“You are not a director,” actor-director Vittorio De Sica once said, “until you have directed a child.” De Sica had proved himself memorable in this area with three of his post-war Italian neo-realist films, The Children Are Watching Us (1944), Bicycle Thief (1948) and Shoeshine (1946). Two other films that come immediately to mind for extraordinary child performances are Jackie Coogan in Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length Tramp picture, The Kid (1921), and another Jackie—-Jackie Cooper in the powerful four-handkerchief 1931 King Vidor production co-starring ever-popular Wallace Beery as THE CHAMP (available on DVD). Of course, Vidor had already distinguished himself with a touching child performance in his classic humanist drama of three years before, The Crowd, a silent picture I couldn’t recommend more highly (though it is currently not available on DVD).
But whereas the little boy in The Crowd is a supporting player to his parents’ story, in The Champ, Jackie Cooper dominates. And although Wallace Beery is absolutely superb in the title role of an alcoholic, degenerate gambling, ex-prizefighter, little Jackie as his long-suffering, ever-optimistic son pretty much steals the picture. Nevertheless, Beery won the Oscar as best actor for this movie in a then unprecedented tie, with Fredric March, for the inferior Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A couple of years earlier, at the age of eight, Jackie had been nominated in the best actor category for his work in the title role of Skippy directed by his uncle, veteran Norman Taurog.
Beery and Cooper worked so well with each other and were so loved by audiences that they would appear again together in Raoul Walsh’s boisterous, and notoriously pre-Code, lower depths saga, The Bowery (1933) and in Victor Fleming’s likable version of the Robert Louis Stevenson favorite, Treasure Island (1934), Beery of course playing Long John Silver. (Unfortunately, Jackie here is often whiney, self-pitying and resentful, qualities Vidor never allowed to appear in The Champ.)
The legendary scenarist Frances Marion also won an Oscar for her original story of The Champ, and the movie was, not surprisingly, nominated for best picture and best director. Even today, despite some pretty dated aspects—especially the now wealthily remarried mother, in a conventionally weepy portrayal by Irene Rich—-the film has a realistic intensity in the father-son sequences that is riveting, a kind of documentary flavor in the way Vidor shoots their scenes that retains a candid, seemingly improvised freshness. The stark, naked simplicity of some of these is surprisingly modern and often terribly moving.
There is, too, an uncompromised sense of the awful brutalization children undergo with parents who are addicted to alcohol (or any other kind of drug)—-who cannot really take responsibility for their kids and who essentially are taken care of by their own offspring—-and of how these innocents somehow inevitably blame themselves and suffer irreparable damage. The Champ in no way deals with these issues directly but it is implicit throughout, which does not diminish the aching pathos of the situation, neither Berry’s nor Cooper’s characters being judged nor pitied. Indeed, there is a decided lack of slickness or directorial manipulation that in these circumstances brings great integrity to the overall work, a higher seriousness than one would expect with the sometimes sentimentalized material. This comes straight from Vidor’s inherent honesty as an artist.