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Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Champs, Part Two (originally published 12/01)

Last week I recommended some boxing movies that focus on the stories of real prize fighters, as does this year's "Ali." I also pointed out that boxing has long been a favorite subject of moviemakers. The ring has provided the backdrop for dozens of films over the years, including some of the most beloved and influential classics of American cinema.

Some of the very best boxing movies are built around entirely fictional characters, in contrast to last week's biographical films. In part, that's because much of the drama surrounding the fight game flows from its long-standing association with the corrupting influence of gambling. If you're telling a story about a fighter who gets seduced by mob money or otherwise falls victim to the corrupting influence of a tainted sport, your options boil down to two. You can use a real fighter as your protagonist, stepping carefully through the minefield of libel law, or you can invent a character from whole cloth and sidestep the legal worries altogether. Understandably, filmmakers more often opt for the latter course. Here are just a few of the classic movies about fictional boxers currently available on video.

"The Champ" (1931). This is the prototype for the often-parodied sentimental tale of a washed up fighter and the kid who believes in him. Not wishing to disillusion the boy, the has-been pug hits the comeback trail for one final swan song in the ring. With Wallace Beery as the fighter and Jackie Cooper as his adoring son, the film could hardly go wrong.

"They Made Me a Criminal" (1939). John Garfield stars as a hard-drinking, hard-living hellraiser of a boxer. On one particularly dissolute night, he commits a murder and crashes his car. When he learns that he is believed to have been killed in the wreck, he allows the world to continue thinking that he is dead, starting a new, anonymous life to evade the consequences of his crime. Drifting out to Arizona, he becomes involved with an institution for the rehabilitation of troubled inner city youths. When the institution needs to raise a sum of money quickly, Garfield's character realizes that he can fill the need by participating in a boxing exhibition. To do so, however, would mean blowing his cover and exposing himself to prosecution.

"Body and Soul" (1941). Garfield's most enduring contribution to the boxing movie genre, however, is this dark drama about a fighter named Charlie Davis (Garfield). Charlie is driven by a consuming rage over the murder of his father and the subsequent shame as his mother is stripped of her dignity by the social services people to whom she turns for help. His rage finds expression in the boxing ring, where he soon wins the world championship. In the process, however, he has had to play ball with some of the same criminal element who were responsible for his father's death. In the end he must decide whether the success he has had is worth the selling of his soul.

"Champion" (1949). In one of the most memorable performances of his career, Kirk Douglas stars as boxer Midge Kelly, one of Hollywood's great anti-heroes. Midge is a thoroughgoing jerk, with no loyalties except to himself, and the kind of temper that allows the violence of the fight game to bring out the very worst in him. By the final fadeout, screenwriter Carl Foreman's adaptation of Ring Lardner's story has wrung every last drop of irony out of the word "champion."

"Golden Boy" (1939). This popular Clifford Odets play provided the vehicle for William Holden's first significant screen appearance. As Joe Bonaparte, Holden plays a young violinist who temporarily goes into prize fighting to finance his musical education. Not wishing to hurt his valuable hands in the process, Joe holds back in the ring. His scheming fight manager, seeing what is going on, recruits a woman played by Barbara Stanwyck to romance him into going all-out in the ring. Hollywood, true to form, softened the tragic ending of the play, but there are still plenty of tears to go around.

I haven't mentioned "Rocky" (1976), of course, but then I also haven't mentioned "Fat City" (1972) or "The Harder They Fall" (1956). Even to scratch the surface of Hollywood's great boxing movies is a daunting task, but well worth it. Keep punching.

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