Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Champion has been issued for the first time on compact disc. This is the fifth in a series of Tiomkin scores produced by Ray Faiola of Chelsea Rialto Studios and Craig Spaulding, and released by Screen Archives Entertainment (click here to order) in association with Volta Music Corp.
Champion made a star out of newcomer Kirk Douglas, who signed up for the leading role of an unsympathetic boxer against the advice of his handlers. Prior to filming, Douglas had never boxed, although he was an accomplished wrestler in college. For Champion, Douglas trained with Mushy Callahan. Born Vincent Morris Scheer, Callahan found some fame in the 1920s and early 1930s as a welterweight boxer. After retiring from the ring, Callahan found occasional work in Hollywood for four decades: onscreen as a boxing referee and behind-the-scenes as a technical consultant and boxing coach and trainer.
The 1949 film, labeled a classic by the New York Times in 1994, is considered by some to be one of the best boxing movies ever made. John Hassan, writing in American Movie Classics Magazine in the late 1990s, explains how Champion set itself apart from other boxing films of its era by its authentic portrayal of the sport’s brutality and unscrupulousness. The film’s realism was helped along by screenwriter Carl Forman who adapted a short story of the same name by sportswriter Ring Lardner that was originally published in Metropolitan magazine in 1916. The creative team responsible for the film overcame the independent production’s low budget to receive six Academy Award nominations. Tiomkin’s music was so honored, along with actors Kirk Douglas and Arthur Kennedy, cinematographer Frank Planer, film editor Harry Gerstad, and Carl Foreman. Gerstad took home an Oscar, as he would three years later for High Noon, a film that recruited many of the same production personnel.
For Champion, pre-production rehearsal and preparation resulted in a reduced shooting schedule that saved an estimated $150,000 in production costs, according to producer Stanley Kramer. The film was shot in 24 days for $595,000. Since the independent film’s financial backing was uncertain, Douglas agreed to defer his salary until the picture made money. Tiomkin’s situation was similar. In his case, because the Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman production company could not pay the composer much in advance, Tiomkin accepted a percentage of the film’s earnings. Speaking of Champion in his autobiography, the composer recalled that the rousing success of the prize-fight melodrama was unexpected and his “percentage” was good. Indeed, the film went on to gross $18 million.
One of Tiomkin’s themes from the film became the basis for the song, “Never Be It Said,” with lyrics by Aaron “Goldie” Goldmark. Goldmark, best known as a New York-based music publisher and occasional songwriter, provided a simple lyric for the love song. The love theme, heard instrumentally during the film’s romantic interludes, makes its first appearance on CD track 10; track 26 contains a piano solo arrangement and a particularly poignant version opens and closes track 30. The vocal version can only be heard briefly in the film and on the CD (track 11, from 1:17 to 1:40). The singer is Polly Bergen, who was on the verge of a lengthy and notable career as an actress. At the time of Champion, she was a budding singer of honky tonk and novelty tunes known for her appearances with Los Angeles-area dance orchestras. “Never Be It Said,” in print for the first time in 60 years, can be found in the Dimitri Tiomkin Anthology. An unpublished song, “March of the Champions,” featured lyrics by Joseph McCarthy Jr. set to the march heard in the main title. (“Junior” or Joseph Allan McCarthy, son of “Irene” songwriter Joseph McCarthy, had recently penned the words to “Rambling Rose.”) For Tiomkin, both collaborations were one-time affairs, and the lyrics for the two songs are not heard in the film save for the few words sung by Bergen previously mentioned. As an instrumental theme, “The Champion” found some success on a Coral Records LP, “Movie Themes from Hollywood” with Dimitri Tiomkin and his orchestra released in 1955.
The limited-edition soundtrack contains thirty-seven tracks. With more than forty-two minutes of music this represents all but about four minutes of the film’s underscore. In the liner notes, the soundtrack producers explain that a handful of unessential cues were not found among the acetates in the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the Cinematic Arts Library at USC used as source material for the CD. The lovely tune Tiomkin wrote as source music and heard coming from boxer Johnny Dunne’s car radio is on the CD as track 5, “Riding in Style.” Two jukebox tunes, heard on tracks 8 and 9, interpolate source and underscore, a favorite dramatic device exploited by the composer. For track 12, “Shotgun Wedding,” Tiomkin begins with an adaptation of Wagner’s wedding march that soon dissolves into dramatic underscore. (See “Wedding Music by Dimitri Tiomkin” for bridal music in other films.) The score was orchestrated by Joseph Dubin, Manuel Emanuel, Paul Marquardt, and Herb Taylor. Critics described Tiomkin’s music as first class and noteworthy.
Film music enthusiast Faiola wrote production and music notes for the 28-page color booklet. The CD can be ordered directly at Screen Archives Entertainment where seven sample tracks can be heard. In addition to the five CDs that make up the Volta series, Screen Archives offers more than a dozen other Tiomkin soundtracks and compilations.
- Thanks to Patrick Russ for helping to identify singer Polly Bergen.
- The Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the Cinematic Arts Library, University of Southern California
- The American Film Institute catalog
- “Keeping Costs Down,” New York Times, January 16, 1949
- “Champion,” Look, April 26, 1949
- “Douglas ‘Champion’ in Sock Saga of Heel,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1949
- “Music—As Written” (see, “Hollywood: On the Soundtrack”), Billboard, February 4, 1950
- “The Role I Liked Best…,” by Kirk Douglas, Saturday Evening Post, February 18, 1950
- “Blues Lead Redhead Into Picture Career,” Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1950
- “Gloves Off: Champion, the True Boxing Movie,” by John Hassan, American Movie Classics Magazine, January 1998