We are the Champions

Marge and Gower Champion

If you were born after 1960, or are English, you may not be familiar with Mr and Mrs Champion, but in their day, they were very popular figures on the American musical stage and in films. I first came across them when I was a student and got hold of a special entertainments edition of Life magazine, in which they featured. They seemed a pleasant and talented couple, but I'd never seen them in action, so didn’t take much notice at the time. But the name stayed with me.

Having recently become a convert to Amazon uk, I’ve been buying quite a lot of cheap DVDs to replace my old videos, and in the process came across Show Boat. I’m not the greatest fan of these rather epic old musicals, but I do like them and the more I see of them, the more I admire them. One thing that might not be immediately apparent is that they aren’t afraid to deal with quite heavy Issues. Carousel contains domestic violence, Showboat is about colour prejudice and the perils of gambling. Race appears again in South Pacific, and even in The King and I.

But in among all the seriousnesses, there are many invigorating song and dance numbers – the barn raisin’ in Seven Brides, the farmers versus the cowmen in Oklahoma, and so on - and in Show Boat, three terrific turns by Marge and Gower Champion, which I think show them at their best.

As soon as I saw their first number, I was staggered. These guys were good, right up there with Fred and Ginger, and even, in my view, better. Rogers and Astaire were expert hoofers, obviously, but never athletic, and I don’t think Astaire ever did any great lifts (I’m open to correction on this).

I have always regarded the skater Christopher Dean as what is known in ballet circles as a danseur noble – a beautiful mover, always exactly where he was supposed to be, perfectly complementing the movements of his partner, and yet much more than just a prop. Gower Champion is another. You usually tend to look at the female of these duos - she has the pretty frocks and is more to the fore - but when you start to notice the man, you realise how much skill and artistry is going on behind her back.

Watch these two. Every move has been refined to the nth degree, and the result is perfection. The Champions were the Torvill and Dean of their day, and aptly named. Actually, their routines were very much like those of modern skaters when you come to look at them (and skaters could do worse than copy them). Not a move is out of place, they could work in very long takes, they could tap, they could sing and they were capable of some spectacular lifts and catches. It's a shame that they only made about seven films in all.

Marge and Gower were married in 1947, but divorced in 1973. Gower married again in 1976 and became a film director, but his career took a downturn for a few years until a sudden spectacular success with 42nd Street in 1980. He contracted leukemia, and, in fine theatrical tradition, died six hours before the first curtain-up of the show at the age of 61.

Marge also married again, became a choreographer and teacher, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At the time of writing, she is 89, and living in New York.

Selected Marge & Gower Champion videos
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes 1952
I Won't Dance 1952
Lovely To Look At
Someone To Watch Over Me
Show Boat (unfortunately minus original soundtrack)
Marge Champion - Archive Interview - 10-part Archive of American Television on YouTube.

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