The Main Event: Kirk Douglas in CHAMPION (United Artists 1949)

Kirk Douglas  slugged his way to superstardom in director Mark Robson’s CHAMPION, one of two boxing noirs made in 1949. The other was THE SET-UP , helmed by Robson’s former RKO/Val Lewton stablemate Robert Wise. While that film told of an aging boxer (Robert Ryan) on the way down, CHAMPION is the story of a hungry young fighter who lets nothing stand in his way to the top of the food chain. The movie not only put Douglas on the map, it was a breakthrough for its young independent producer Stanley Kramer .

Douglas is all muscle and sinew as middleweight Midge Kelly, and a thoroughly rotten heel. He’s a magnetic character, a classic narcissist with sociopathic tendencies drawing the people around him into his web with his charm. Midge has no empathy for others, not even his loyal, game-legged brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy in a solid performance), after he gets what he wants. And what he wants is the respect and admiration of the world, his bravado but a mask for his deep-seated insecurities brought on by his childhood poverty and abandonment issues. He treats the women in his life like dirt, seducing pretty waitress Emma ( Ruth Roman ), leering to her at the beach, “Well, shall we get wet?” (and how THAT quote got through the censors is a miracle!). Forced into a shotgun marriage by her father (Harry Shannon), Midge leaves her to hit the road to boxing glory. Later in the film, after Emma asks for a divorce to marry Connie, Midge brutally rapes her, then violently shoves down his own lame brother when confronted. Yes, Midge Kelly is a total shitheel, and Douglas’s acting will keep you riveted to see what new depths he’ll go to next. It’s a no-holds-barred performance that deservedly won Kirk his first Oscar nomination.

Emma and Connie aren’t the only victims in Midge’s merciless rise to the top. Fight manager Tommy Haley ( Paul Stewart ) takes the creep under his wing and trains him in the pugilistic arts, only to be first betrayed when Midge refuses to dive in a Number One Contender’s Match, then unceremoniously dumped for the lure of big money manager Jerry Harris (Luis Van Rooten) and femme fatale Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell). Harris isn’t exempt as Midge seduces his young wife Palmer (Lola Albright), a naïve sculptor unaware she’s being used until Harris teaches her a valuable lesson. Midge even abandons his own mother ( Esther Howard ), arriving too late to visit her before she dies.

Carl Foreman structured his screenplay in circular fashion, with an extended flashback relating the bulk of the story. Foreman, who got his start working on Bowery Boys programmers,  and producer Kramer teamed for some great films: HOME OF THE BRAVE, THE MEN (Marlon Brando’s film debut), CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and the classic Western HIGH NOON, but the writer’s former Communist affiliations got him blacklisted by HUAC. Foreman won the Oscar for 1957’s superb war drama BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, though the statue was given to credited author Pierre Boulle (this was corrected 27 years later, the year Foreman died).

CHAMPION was nominated for six Oscars, including Douglas, Kennedy, Foreman’s screenplay, Dmitri Tiompkin’s  score, and Franz Planer’s cinematography, winning for Harry Gerstad’s stellar editing job. The ultra-realistic boxing scenes were staged by former Light Welterweight champ Mushy Callahan, who trained Douglas for the film. Midge Kelly is a repellant character, but Kirk Douglas makes him fascinating to watch, and as in all good noirs, he receives his just desserts in the end, a victim himself of his own lustful machinations. It’s a knockout of a film that pummels the viewer with a barrage of body blows before delivering its fatal punch, and is highly recommended.

Something Funny Going On: IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (United Artists 1963)

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If I was forced to make a list of Top Ten favorite movies, IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD would definitely make the cut. Featuring a veritable Who’s Who of comedy, this film (like The Dirty Dozen) has been often imitated, but never duplicated. TCM ran it in prime time last night, and after watching the horrors unfolding in Paris on the news channels, I figured I could use a good laugh. IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD never fails to disappoint in that department!

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The plot is simple: a car goes flying off the road and crashes. Four parties get out of their vehicles to inspect the scene. The dying driver, Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) tells them about $350,000 in cash buried in Santa Rosita Park “under the Big W”, then kicks the bucket (literally). The four parties decide to find the dough and split it, but greed gets the best of them and the race is on! Unbeknownst to them all is they’re being watched by Captain Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), who has reasons of his own to find the hidden loot. From there, we go to a series of comedic incidents as each seperate party gets caught in slapstick situations on their way to claim the money for themselves:

Title: IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ¥ Pers: ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID / ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID ¥ Year: 1963 ¥ Dir: KRAMER, STANLEY ¥ Ref: ITS003BP ¥ Credit: [ UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Title: IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ¥ Pers: ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID / ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID ¥ Year: 1963 ¥ Dir: KRAMER, STANLEY ¥ Ref: ITS003BP ¥ Credit: [ UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Dentist Melville Crump and wife Monica (Sid Caesar, Edie Adams) take a harrowing ride on a dilapidated bi-plane to get ahead of the game. They get themselves locked in a hardware store basement while trying to get picks and shovels, and wind up having to blast their way out with “a little” dynamite.

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Buddies Benji and Dingy (Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney), having been beaten to the plane rental by the Crumps, make their way to an airport and rent a ride from a drunken millionaire (Jim Backus) who promptly passes out, causing the pair to learn to pilot the plane on the fly, with help from tower control veteran Colonel Wilberforce (Paul Ford).

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J. Russel Finch (Milton Berle), travelling with his wife Emmaline (Dorothy Provine) and shrewish mother-in-law Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), after their car is totalled by trucker Pike (Jonathan Winters), hook up with Englishman Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas). After the loudmouthed Mrs. Marcus is “assaulted” and stranded by Finch and Hawthorne, she calls in her son, dimwitted surfer and all around mama’s boy Sylvester (Dick Shawn).

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Pike is forced to ride down the highway on “a girl’s bike”, until he comes across Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers).  Meyer leaves the hulking Pike stranded after learning about the treasure, and when Pike catches up to him at a gas station, Meyer tells the attendants (Arnold Stang, Marvin Kaplan) Pike’s an escaped lunatic. The proprietors attempt to restrain Pike, who angrily demolishes their gas station!

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Meanwhile, Meyer gets stuck in a ravine after giving an Indian a lift. His car destroyed, he flags down a driver (Don Knotts) and tells the man he’s a spy on the run, stealing his car in the process.

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Everyone makes it to the park and search for the Big W, including a couple of cab drivers (Peter Falk, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson). Pike chases after the conniving Meyer, and spots the Big W (a cluster of four curved palm trees). The group digs, digs, digs, finally hitting upon Smiler’s stolen money. Culpepper shows up and tells the group he’s confiscating the cash, urging them all to turn themselves in. They agree, but when Culpepper takes a turn off the route to the police station, they realize he’s grabbing the ill-gotten gains for himself, and the chase is on again!

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Spencer Tracy mugs it up with the best of the comics as Culpepper. All of these seasoned pros are on their game, but for me Ethel Merman steals the show as the obnoxious Mrs. Marcus. Producer/Director Stanley Kramer pulled out all the stops for this zany epic, and hired the best of Hollywood’s funnymen in small roles and cameos. (I’ll list a few at the end of this post). IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD is just what the doctor ordered to take away a case of the blues, for three hours anyway. As for me, I’m off to a stage performance of DRACULA tonight, but will return tomorrow to look at a darker cinematic gem: 1947’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

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