Charlie Chaplin was exactly halfway through his year-long tenure at Keystone Studios in 1914 when he was offered a memorable walk-on role as the referee in Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s boxing comedy The Knockout. Like Roscoe and his future apprentice Buster Keaton, Chaplin was an ardent fight fan. He later befriended and sparred with Jack Dempsey, who expressed admiration for the comedian’s skills, particularly his fancy footwork.
The Knockout was the eighteenth of thirty-six shorts Charlie would crank out for Keystone in ten months’ time, and the fourth of his six eventual collaborations with the immensely popular Arbuckle. Keystone founder, studio head, and frequent director Mack Sennett was celebrated as ‘The King of Comedy’ for giving actors such as Arbuckle, Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, and Gloria Swanson their first big breaks. However, he lamented the fact that so many of the folks who got famous under his watch soon after departed to bigger studios or embarked on independent film careers, either of which served to make them rich.
Chaplin was no exception, and he took his lovable Tramp character to rival Essanay Studios where the appropriately titled His New Job was the first commitment to satisfy a lucrative one-year contract.
Niles, California is a Bay Area district of Fremont which, back then, was a burgeoning film mecca on par with Hollywood. It was on location on Essanay’s home turf of Niles that Chaplin shot his own boxing movie and, with a quick turnaround time which was the standard operating procedure for that era, The Champion hit theaters on March 11, 1915.
Chaplin’s forlorn Tramp begins his accidental rags to riches journey in this 30-minute short with no possessions to his name except for his trademark ill-fitting black suit and comically oversized loafers, bowler hat, and cane. Hungry for adventure, he is also just plain hungry. Pulling a frankfurter out of a jacket pocket and a hot dog roll from inside his hat, he shares half the meager lunch we can only assume he pilfered from some distracted street vendor with his equally ravenous yet finicky pooch, a three-year-old champion English bulldog by the name of Quapaw Lord Orry.
The Tramp happens upon a sign reading SPARRING PARTNERS WANTED WHO CAN TAKE A PUNCH tacked up to the gate of a wooden partition running the length of the block between Niles Boulevard and G Street where Essanay’s humble lot then stood, doubling here for the training quarters of prizefighter Spike Dugan, played by Ernest Van Pelt. Pocketing a horseshoe he finds lying on the ground, Chaplin enters to try his luck but is promptly knocked off his feet by a sparring dummy set atop a rounded swiveling base. The interiors were filmed on a glass shooting stage set up within one of the studio’s larger bungalows.
Seated back outside along with three tough-looking palookas waiting to take their turn with Spike Dugan, Charlie counts ten as the punch-drunk hopeful beside him throws vigorous jabs and wild hooks at an imaginary rival. Chaplin emerges as the last man standing so, by default, the job of sparring partner is his. Holding an ice pack to his head, however, he is no longer certain he wants it. Suddenly, he remembers the horseshoe which he pulls from his pocket and stuffs into one of his mitts, going back for more with Dugan whom he slaps silly with the loaded glove.
Chaplin chases Dugan off his own property and through the streets of Niles, evades one cop and decks another before returning to the training grounds an unlikely conquering hero while Spike hops a departing steam train for a one-way trip anywhere that takes him far away from this menace.
Enter the film’s titular Champion, Bob Uppercut. A newspaper ad reveals that he will be defending his title against this unimposing new challenger with the funny little moustache who is in the process of training for his first fight, knocking himself about with a punching bag and barbell, as well as the weighted Indian clubs he is swinging willy-nilly. His lone means of rejuvenation comes from a jug of beer which he keeps always near at hand to take liberal swigs from between his hapless workout routines.
The film’s love interest is introduced right around the halfway point when Chaplin’s Tramp encounters the trainer’s daughter, played by Edna Purviance. The Champion was Edna’s second outing with Charlie Chaplin, having just made her acting debut in A Night Out less than four weeks prior.
“Mr. Chaplin asked me if I would like to act in pictures with him. I laughed at the idea, but agreed to try it,” recalled Purviance, who had been working as a stenographer to that point. “I guess he took me because I had nothing to unlearn and he could teach me in his own way. I want to tell you that I suffered untold agonies. Eyes seemed to be everywhere. I was simply frightened to death. But he had unlimited patience in directing me and teaching me.”
Their chemistry was not confined to the camera lens. Chaplin and Purviance had already become romantically involved in real life before The Champion had even begun production.
Needless to say, Edna’s father is less than thrilled by their open flirtation and gives The Tramp a swift kick in the seat of his baggy pants, only to have Chaplin drop the barbell he’s been playing around with on his toe. Literally hopping mad, the trainer attempts to get his fighter’s mind off his daughter by putting him through his paces. Delighted by The Tramp’s ability to complete one simple lap around the lawn, Edna can’t help herself from giving her newfound suitor a celebratory hug.
Seemingly no silent movie would be complete without a moustache-twirling villain, and former English music hall comedian turned prolific character actor Leo White fills the bill in The Champion as a corrupt gambler in top hat and tails who offers Chaplin $500 to throw the fight. This seems to be a gaping plot hole that Chaplin took a headlong pratfall into. Not only that, as the film’s writer (and director), he put it there in the first place. The gambler’s overture should have been made instead to Bob Uppercut, who you would assume to be the heavy betting favorite in the upcoming bout. But if you are watching a slapstick comedy expecting realism and logic, clearly you’ve come to the wrong place. Best just to go with it and enjoy the ride.
In his dressing room, Chaplin’s Tramp prepares for the big fight by chugging from his ever-present jug of beer and leaves reluctantly for the ring after first bidding goodbye to his bulldog by shaking his paw with one gloved hand. Essanay Studios’ co-founder Gilbert Anderson puts in a cameo appearance as the overenthusiastic fight fan in newsboy cap and sweater seated in the front row next to the film’s mustachioed scoundrel. This was not exactly Anderson’s first rodeo, as they say. In fact, he was quite famous at the time for having become Hollywood’s first star of cowboy pictures under the stage name Broncho Billy.
Naturally, the boxing match devolves into a free-for-all that even The Tramp’s pooch ultimately gets involved in, bolting from his ringside seat to wrestle Bob Uppercut to the canvas by the sash tied around his waist just as Chaplin lands the deciding blow to become the new champion.
“To the victor, the spoils,” reads the final intertitle card which gives way to the film’s amorous denouement. Chaplin locks lips with Edna, but coquettishly blocks the audience’s view of their kiss by lifting the jug of beer in front of their faces.
Their offscreen relationship carried on for three years, until Chaplin was forced into a shotgun wedding with seventeen-year-old actress Mildred Harris, who believed she was pregnant with his child, only to find out after the fact that was not the case. It has been widely speculated that if Chaplin had instead pursued a serious relationship with Edna, the two would have enjoyed a healthy, stable marriage which would have allowed Charlie to avoid the turbulent personal life that wound up being his cross to bear.
Regardless, Purviance continued to be his leading lady in the movies, if not in reality, and the two would appear together in more than thirty shorts and features. After retiring from Hollywood in 1926, Chaplin kept Edna on his payroll until the day she died, even going out of his way to procure non-speaking roles for her in two of his final films, Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952).
Presumably piggybacking on the recent success of The Champion, a Brooklyn native who billed himself as “Charlie Chaplin” embarked on a short-lived boxing career two months after the film’s release, squeezing in all seven bouts between May 10 and December 13, 1915. Four of the contests, all of which took place at Brooklyn’s Broadway SC, were newspaper decisions. “Chaplin” went 1-2 in his three official fights, winning and losing each by way of knockout.
John Bengtson. How Chaplin Filmed The Champion—On Location In Niles (November 7, 2016—accessed at https://silentlocations.com/2016/11/07/how-chaplin-filmed-the-champion-on-location-in-niles/)
Bill Gallo. Roles With the Punches (New York Daily News, July 5, 1987)
The Champion (Essanay Films, written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, 1915)
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