Plot: Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas) and his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) seem to attract trouble and it is no exception on a railway ride, when they’re jumped by some toughs looking for quick cash. After a hasty exit from the train, the brothers cross paths with Johnny (John Daheim) and his buxom girlfriend Grace (Marilyn Maxwell). Despite the objections of his other half, Johnny gives Midge and Connie a ride, then even lines up some potential work for them. He happens to be a boxer, so the brothers are given a job selling drinks at the arena, but when Midge scraps with a troublemaker, a manager sees some potential. More to the point, he needs a last minute replacement for a sick boxer, so Midge steps in and while he doesn’t win, he proves his toughness. But if he and Connie want to pursue their dream of a better life, will boxing be the path to that or is this just a detour with low payouts?
Entertainment Value: Champion reminded me a lot of Body and Soul, as it deals with what happens when fame and fortune are dangled in front of ambitious men, but this movie is much less heavy handed. While that film was like a political/social message packaged as a boxing movie, Champion feels like a boxing picture first and foremost, which makes it a much different experience. The narrative is fine and allows the cast to perform well, but the lighter approach to the content does make Champion feel a little slight compared to its peers. The boxing world in cinema is often a dark, gritty place and this movie eschews that in a lot of ways, so it doesn’t have as hard of an edge and that can be a drawback. But the story still does what it needs to do and the production values are rock solid, so while it might not have as much of a dark side, this is still a capable, well crafted picture. If you have a soft spot for boxing movies, as I do, you’ll likely get a lot more out of Champion, as has well staged in ring action and a familiar, but still effective narrative. I’d give this one a solid recommendation, especially to fans of boxing and Kirk Douglas.
This is a great role for Kirk Douglas, as he is able to showcase his dramatic skills a little, his inherent charm, and his tough guy persona, all of which are needed to keep Midge both rugged and somewhat likable. If he was a total villain, the movie wouldn’t work, but he needed to be just enough of a jerk, a balance Douglas hits on the head here. I wouldn’t have minded if the role pushed his talents a little more, as I know he could more than rise to that challenge, but it is still good work. If I had to pick one weaker area, he isn’t as effective in the romance threads this time around, but even then, he has a couple scenes that are powerful and memorable. Douglas might be the main player here, but he is surrounded by an ensemble stacked with talent and of course, that helps Champion step up the material a little. Marilyn Maxwell shows off some sultry charisma and presence, while Arthur Kennedy is quite good as the younger brother, who is protected by the stronger Midge. The cast also includes Ruth Roman, Lola Albright, Paul Stewart, and Harry Shannon.
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