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Champion (April 9, 1949)

Champion
Champion (1949)
Directed by Mark Robson
United Artists

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.

Mark Robson’s Champion is not a film about a man destroyed by fame. It’s a film about a man whose resentment, anger, selfishness, and cruelty are given free rein by fame and fortune.

It’s not an uplifting film, but it’s an occasionally powerful one, since it depicts a man who stands up to everyone who tries to take advantage of him, mistreats everyone who ever cared about him, and becomes middleweight champion of the world and dies of a brain hemorrhage without ever showing an ounce of remorse.

It’s also a tremendous showcase for Kirk Douglas, who made his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He played an uncharacteristically milquetoast character in that film, but his next role, in Out of the Past (1947), was more of an indication of what lay ahead for Douglas. His character “Dink” in Out of the Past is a vicious crime boss, as was the character he played opposite Burt Lancaster in I Walk Alone (1948).

Not every character Douglas played in the 1940s was a strutting, snarling alpha male — his wonderful performance in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) is a great example of his range — but he excelled at playing macho men, and Champion cemented that image. With his jutting cleft chin, puffed-out chest, intense eyes, and lean, muscular physique, Douglas dominates every scene in Champion.

If Kirk Douglas had a spirit animal, it would probably be a banty rooster.

Kirk Douglas in Champion

Douglas’s physical intensity carries him through Champion fairly well, which is good, because he’s not that convincing as a boxer. He looks the part, but he doesn’t move like a world-class middleweight. He lacks the right combination of speed and power.

Champion was based on a story by Ring Lardner and was nominated for six Academy Awards (best actor for Douglas, best supporting actor for Arthur Kennedy, best screenplay for Carl Foreman, best score for Dimitri Tiomkin, best black & white cinematography for Franz Planer, and best editing for Harry Gerstad), and won one — the Oscar for editing.

But now that almost 70 years have passed, I think Champion compares really unfavorably to Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), which was released around the same time and was nominated for zero Oscars. First of all, Robert Ryan boxed as an amateur heavyweight, so he was utterly convincing as a professional fighter who loses more often than he wins. (Asking us to accept Douglas as the world middleweight champion is too much, I think.)

Also, The Set-Up is a tightly coiled masterpiece from beginning to end, while Champion feels sloppy. Douglas’s training and his rise up the boxing rankings are both done as cheesy montages with a light tone. The film doesn’t really get going until more than a half hour has passed, when Douglas’s character, Michael “Midge” Kelly, refuses to throw a fight to Johnny Dunne (John Daheim). For the next hour, Champion is a good film. Not a great film, but a good one. The always-great Arthur Kennedy turns in a good performance as Midge’s sad-sack brother, Connie, and Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell are both good as the women Midge uses and abuses.

Kirk Douglas

I found the penultimate sequence of the film particularly harrowing, but modern-day viewers might miss its implications.

Ruth Roman’s character, Emma, is romanced by Midge early in the film, which leads to her father forcing them to marry at gunpoint. As soon as it’s official, however, Midge drops her like a bad habit, and she eventually finds love with his brother Connie.

Toward the end of the film, when Emma is preparing to get a divorce from Midge in Reno so she can marry Connie, Midge forces himself on her. He 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.

After Midge wins his final fight and collapses and dies in his dressing room, the press asks Connie for a statement. “He was a credit to the fight game, to the very end,” Connie says, because he can’t bring himself to say that Midge was a credit to humanity, or to anyone else.

Much like Midge Kelly himself, Champion was a hard film for me to like. It’s a good movie, but not nearly as good as some of its contemporaries, like Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up.

Race Street (Aug. 22, 1948)

Race StreetYou know what would be a great drinking game for a designated driver to play? Watching Race Street and taking a shot every time George Raft changes his expression.

Raft had no range as an actor, but he did play well with others. When paired with good performers, Raft had real chemistry with them. For instance, my favorite scene in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932) is when Ann Dvorak does a sexy, playful dance to try to get a reaction out of Raft. He remains stone-faced, but there’s always a twinkle in his eye.

As an actor, Raft got a lot of mileage out of that twinkle in his eye. Even though he mostly played his characters as expressionless tough guys, his eyes always made it seem as if he was taking in everything around him.

The other thing Raft brought to the table as an actor was a whiff of real-life criminality. He was well-known for his associations with gangsters like Owney Madden, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel, which added another dimension to roles like the one he plays in Race Street.

In Race Street, Raft plays a bookie named Dan Gannin. Gannin hides his illegal betting operation behind a respectable facade as an investor. Despite his criminal endeavors, he has an easy friendship with a police detective, Lt. Barney Runson (William Bendix). Lt. Runson knows that his friend Dan is a bookie, but they’re childhood friends, and not much trumps that.

Gannin’s other childhood friend in the film, a fellow bookie named Hal Towers (Harry Morgan), needs a little more taking care of than Runson, and when he begins running afoul of thugs in a protection racket, it’s easy to see that things are going to get complicated for Gannin, who is the standard “nice guy who just wants to go straight” character we’ve seen in a thousand crime movies.

On the distaff side of Gannin’s life is his beautiful sister Elaine (Gale Robbins), a leggy dancer and nightclub singer with whom he’s opening a nightspot called the Turf Club. There’s also a new lady in his life, a brunette named Robbie Lawrence (Marilyn Maxwell).

Race Street was directed by Edwin L. Marin, who directed a bunch of B pictures for RKO with George Raft, including Nocturne (1946), which I enjoyed quite a bit.

As I said above, Raft isn’t the most engaging actor in the world, but he turned in watchable performances when he had a good supporting cast and a decent script, and Race Street succeeds on both counts. I especially liked William Bendix in this film. Bendix was as good at playing comic buffoons as he was at playing sinister villains, and he could do everything in between.

Race Street also has plenty of beautiful footage of San Francisco. A lot of it’s obviously stock footage, but it’s integrated into the film well. This is clearly a B movie, but no studio made B-grade film noirs as well or as consistently as RKO Radio Pictures.

High Barbaree (May 1947)

High Barbaree

High Barbaree (1947)
Directed by Jack Conway
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Jack Conway’s High Barbaree pairs America’s boy next door, Van Johnson, with America’s girl next door, June Allyson.

It wasn’t the first time they appeared in a film together. In Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Johnson played the sailor of the title and Allyson played one of the pair of sisters who were in love with him. (They also both appeared in the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By. I haven’t seen it, but I know that it features a cast of thousands, and I’m not sure if they shared any scenes.)

High Barbaree puts the two of them front and center. Their characters’ romance is unencumbered by comedy or contrived stumbling blocks. The title of the film and the poster art imply an exotic tale set in the South Seas, and the tagline of the poster — He wanted to stay in the arms of his first true love — but another woman claimed him! — implies that the film will be about a torrid love triangle. It’s neither of these things. It’s a sweet, earnest love story about two childhood sweethearts.

It’s a story told mostly in flashback. It’s WWII, and Lt. Alec Brooke (Johnson) and Lt. Joe Moore (Cameron Mitchell) are drifting in the Pacific, their plane shot down during a bombing run. Every other man in the crew is dead, and Alec and Joe will soon join them if they’re not picked up.

Their water supply dwindling and their bodies weakening, Alec reminisces with Joe about his childhood. Alec is a corn-fed all-American type from Iowa, and Joe ribs him about it, since he’s a typical cynical kid from Brooklyn. Alec recalls the girl he loved when he was little, Nancy Frazer (played by Gigi Perreau as a child, and by Joan Wells as a young girl). She fearlessly climbed the water tower with him when they were children, and later ran away with him to the circus, and witnessed his brief career as a bicycle-riding daredevil. (Alec is played as a child by Jimmy Hunt, and as a 14-year-old by Claude Jarman Jr., fresh off his success as the lead in The Yearling.)

By time passed, as it must, and Nancy and Alec lost touch. He abandoned his plans to become a doctor like his father, Dr. William G. Brooke (Henry Hull), and went into aviation. He got engaged to the wealthy blond heiress Diana Case (Marilyn Maxwell) and went to work for her father’s airplane manufacturing company. Everything seemed to be going his way until Nancy (played as an adult by June Allyson, natch) re-entered his life, and he realized how lost and unhappy he really was.

At some point in the midst of his recollections, Alec realizes that he and Joe and the wreckage of their PBY Catalina are drifting toward a spot marked on a map long ago by Alec’s vagabond uncle, Capt. Thad Vail (Thomas Mitchell). The spot marks a fabulous island called “High Barbaree.” Uncle Thad described it as a mysterious place that was always just over the horizon, but that was perfectly beautiful and serene. If only they can make it to High Barbaree, Alec says, they’ll be saved.

While the exotic island of High Barbaree gives the film its title, it’s not a central part of the story, the way Shangri-La is central to Lost Horizon. Most of the story takes place in Alec and Nancy’s hometown of Westview, Iowa, which is its own kind of dreamlike phantasmagoria. I’ve never been crazy about Van Johnson (I think his stage name really should have been Bland Johnson), but he and Allyson make an appealing couple, and his earnestness is hard to resist in this picture.

High Barbaree isn’t a great film, but it’s pretty good, and is recommended for anyone who’s craving an old-fashioned romance. It’s based on a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. The review of the novel in the October 29, 1945, edition of Time magazine said that “It is plainly designed as a refuge for readers who have had enough of wartime realism.” The same can be said of the film.

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