Hard to believe it's as old as 1931, in a lot of ways. As far as production, it's about what you'd see, today, except it's in black and white. And it could be a movie, today - save that it would highlight the bums that get thrown up against title holders - unlike Stallone's Rocky, who was in pretty good fighting shape and had a few moves. Beery seems out of his element as a fighter - looking at best like a beery (no pun intended) brawler, though his character plays the ex-heavyweight champ. But then, the athleticism of the era wasn't what it is today. On the other hand, there were some great fighters in the 20s and 30s, and Beery's shape and skill is out of their class, entirely. Anyhow - small gripe, perhaps. One might excuse Beery, in the championship fight, just as the bum thrown in to boost the Mexican champ's rating - as is done, today. I don't see it necessarily played up that way in the film. But I might have missed something.
Some things also bring home the era of this film. For ex., the effort, it seems, to mimic the newsreel footage from the theaters of the day, by slowing down the film rate, thus artificially speeding up the action. We see this sort of 'newsreel' effect at both the horse race and the concluding championship fight. There's also an interesting 2 or 3 second montage during the fight which strikes me as 60s style film-making, or later. But it's just 2 or 3 seconds. Generally - it's a good looking film. It plays well, even today.
The subplot with the black boy, who hangs about with the young Purcell, and the other kids - an inspiration (perhaps?) for the 'our gang' crew that followed first in theatrical shorts a few years later? - is clearly intended to encourage racial tolerance, and repel a bigotry which was openly and boldly part of the fabric of world culture in the 1930s and before. The little black boy doesn't roll his eyes, or do goofy things, or talk in a slow drawl, or any of the rest. He just acts normally. When 'Dinkus' Purcell (the Jackie Cooper character) unknowingly runs into his divorced Mom, whom his Dad never much mentioned and never identified for the kid, she asks - who's your friend? 'Dink' replies, and then comments - "He's colored." And Mom/strange lady replies - "And what a pretty color." Again, just clearly something important to the story, and very out of touch, and actively opposed to the ethic of the time.
As for the rest of the story, it's basically a child custody story, about the love and affection of the child in question, with the death of one of the disputants the resolution and which enables the emotional concluding scene where 'Dink', who had kept an arm's length from Mom (once she told him who she was) in favor of his Dad (whom he knew and loved), breaks down at the sudden loss of his father, lying dead on the training table, and for the first time tearfully cries out, "Mother," and then rushes to her. She carries him out through a gauntlet of reporters and onlookers - bringing down the curtain. The End.
There's not much to quarrel with in the story. It is a coincidence that the ex and her new husband run into The Champ, Andy, at the south of the border race track. But coincidence can happen, and does. It is somewhat difficult to believe that an out of shape, fairly weak, and uncoordinated brawler, as Beery is in the ring, could land the lucky punch against a fighter in trim shape, enough to take him out for the full count. But, that's the story, that's Hollywood, that's Rocky, and - what the hey.
It might have been interesting to see brother and sister interact a little more. Cooper's oddly adult inflections and mannerisms seem to play well against the spoiled but good natured little girl - just happy to have a 'new' brother. It might have been interesting to see the game in which Andy wins so much, and the horse he eventually fights to get back. Might have been interesting to see Andy and Dink out and about, a little more, rather than just 'in training' or in the flat. And so on, so forth.
It's clear why Beery got the nod for the award. He seems to have had a sort of Long John Silver, sort of patronizing, slow-talking 'rap'. in various films. Here, save for a few instances, he plays it pretty low key. He seems just like a regular guy in the Mexican prison, thinking over his part in the custody dispute, and thinking he's just not the father for Dink. And when Dink comes to the cell, and Andy tells him to 'shove off', basically, it's believable, with just the right tone, delay, cliched delivery, and choked back tears. When he takes the money from Linda's rich hubby, he comments on being down on his luck, and almost lapses into Long John - but just not quite. And surely he spoke for a fair number in the audience in the early first years of The Great Depression.
It's a good film. The emotional manipulation is right up on the surface, and may be a bit too trite and obvious; particularly as the extraneous 'background' scenes I might like to see, as suggested above, just weren't there. The film was 'tight' and 'stayed on message' in that way. And it feels right, almost. It has its flaws, but remains a good film.