On April 9, 1949, the Kirk Douglas boxing drama Champion premiered in New York at the Globe Theatre. The movie went on to earn six nominations at the 22nd Academy Awards ceremony, winning in the film editing category. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, headlined “‘Champion’ Surprise Hit, Has Impact and Drama,” is below.
The emotional impact left by a picture like Champion is such as to send the reviewer scurrying through the dictionary when he knows full well the only accurate word is “great.” Champion, adapted from Ring Lardner’s memorable story about a prize-fighter who is a hero to his fans and a heel to his family and friends, bursts on the current crop of celluloid efforts like a flash of lightning from a cloudy sky. It was turned out for something more than half a million, but its grossing potential is several times that amount.
It is compelling, moving entertainment, made so by the artful combination of terrific story, enterprising production, forceful performances and imaginative direction. Stanley Kramer and his associate Robert Stillman who fought the show through to completion are to be commended not merely for turning out a box office winner but for producing a film of some artistic nature — a drama whose virility and excitement will long be remembered. Mark Robson’s direction moves Champion through its paces to its ironic conclusion with masterful finesse. While he concentrates on the enormously interesting characterizations, he cleverly makes the camera implement his story with angles and tricks which subtly contribute to the good and gripping pace.
Kirk Douglas is Lardner’s immortal character, the fighter whose story is picked up on the night of his greatest triumph, the occasion when the people hail him as the greatest sportsman of the ring. His own life, however, is quite a different story and in flashback, it is recounted. He turns to the ring after a shotgun marriage to Ruth Roman whom he leaves directly after the ceremony. He puts himself under the management of Paul Stewart and with the latter’s careful tutelage rises to the top. He refuses to go for a “fix” and wins a fight with against the current champion despite the advice of the gambling overlords. This is the feat that makes him a public idol.
But the promoters drop him like a hot potato and in order to continue fighting he is obliged to make a deal with them. This means dropping Stewart. With no qualm of conscience he makes the change and continues on his meteoric career. While his wife waits for him in the Chicago home of his mother he uses Marilyn Maxwell and then Lola Albright to further his insatiable ambitions. Finally his brother, Arthur Kennedy, is his victim when Douglas steps in, at the last moment, and breaks up a chance of happiness between Kennedy and the unhappy Miss Roman. Tragedy finally stalks him on the night of his big fight when he dies of a brain injury. To the world he is a greater hero for it, because the people whose lives he has affected so bitterly are decent enough to keep their silence.
Kirk Douglas who has been edging himself rapidly up the stellar ladder completes the climb with his performance of the Champion. Here is a vigorous, manly exciting actor whose personality, torso, and skillful histrionic talent give his every second on the screen conviction and authority. Marilyn Maxwell, a beautiful blonde, deftly plays the gal who lives on the outskirts of the sporting and gambling world. Arthur Kennedy’s sensitivity makes a touching portrait of the crippled brother. Paul Stewart’s manager is a masterpiece of subtle , restrained playing, and Ruth Roman’s wife is hauntingly lovely. Lola Albright, a show girl who has found a way of life with a wealthy, older man, is excellent. The quiet dignity of Luis Van Rooten who sacrifices a small fortune to keep her affections is a performance worth noting. Harry Shannon, John Day, Ralph Sanford, and Esther Howard make up the remaining and excellent supporting cast.
Frank Planer’s photography has much drama as the script as it begins to tell the story right under the titles and continues compelling on its course through the grim, relentless narrative. Rudolph Sternad accomplishes an arresting production design, and the editing of Harry Gerstad is smooth throughout. Dimitri Tiomkin accomplishes a brilliant job of musical composition and direction. — Staff review, originally published on March 14, 1949