Note from TheMirl.com: This is the newest installment of a regular series by Joel Blumberg reviewing sports movies from all eras.
This will not be an automatic year for the New York Yankees. They are an old team with plenty of names but an equal amount of underachieving players. And while it is tough to discount their chances of winning the whole ball of baseball wax, until the final nail is in their coffin, you have to give them a chance.
Still this team is as far away from the Murder’s Row club of the Twenties and Thirties as the game of baseball is.
And thus we come to a biography about a member of that team, one of the most famous, Lou Gehrig, “The Pride of the Yankees”.
This 1942 biography of baseball’s Iron Man had success written all over it from the beginning. It was produced by Samuel Goldwyn, who along with David O. Selznick were the greatest independent producers of Hollywood’s Golden Era.
In the cast was Gary Cooper, coming off an Academy Award winning performance as “Sergeant York”, as Gehrig, and Theresa Wright, coming off an Academy Award nominated performance in “The Little Foxes”. Both Miss Wright and Mr. Cooper would be Oscar nominated for this film (and to confuse you even further, Miss Wright won, but not for this film - she won for Mrs. Miniver). In fact, the movie garnered 11 Oscar nominations. The rest of the cast included another Oscar winner, Walter Brennan, Dan Duryea and Babe Ruth playing himself (he was quite good in the typecast role).
With all of these things going for the film, quite frankly it is not very good. This movie has every baseball cliché in the book from the overdramatic screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Jo Swerling. From the immigrant parents who want Lou to be a doctor like his uncle Otto, to the hazing Gehrig took as a “Busboy” at Columbia University, to his first meeting with the woman who would be come his wife when he tripped over a pile of bats left on the field (the bat rack was not yet invented).
The focus of this movie is not as much on the baseball career of Gehrig, but dramatic elements like his romance, the eternal conflict between his wife and mother, and whether the Babe was better or more popular than Gehrig.
Perhaps the most saccharine part of the film comes when the Babe visiting a crippled kid in a hospital promises to hit a homer for the kid, and Lou on the same visit is forced into promising to hit two homers for the same kid (and you know at that point that Lou will wait until his last at bat before he does just that).
What makes this film is Gehrig’s famous speech. It is brilliantly performed by Cooper, and in delivering the speech, makes a viewer believe that this really IS Gehrig and not Cooper.
And while Gehrig’s words have become as famous as his baseball accomplishments they were equally a part of Cooper who recited the speech many times, including one in a radio broadcast in 1961. It was his last public appearance; he was dead of cancer a few months later.
But the sad truth is that any baseball film that features the dance team of Veloz and Yolanda, with the Ray Noble Orchestra, is nothing more than a lazy fly to short right field that even an overweight and overage Babe Ruth could have caught.
And one historical fact, while Gehrig was a left hand batter, Cooper was a righty. And while Lefty O’Doul gave Cooper batting lessons, he could not teach him how to hit left handed. So director Sam Wood had Cooper hit right handed and run the bases from third to first, and simply reversed the negative in the editing stages of the film.
For more on Lou Gehrig the man, please click here for Pat Calabria's column of May 18