Andy Purcell (Wallace Beery) is known to everyone as Champ thanks to his glittering past as a championship boxer, but those days are long behind him. Now he lives in a single room apartment in Tijuana with his young son, Dink (Jackie Cooper), who idolises him but cannot see that his father has become a wreck of a human being, drinking too much and gambling away their meagre funds. Dink wants him to climb back to the top of the boxing profession, and encourages him to train every day and not visit bars, but Champ finds that old habits die hard...
This was a huge hit in its day, winning its star Beery an Oscar (which he shared with Fredric March, a turn of events that has never happened since) and reducing countless audiences labouring under the Depression to tears, it really was one of the prime examples of the so-called weepie. But perhaps the real Oscar winner should have been Cooper, who provided the heart and soul of the piece: whenever his character cried it was the cue for the viewers to do the same. Granted, at this remove you can see how manipulative this was, and the movie was shameless in conspiring to aim for the tearducts, but in the young actor they had a gem of a performance.
Cooper was a natural, but the relationship between him and Beery offscreen was rather less benevolent. Beery was a dreadful man by most accounts, beloved of the public as an unpretentious and loveable lug, but much given to brawling and bullying when the cameras were not rolling - so bad was he that the there was a strong rumour he had murdered Ted Healy, the founder of The Three Stooges, in a drunken fight. On the set of The Champ, he feared, rightly, that he was being upstaged and would pick on Cooper every chance he got, which made the boy's committed acting all the more notable.
With that in mind, it may be harder to enjoy your average Beery picture now than it was back in his heyday, and if he's recalled now it's as part of the jokey set-up in Barton Fink where John Turturro's lead must write a wrestling movie for him to aappear in, but he was a world famous celebrity in his time. You can see why from this, as he portrayed Andy with all his flaws but redeemed by his son's love, but this was mainly so that when he let the child down for the umpteenth time the audience would respond in sympathy and pity, though interestingly as much for the father as for the son. The plot gets sidetracked away from the boxing to a racehorse that Andy buys Dink as a present, though even that is used for sorrow.
The kid can't catch a break, or so it seems, as his horse - who he names Little Champ - falls on its first race, and though it suffers no ill effects, Andy is forced to sell it back soon after thanks to mounting gambling debts. Cue more crying from Dink. Director King Vidor uses a social conscience technique to add a touch of grit to what could have been glutinously sentimental, and though you could argue it was that as well, the scenes that simply observe the players inhabiting their world have a documentary tone. More social issues arise when Dink's wealthy mother (Irene Rich) reappears and wishes to take him away from all this drudgery, but naturally he cannot bear to be parted from his dear old dad, who gets arrested and punches the cell wall, a bit referenced by Martin Scorsese in Raging Bull. On his release, Andy makes up his mind to do right by his son and compete in one final match, but if you're any judge of how this is going you can fully expect tragedy to be just around the corner - though how tragic must be weighed against the behaviour of an unsuitable parent.