Like many movie fans, I always try to guess the Academy Award winners each year. Some categories are easy to figure out, and some are a total shot in the dark. Best Live Action Short, for example, is pretty much just picking a title that looks interesting. I don’t mean to discount the artistic merits of these films, but, truth be told, most movie viewers never get the chance to see these films. It’s a shame. I for one am someone who has always been intrigued by short films, especially those from the early days of film when silent comedies were a regular part of a night out at the movies. It is a part of film history that should not be ignored, so today we turn to an early work by Charlie Chaplin, 1915’s The Champion.
Chaplin appears as his famous Little Tramp character and, as is often the case, he appears to have fallen on hard times. Desperate for work, he spots a sign advertising for sparring partners for a boxer in training. The only special skill required is that you must be able to take a punch. The tramp is unsure at first, but after finding a lucky horseshoe on the ground he figures what the heck. It works out even better when he realizes that sticking the equine footwear in his boxing glove is a sure way to knockout his opponent and avoid any injury. Problem is, this also causes the trainer to decide the tramp could be the next champ. The little fellow soon goes into training, experiencing many mishaps with the various workout tools in the gym. He also catches the eye of his trainer’s daughter (frequent Chaplin co-star Edna Purviance) as well as a crooked gambler who offers Chaplin “five big ones” to take a dive.
The Champion comes relatively early in Chaplin’s career. I say “relatively” because while both Chaplin and the Little Tramp character made their screen debuts the previous year, he managed to appear in well over 30 films before this one was released. Still, this is a stepping stone of sorts for both the Tramp character and for Chaplin as a director. The Tramp doesn’t come across quite as good-natured as he does in the years to follow. Sure we still root for the guy, but he’s a bit more mean-spirited than what we’re used to. He often resorts to taking swings at people, and I don’t just mean in the boxing ring.
We do get some hints of what the character would become. The Tramp would often end up with a pretty love interest and he does get a few moments with Edna Purviance in this film. However, her role is small and she really doesn’t add much. Had he had the chance to fight for her honor, or something of the sort, her presence would’ve made a lot more sense. The scene that has the most in common with later versions of the Tramp is the opening scene in which he feels guilted into sharing his frankfurter lunch with a bulldog.
There are still plenty of funny slapstick comedy moments in The Champion…and when I say “slapstick” we’re talking literal slapping. The characters spend a lot of time hitting each other around, or getting clunked in the head with various weights and barbells. I realize that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I find it funny. Even so, I found some of the gags to be lacking in the ingenuity that we see out of Chaplin just a few years down the line. Understandable considering he was only a year or so into his film career.
The Champion is a fine little film and a fun piece of silent slapstick. Chaplin’s wonderful grasp of timing and expression is on full display here. Yet, in the shadow of the brilliance that Chaplin would later produce, it is only natural that it struggles somewhat today.