Today is the 45th anniversary of the main theatrical release of The Legendary Champions, a documentary by Harry Chapin. Yes, the singer-songwriter. Before he became famous for “Cat’s in the Cradle” and other classic 70s folk tracks, he wanted to be a documentarian. And his first and only feature was even nominated for the Academy Award in 1969. The doc, which compiles old films of major boxing bouts to chronicle the sport’s heavyweight champs between 1882 and 1929, lost the Oscar to two films — first to Young Americans, which was later deemed ineligible for its win; then to runner-up Journey Into Self. And it’s barely remembered today, though it has apparently been shown on ESPN Classic in recent years.
Why its legacy is nearly nonexistent has little to do with it coming in third, fourth or fifth place. The two winners don’t seem to be any more available. Same goes for the other two losers, A Few Notes on Our Food Problem and Other Voices. It’s a common issue for those of us who are curious about docs at the Oscars. Very few films nominated in the category throughout its 70 years of existence are easily seen. And it’s not necessarily easier for more recent contenders. Only a decade ago saw the nomination of a Spanish doc called Balseros. You can find it new on Amazon for $100 or watch it without subtitles on YouTube, but that’s as good as it gets.
Documentaries in general are rarely given classic status by the mainstream, and interestingly enough the films that are deemed such are not often among those hundreds of titles recognized by the Academy. Others, like On the Bowery, In the Year of the Pig, The War Room and Streetwise were nominees but not winners. The lack of historical credit all around means the non-recipients especially wind up being unsung, unknown and unattainable by anyone but hardcore scholars — if even they.
It’s hard to answer the question of which nominees deserve more lasting recognition, because chances are you aren’t familiar with the majority of them (see the list on Wikipedia). One day, I’ll make the effort to track down each and every one. Or maybe I’ll start a distribution brand to bring restored versions of these films to at least a proper online release. In my dreams, of course. For now, though, I have to say Streetwise is one I’m constantly surprised to find unreleased on DVD let alone a Criterion Blu-ray. You can catch it on YouTube, but that’s about it.
Speaking of YouTube, here’s a copy of The Legendary Champions to watch and consider on its birthday: