The Champion (1915)
The Champion (1915)
Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Bud Jamison, Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson
Synopsis: The Little Tramp finds work as sparring partner to a champion boxer.
Although Chaplin’s little fellow lacks the physique of even a featherweight boxer, he’s hungry enough to be tempted by a sign calling for ‘Sparring partners who can take a punch.’ Seeing the punch-drunk candidates ahead of him as they’re wheeled out from their ‘interview’ with the champ, Charlie decides to even the odds a little by inserting a horseshoe into his glove. When his weighted blows see the previously cocky challenger catching the first bus out of town, the Tramp finds himself elevated to the position of challenger for the title must quickly prepare for a title fight with reigning champion Bob Uppercut (Bud Jamison – A Dog’s Life, Disorder in the Court).
Chaplin’s move to Essanay – The Champion was his third movie for them – saw him smoothing down the tramp’s hard edges, transforming him from a mean-spirited hot-head into a more caring, selfless soul. This heretofore unseen side to the tramp is highlighted in the film’s first scene, which sees Charlie sitting on a doorstep sharing a sausage with his devoted pug. This use of pathos would ultimately grow out of hand as Chaplin grew increasingly prone to overdoing the sentimentality, but back in 1915 he was still more concerned with generating laughter from his audience than tugging at their heartstrings.
The Champion is filled with the pratfalls and violent slapstick you’d expect to find in an early Chaplin film. It’s crude but funny stuff – the kind of thing that, a century later, can still make kids laugh. The cast is full of grotesques. Chaplin’s painfully thin physique is exposed by a tight-fitting training outfit, while most of the boxers are lumpy, misshapen and overweight, and they all seem to wear oversized gloves, as if to exaggerate their ridiculousness even further. The slightly motherly Edna Purviance fills out a sweater invitingly as the trainer’s daughter and Charlie’s love interest, but, as was so often the case, is given little else to do. At one point, Chaplin briefly breaks the fourth wall, glancing at the audience before raising a jug of beer to hide the kiss he plants on Purviance’s lips. She must be the only character – including himself – that Chaplin doesn’t punch at some point.
At thirty minutes, The Champion feels a little too long. The middle section, in which a seedy gambler (Leo White – Why Worry?, Ben-Hur – A Tale of the Christ) attempts to persuade Charlie to throw the fight, is where the damage is done. It goes on far too long, and the punchline (geddit?) is weak. But the film finds its second-wind for the final reel showdown between Charlie’s pretender and Bob Uppercut. Their fight is an intricately choreographed pantomime which sees each contestant travelling from flying-fisted confidence to wobbly-legged confusion and back again.
(Reviewed 7th December 2015)