Grade: C+Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Director: Sam Wood

Stars: Gary Cooper, Babe Ruth, Teresa Wright, Walter Brennan

Release Company: RKO

MPAA Rating: NR

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Gary Cooper: Pride of the Yankees


Lou Gehrig - The Luckiest Man on the Face of This Earth
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Pride of the Yankees presents pure 1940s Americana and family values on the screen. As a mainstream 1942 film, what else would you expect? The biggest disappointment I had re-visiting this classic baseball movie on DVD was finding that Ted Turner and like thinking people had colorized the glorious black and white film to appeal to younger audiences. Still it's got its pleasures for baseball fans, especially since Babe Ruth appears as himself in a dramatic role.

The Bambino actually has significant charisma and takes over the screen whenever he's on, just like he did in real life. If nothing else it's worth watching to see Babe’s first entrance, arriving late in the locker room as the center of attention with a legendary hot dog in his mouth. Ruth was notorious for his huge appetite (often consisting of numerous hot dogs) and for his party lifestyle.

But the film is actually about another Yankee legend—one who will forever be linked with the Babe, and that is Lou Gehrig. Baseball fans realize that the low keyed Iron Man will become one of baseball's immortals, who will go on to set an endurance record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games that would last for over 50 years until Carl Ripken, Jr. accomplished the unbelievable feat of topping it. Gehrig also established himself as one great hitter for average and power, and was an important part of the "Murderer's Row" on some of the great Yankee teams of the 1920s and 1930s. Or many will know Gehrig from the terminal illness that is forever linked to his name--Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The biopic will cover all these basics and add a lot of homemade American pie to the mix to make everyone feel good about the purity of baseball. After all, these are the days when ballplayers competed for the love of the game and salaries hadn't escalated to astronomic proportions. According to the film, Gehrig never even got a contract for as much as $50,000 and lives a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

A true American success story, the film begins with a young Gehrig getting a chance to substitute in a neighborhood sandlot game (foreshadowing his later famous substitution for Wally Pipp) and promptly wallops the baseball through a store window. His German-American parents are a hard-working cook and janitor for nearby Columbia University and pay the $16 it costs to fix the window. Mrs. Gehrig (Elsa Janssen) believes that Lou can only succeed by following the engineering footsteps of his uncle Otto, so she discourages Lou from his baseball dreams.

But talent and love for baseball prevail. Another scene has the University of Columbia star break another window and get the attention of sportswriter Sam Blake (Walter Brennan), who inexplicably follows Lou around throughout his career, including his elopement and hospital exam at the end of his baseball career.

The film gains a real coup by casting Gary Cooper as the Yankee legend to help establish the Gehrig as American hero motif. Cooper’s everyman look and modesty serves especially well when he first is called up to the Yankees and wanders into the clubhouse reverently gazing at the lockers of Yankee legends Babe Ruth, Bob Muesel, Mark Koenig, and Tony Lazerri. The same goes when the shy Gehrig freezes and neglects to toss the ball back to Ruth for his pre-game routine.

Although Cooper credibly captures the essence of Gehrig, filmmakers did face casting challenges because Cooper had very little athletic ability and was right-handed. The solution: show very few actual baseball playing scenes, use long shots of Gehrig to allow a stunt double, reverse the film to make him appear left-handed, and to use lots of film dissolves of baseball team pennants to signify game days and passage of time. Don't expect a lot of game action in Pride of the Yankees--it's a sanitized American hero story. Screenwriters wouldn't dare try such a storyline with Babe Ruth since he was a well-known rowdy, but Lou Gehrig still remains a credible low key figure that even Yankee haters cannot dislike (I know this from personal experience).

The biggest challenge that the screenwriters had in turning the Lou Gehrig story into a marketable piece lies with Lou’s blandness. A remarkable player, Gehrig was such a workhorse who just does his job on the field and goes home every day to either his mother or later to his wife doesn’t create the kind of compelling conflict that an intriguing sports story requires. So they manufacture an opening conflict with his mother about going to Columbia and becoming an engineer, and then put in a really lame conflict with some fraternity boys who all look at least 10 years too old to be in college. The one marketing hook they seized upon was the recent publicity about Lou Gehrig’s disease and his death the previous year.

So what to do about creating conflict within the Yankees? How about an implied one with Ruth? One of the devices that the film uses for "conflict" is to contrast the differences between the two famous Yankee sluggers. While Ruth adores the spotlight, Gehrig is far more reticent, confiding only with immediate family on occasion and with his private press supporter Blake.

One of the biggest heart-tugs of the film takes place in a St. Louis hospital before the World Series with the Cardinals. Surrounded by flashing lights and journalists, Ruth autographs a baseball and promises a crippled child named Billy that he'll hit a home run to center field that day for him. After the entourage has left the room, Gehrig approaches the boy and reluctantly promised to hit two homeruns for the kid as long as he promises that he'll walk one day.

Of course, we get the Hollywood version of this with Gehrig slamming the last pitch he'll see that day out of the park (even though the Cardinals are attempting to intentionally walk him). A nice story, but it never happened.

You can look it up (paraphrasing Casey Stengle) and find the following facts about that 1926 World Series:

  1. The first two games of the series take place in New York while games three, four, and five are hosted by St. Louis.

  2. Gehrig was not a rookie that year as indicated by the film. He actually began getting some playing time in 1923 and took over from Wally Pipp full time in 1925.

  3. An item ignored in the film is the fact that St. Louis won that World Series--the series that established the alcoholic Grover Cleveland Alexander as the hero, coming back after a complete 6th game victory (and a probable nightlong drinking binge) to pitch the final three innings of game 7 to nail down the Cardinals victory.

  4. The home run contest that the film portrays is impossible. The Yankees hit four homeruns in the series, and none were by Gehrig. Babe Ruth hit all four, with a record three homeruns in game 4 in St. Louis.

Of course non-baseball geeks are saying to give this film a break, but just realize that whenever Hollywood does a baseball movie the fanatical baseball fans will question the accuracy, and can find the statistics and anecdotes to either prove or disprove the story. In this case, an unbelievable story loses its smidgen of credibility by not putting the legend into the realm of possibility. Instead of choosing the 1926 World Series in St. Louis, the filmmakers could have chosen the June 3, 1932 game against the Philadelphia Athletics when Ruth hit one homer while Gehrig knocked out a record four homers. That would make it a whole lot more difficult to dispute the "Billy" story.

Another problem is the inclusion of a long dating sequence with Gehrig and his fiancée. I can almost accept the idea of the original love song "Always" being included if it had been edited much more tightly to avoid non-essential viewing of the singer so. But including a whole dancing sequence that contains absolutely nothing to advance the plot is ludicrous, or perhaps a sign of the times. Was it required in all 1940s films to include a superfluous dancing scene to acknowledge the old musicals?

As hokey and old fashioned as The Pride of the Yankees is, I still get misty eyed for the incredible ending. I even know it's coming. Cooper does a terrific job personifying the beginning stages of ALS and you can feel his pain—physical and emotional when he keels over inexplicably in the Yankee locker room. And of course the final scene duplicating Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium should have the waterworks going on anyone who's ever had a sense of humanity about them.

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet, today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
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