Champion (1949): Mark Robson’s Oscar-Nominated Boxing Melodrama, Starring Kirk Douglas

Produced by Stanley Kramer, and directed by Mark Robson, “Champion” is the boxing movie that catapulted Kirk Douglas, in his first Oscar nomination, to major stardom.
Douglas plays the titular role, Midge Kelly, an ambitious, ruthless prizefighter that would stop at nothing on his path to success. Along the way, he sacrifices family relationships, friends, and his own code of ethics.
Made on a modest budget of half a million dollars, the film offered Douglas a lower fee than what was the norm, but he wanted to play this challenging role. Brutally realistic by standards of the time, “Champion” center on a boxer who batters his way to the top of his profession, while oblivious to all issues ethical and familial. The fans perceive him as a hero, but those close to him realize he’s become a viciously selfish man.
Unfolding backwards, the tale begins at present, when Kelly enjoys his greatest triumph, then flashes back to recount his earlier life and rise to fame.
It begins with a trip that Midge and his crippled brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) take by railroad to California, where Midge is about to acquire a road café from a wartime Navy buddy. Mugged and thrown off the train by hoboes, they are given a lift on the highway by a prizefighter named Johnny Dunne (John Day) and his woman, Grace (Marilyn Maxwell).
In Kansas City, Midge enters a boxing event for little money, during which he is beaten. A manager, Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), who senses Midge’s ambition, makes an offer, but Midge rejects it, and he and his brother proceed to California, where they find out that their café investment is a fraud.
Broke, they take jobs at another café, owned by Lew Bryce (Harry Shanon) and his daughter Emma (Ruth Roman), a nice girl to whom Midge is immediately attracted.   After being forced to get married, Midge leaves Emma and his brother and moves to L.A., seeking the fight manager who had made him an offer.
Coached by Haley, Midge absorbs all the necessary skills and begins to ascend. Later on, he refuses to throw a fight, as the syndicate instructs him, instead winning the fight by battering opponent Dunne to a bloody hulk. Socially, Midge uses Grace, and then dumps her for the beautiful wife (Lola Albright) of his new boss, who in turn proves that he could be induced by money to end the affair.
In the end, Midge joins brother Connie at their mother’s deathbed, where he learns that his wife wishes to marry Connie. Seeking revenge and reinstatement, Johnny Dunne gets a rematch with the champ, proving that success had turned Midge softer and weaker. Midge summons his strength and wins but is badly injured; he dies as Connie and Emma arrive. Asked for a statement by the press, Connie decides to maintain the mythic status of his brother and not to disillusion his fans by saying: “He was a champion, and he went out like a champion. He was a credit to the fight game to the very end.”
Oscar Alert
Oscar Nominations: 6
Actor: Kirk Douglas
Supporting Actor: Arthur Kennedy
Screenplay: Carl Foreman
Cinematography (b/w): Frank Planer
Film Editing: Harry Gerstad
Scoring (Drama or Comedy): Dimitri Tiomkin
Oscar Awards: 1
Oscar Context
In 1949, the Best Actor Oscar went to Broderick Crawford for “All the King’s Men,” which also won Best Picture and Director. The Supporting Actor Oscar went to Dean Jagger for the intense WWII film, “12 O’Clock High.” Joseph L. Mankiewicz won the Screenplay Oscar for “A Letter to Three Wives.” The Cinematography Oscar went to Paul Vogel for the war drama, “Battleground,” which was also nominated for Best Picture. Aaron Copland won the Scoring Award for “The Heiress,” directed by William Wyler.
Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas)
Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell)
Connie Kelly (Arthur Kennedy)
Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart)
Emma Bryce (Ruth Roman)
Mrs. Harris Palmer (Lola Albright)
Jerome Harris (Luis Van Rooten)
Johnny Dunne (John Day)
Lew Bryce (Harry Shannon)
UA (Screen Plays Corporation)
Produced by Stanley Kramer
Directed by Mark Robson
Screenplay: Carl Foreman, based on a story by Ring Lardner
Camera: Frank Planer
Editing: Harry Gerstad
Score: Dimitri Tiomkin
Running Time: 99 Minutes