Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Jackie Cooper birthday salute

Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery in The Champ (1931)

1930s child star Jackie Cooper will be turning 88 on Wednesday, and TCM will be marking the occasion by showing an entire morning and afternoon of Cooper's movies. The day kicks off at 6:00 AM ET with perhaps his best-known performance, that in The Champ.

Cooper isn't the Champ, Wallace Beery is. Or at least, was the Champ. Beery's Champ is now an out-of-shape alcoholic boxer living a hand-to-mouth existence in Tijuana with his son Dink (Cooper), who idolizes his father despite the father's manifold and manifestly obvious flaws. Father gambles and wins a horse for son, which gives the son a goal: train the horse and race it, which he eventually does, although it causes a fateful meeting. When the two are at the track, Champ meets Linda (Irene Rich), his ex-wife. She's remarried and living a good life in one of thoe ritzy 1920s-style estates in Southern California. She sees the way Dink is living, and is horrified for her son -- and is determined to get custody of her son, which is quite easy considering the econominc differences between the two parents.

Dink, having spent so much time idolizing his father, doesn't like his new-found life of luxury. But, having been turned over to the custody of his mother is a good thing in other ways: it gives the Champ a reason to try to clean up his life, in order to regain custory of Dink. Dink escapes from his new home and runs off to return to Champ, and together, the two train for Champ's bout against the Mexican champion.

The Champ is a story that revolves around the two male leads, and both of them give outstanding performances. Wallace Beery comes across as lovable and well-meaning, despite his flaws, and has a conscience, too. He won an Oscar, although perhaps he didn't deserve to. That's because Jackie Cooper gives an even better performance. He's honest and touching, without being irritating like the younger Mickey Rooney could do, or so cloying you want to beat the crap out of him like Margaret O'Brien. The story, at least up until the fight at the end, also gives plausible motivations for its characters. The viewers can obviously see that Dink would be much better off with his mother, although to be fair she could stand to loosen up a bit. (Her not being perfect is a plus, however.) It's natural, though, for Dink to be as devoted to his father as he is: who among us hasn't looked up to even a lousy parent or older sibling? All this is due to the script by Frances Marion, a severely underrated female screenwriter in male-dominated Hollywood who also gave us such scripts as Min and Bill, The Big House and Dinner at Eight. (Incidentally, Wallace Beery is in all of these movies.)

The Champ has been released to DVD, and is well worth watching by young and old alike despite being 80 years old. Just watch that you don't get the 1979 remake.

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