventually earning a New York title bout against current champ Johnny Dunne (John Daheim).

But the gamblers, who have heavy money on Dunne to win, order Midge to take a dive. Tired of waiting for his shot, Midge pulls a double-cross and instead knocks Dunne out in the first round.

From that point on, Midge Kelly is unstoppable. He becomes champion of the world, aligning himself with shady characters like Grace (Marilyn Maxwell) and promoter Harris (Luis van Rooten) while at the same time turning his back on his real friends. Through it all, Midge continues to win, but how long will he stay on top?

Douglas gives a searing performance as Midge Kelly, a boxer with a chip on his shoulder who won’t play the patsy for anyone, even when it’s in his best interest to do so; after defeating Dunne in the championship bout, the gamblers beat up not only Midge, but Tommy and Connie as well.

He’s also less that scrupulous when it comes to the ladies. Before deciding to take up the sport that would make him famous, Midge and Connie waited tables and washed dishes at a small beachside café. While there, Midge fell in love with co-worker Emma (Ruth Roman), whose father was their boss. Fearing the romance would disgrace his family, Emma’s dad forced Midge at gunpoint to marry Emma, but after the wedding, Midge and Connie took off for greener pastures, leaving Emma alone to deal with her broken heart. It was the first of several hearts Midge would break as the story unfolds (he even has an affair with Harris’s wife, Palmer - played by Lola Albright - that ends just as badly).

The supporting cast is solid. Kennedy is quite likable as Connie, the kid brother with a bum leg, as is Stewart as the father figure who teaches Midge the ins and outs of boxing. In addition, director Robson does a fine job staging the film’s many fight scenes (especially the climactic bout, a rematch between Midge and Johnny Dunne).

But Champion belongs to Kirk Douglas, whose Midge Kelly is hero and anti-hero at the same time. Even when we don’t like Midge, we root for him, and only an actor of Kirk Douglas’s stature could win over an audience that knows his character is a louse.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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