CHAMPION, THE (Charles Chaplin, 1915, USA, 31m, BW)
The Champion (1915 film)
Directed by Charles Chaplin
Produced by Jess Robbins
Written by Charles Chaplin
Starring Charles Chaplin
Ernest Van Pelt
Music by Robert Israel (Kino video release)
Cinematography Harry Ensign
Edited by Charlie Chaplin
Distributed by Essanay Studios
General Film Company
March 11, 1915
Country United States
Language Silent film
English (original intertitles)
The Champion is a comedy film released in 1915 by Essanay Studios, starring Charles Chaplin alongside Edna Purviance and Leo White. Essanay co-owner and star, Broncho Billy Anderson can be seen as an enthusiastic audience member in the boxing match scene.
Walking along with his bulldog, Charlie finds a "good luck" horseshoe just as he passes a training camp advertising for a boxing partner "who can take a beating." After watching others lose, Charlie puts the horseshoe in his glove and wins. The trainer prepares Charlie to fight the world champion. A gambler wants Charlie to throw the fight. He and the trainer's daughter fall in love.
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 opening of the movie, with Charlie and the dog, gives us a chance to identify with the “Little Tramp” more than we ever did when he was at Keystone, and, indeed, the character is cuter and more appealing, even if he is cheating at boxing and apparently robbing gamblers. The longer run time seemed to be handled better in this movie than in “A Night Out,” in part because the whole “training” storyline obviously points to a climax in the ring. Once we get there, all the stops are pulled out and ever single gag you can think of is thrown in. Each time the fighters go at it, something different happens. I was delightedly surprised, for example, when they “hugged” each other and danced, rather than hitting. Still, where “The Knockout” confuses people with so many things going in rapid-fire, “The Champion” at times seems drawn-out, with the gags getting in the way of forward motion of the plot.
In terms of film making, this movie is still at a fairly simple level. Scenes are generally taken from a straight-on camera angle with little internal cutting. Occasionally, close-ups are used to emphasize Charlie’s emotional state. Cross-cutting, between the audience and the boxing ring, helps to liven up the fight sequence. All of the actors, except Edna, get a chance to show off their athleticism, and the dog puts in a good performance as well, attacking Jamison and biting the seat of his pants at a critical moment. During the “love scenes,” Charlie holds a large jug of beer up to insure Edna and him some privacy.
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.
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