The Champion (1915)
Movies and boxing have gone together since the birth of American cinema. Boxing also lends itself to precisely the kind of physical comedy associated with slapstick, so it’s no surprise that Charlie Chaplin returned to the theme more than once in his career. The first time was in “The Knockout,” which is really a Fatty Arbuckle film that Charlie appeared in as a supporting character, but because of his higher name value, it tends to be associated with Charlie instead (See Silentology for another discussion of “The Knockout”). Less than a year later, and at another studio, Charlie made his first appearance as a headliner in a boxing comedy.
Slightly longer, “The Champion” has a somewhat simpler plot than “The Knockout.” We open on Charlie with a pet bulldog, apparently down on his heels, but sharing a hot dog with his companion. A bit later, Charlie finds a “good luck” horseshoe just as he passes Spike Dugan’s (Ernest van Pelt) training quarters, which is advertising for a boxing partner “who can take a punch.” After watching others lose, Charlie puts the horseshoe in his glove and wins. The trainer prepares Charlie to fight the world champion, Bob Uppercut, played by Bud Jamison, who still seems to me to be filling Mack Swain’s shoes. A gambler (Leo White) wants Charlie to throw the fight, but Charlie knocks him out and takes his money anyway. He and the trainer’s daughter (Edna Purviance, once again, who seems to be dressing as a boy to sneak into the fights as Minta Durfee did in “The Knockout”) meet and fall in love. At the big fight, Ben Turpin takes on Charlie’s former role as the referee, and winds up getting hit about as often as the fighters. Broncho Billy Anderson, co-owner of Essanay Studios, is rumored to be in the fight audience, but I didn’t spot him based on the one Broncho Billy movie I’ve been able to see so far.
The opening of the movie, with Charlie and the dog, gives us a chance to identify with the “Little Tramp” more than we ever did when he was at Keystone, and, indeed, the character is cuter and more appealing, even if he is cheating at boxing and apparently robbing gamblers. The longer run time seemed to be handled better in this movie than in “A Night Out,” in part because the whole “training” storyline obviously points to a climax in the ring. Once we get there, all the stops are pulled out and ever single gag you can think of is thrown in. Each time the fighters go at it, something different happens. I was delightedly surprised, for example, when they “hugged” each other and danced, rather than hitting. Still, where “The Knockout” confuses people with so many things going in rapid-fire, “The Champion” at times seems drawn-out, with the gags getting in the way of forward motion of the plot.
In terms of film making, this movie is still at a fairly simple level. Scenes are generally taken from a straight-on camera angle with little internal cutting. Occasionally, close-ups are used to emphasize Charlie’s emotional state. Cross-cutting, between the audience and the boxing ring, helps to liven up the fight sequence. All of the actors, except Edna, get a chance to show off their athleticism, and the dog puts in a good performance as well, attacking Jamison and biting the seat of his pants at a critical moment. During the “love scenes,” Charlie holds a large jug of beer up to insure Edna and him some privacy.
Camera: Harry Ensign
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Ben Turpin, Leo White, Ernest van Pelt, Broncho Billy Anderson, Lloyd Bacon
Run Time: 33 Min
You can watch it for free: here.