Strother Martin Wednesday #7 The Champ

Strother had four features and a TV movie released in 1979, this was near the end of his career and unfortunately his life. 1980 held only two minor features and his appearance on Saturday Night Live. “The Champ” was a pretty successful film financially, but Strother is a very minor part of the story.

His name was enough to earn him a co-starring title card, but the role barely registers as part of the events depicted in the story. His character is Riley, a horse trainer at the track where Billy Flynn (Jon Voight) and his son T.J. (Ricky Schroder), live and work. His most engaging scene is right at the start of the film where we learn that Voigt was a former boxing champion, while he and Strother walk through the training yard.

They reminisce about Billy Flynn’s career for about thirty seconds. So he does not have much screen time but you can see the charisma on the screen as he steals the scene from the star, before almost disappearing from the film.

The film is a remake of the 1931 classic that won Wallace Berry the Academy Award for Best Actor. The character here has been out of boxing for seven years, and coincidentally, his son is eight and his wife has supposedly been dead the whole time. In the course of the melodrama, we learn about the Mom and sad career that Flynn left for booze and gambling. When you watch the story play out, it is a wonder that anyone has any sympathy for the negligent Billy, who forces his child to play nursemaid to a drunck who won’t keep his promises.

We maybe start to have a change of heart when after a drunk, and a lucky run at the craps table, Billy buys T.J. his own horse, that they plan on racing at the Miami track. Jay has no lines here, he just gets upstaged by the horse as he brings it out as a surprise for T.J.

Although there are several more scenes set at the racetrack, we don’t encounter Riley again in those environments. I suspect there were scenes that were cut for time and my guess is that Strother would have been in a couple of those.

Faye Dunaway shows up in the film and she turns out to have a “surprise” relationship to the father and son team [Do you think you can guess?] There are then a whole series of events that go back and forth between Voight and Dunaway, with Ricky Schroder as the ping pong ball. When Billy risks the horse that belongs to T.J. on a gambling debt, you will really wonder why we are supposed to root for the character.

Ultimately, Voight decides that to provide for his kid better than he has done, he is going to make a boxing comeback. Elisha Cook Jr. and Jack Warden play characters in this part of the story, and I was prepared for Strother to be excluded from the film at that point, but low and behold, in the climactic boxing match, Strother shows up and he is there for the close of the film as well.

Jay shows up in the audience at the boxing match, and once again shows how good reactions are good acting. He has no lines, and just a few inserts but his facial expressions tell you how the match is going at any given point.

SPOILER AHEAD

If you are unfamiliar with the story and want to see the movie without having the end given away. Stop reading here;

Strother Martin Wednesday #3 McLintock!

What a cast of old timers and Hollywood Royalty, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as if their characters in “The Quiet Man” were transported to the old west and were still battling over manners and customs. “McLintock!” is a comedy western that focuses on the troubled relationship between Wayne’s George Washington McLintock and his estranged wife, Katherine. Basically everyone in town gets involved and that includes Strother Martin as the Indian Agent of the government, Agard.

Gordon Jones and Strother Martin

When it comes to Western stories, Jay famously described most of the characters he played as “prairie scum”. There are a number of Western characters however that were not degenerates but rather, self important bureaucratic types, and the Indian Agent Agard is one of them. Dragged into a continuing feud between a local rancher with government connections, Matt Douglas played by Gordon Jones, and G.W. McLintock himself, Agard is an ineffectual, over his head, lightweight who is used for comedic effect in almost every scene he appears in. Strother adds to his character the glasses that become the butt of several jokes, along with his usual tone of voice that strains to exert power when he can’t.

One of the very first of those comedic moments occurs when he attempts to mount a horse and accompany the townsfolk out to where a group of newly arrived settlers are planning on stringing up a local Indian, based on the suspicion the Indians have kidnapped a young woman from their group.

Of course it does not go well for the officious Agard, who ends up on the ground, glasses askew and looking ridiculous as a public official. At least he managed to keep his hat on.

The big comic set piece of the movie is the all out fistfight that takes place as McLintock tries to calm down the settlers and stop a lynching of an innocent Indian who is also a friend of his.

Of course Jay is right in the middle of it, trying to maintain his dignity and even attempting to hold back Kate from getting involved on her husbands side.

Strother and Maureen O’Hara, waiting to join the fray.

Strother’s character is singled out repeatedly in the film for special acts of degradation, so of course he does not join the fight willingly, and in fact, escapes any fisticuffs but does end up in the mudhole that all the characters visit in the scene.

Agard is going to end up down there with everyone else, but he gets deposited there in a way that is unique. He is lifted up and deposited into a mine car that is on a track leading directly to the hole. Agard is no Indiana Jones however, and he does not possess the ability to get the cart to do what he wants, it simply heads to the edge to make sure his moment of comedic glory is special.

You can pretty much be assured that if someone is going to be humiliated on a regular basis in the film, it is Strother’s character. There are a couple of incidents that come up at a party when Jay gets doused with his own beer or knocked down into a shed when he gets between two young men fighting. His character is the very definition of comic relief being punctuated with an exclamation point.

About the only scene he appears in where he is not the butt of a physical gag is at a hearing of government officials, who have gathered to determine the residential status of the local Indian tribe. Although he is not physically abused in this scene, he is still something of a comic figure, reduced to being in the background during this moment of bureaucratic stupidity.

If ever there were a “type” in movies of feckless official power, it can be pointed out in a western by looking at the costuming and the casting of the part. The bowler hat and the checked suit call out Strother Martin as an outsider to the real cowboys of the film, and make him almost an Eastern dude, lost among the real men of the west.

In a cast that includes Edgar Buchanan, Chill Wills, Jerry Van Dyke, Bruce Cabot and Perry Lopez, once again Strother Martin stands out and all eyes and ears will be on him when it is time for us to laugh.