Friday, March 10, 2006

Movie Review: "The Pride of the Yankees"

The Critical Fan
by Matt Sandler


As a die-hard Mets fan, I am constitutionally obligated to hate the Yankees, and I take this duty seriously. However, there are three times in my life that I have rooted for the Bronx Bombers. The most recent two were very begrudgingly. In 2003, I attended the game at Yankee Stadium where Roger Clemens notched his 300th career win and 4000th career strikeout. As much as it pained me to cheer for Mariano to get the save in the ninth, I wanted to see history, and I got my wish. Then, last year, I was at a game where Derek Jeter was up with the bases loaded, trying to end his record of the most at-bats by an active player without a grand slam. I cheered half-heartedly again, and got my wish again. But the first time I ever cheered for the Yankees, it was for a fictional character...well, a semi-fictional character. It was the first time I saw Gary Cooper star as Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and I was able to root for him completely, without any Mets-induced guilt.

Upon another recent viewing, I was able to recapture some of what I had remembered about the movie, while overlooking some of its flaws. The movie is very old-fashioned. You can check some of the cliches off of a list that you would expect to find in sports movies. Lou as a boy breaking a window with his unexpected power the first time he hits a ball. Babe Ruth and Lou promising to hit home runs for Billy, a sick boy in the hospital (why a little boy in a hospital in St. Louis is rooting for the Yankees is never quite explained). The chummy sportswriter who seems to be there for every moment in Lou's life, be it professional or personal. Despite these predictable moments, the movie retains a power due to its simple, well-told story of a good and modest man who got a very "bad break."

Lou is born the son of immigrants in upper Manhattan; his father is a janitor, his mother a cook at Columbia. His mother insists that he earn an education and become an engineer like his uncle Otto. He is clearly a mama's boy, and consistently refers to his mother as his "best girl." The only reason he signs with the Yankees out of Columbia is to be able to pay his mother's doctor bills. This leads to a tortured scene where he tells his mother that he is going to Hartford (for a Yankees farm team) and she thinks he is going to engineering school at Harvard. Even after becoming established with the Yankees (thank you, Wally Pipp), he still lives at home with his parents. He is so shy around women that he needs always-around sportswriter Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) to serve as a matchmaker to hot-dog heiress Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright).

The best parts of the film are when it turns away from the slower domestic scenes and concentrates on baseball. We are introduced, if somewhat briefly, to some of the great names in baseball history: Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, and Babe Ruth, who plays himself, and in his first scene, is eating, of course. We witness some of the camaraderie of old-time baseball, when players played card games on trains and had "dames" in every opponent's city. Also evident is a strong note of patriotism, as Lou's mother says, "In this country, you can be anything you want to be." And there is heavy-handed foreshadowing when Lou is reluctant to come out of a game after being injured, and his manager says, "What do we have to do, kill you to get you out of the lineup?"

One of the baseball details is jarringly wrong. It occurs in the same World Series that we see Ruth and Gehrig visit Billy in the hospital. In front of a press contingent, Babe promises to hit a homer, and then the room clears, and Billy goads the modest Lou into promising to hit two homers. Then the action shifts to Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. Sam passes notes to a radio announcer to tell him about the home run promises. But here's the problem: the crowd, in St. Louis, is clearly rooting for Lou to hit the home runs! First of all, there is no evidence that the radio announcer is also serving as the public address announcer, which I know happens in some minor league stadiums. But even if he was, I have to believe that even in more civilized 1926, there is no way in hell that St. Louis fans would pull for Gehrig to hit these home runs. The rest of the baseball action in the movie is convincing enough, however.

Putting this quibble aside, the movie is still worth seeing. There are some nice old-fashioned scenes of Lou receiving a police escort to the game when he is running late in the middle of his streak; his wife compiling a scrapbook of his career highlights; and pages flying off the calendar as Huggins dies, Ruth retires, and Gehrig becomes the captain.

And then there is the great sadness of the final passages, as Lou starts to feel pain in his shoulder (presented in the movie, perhaps coincidentally, as occurring on the night of his 2000th consecutive game). He asks the doctor if his diagnosis is "3 strikes," and the doctor nods. Lou says, "All the arguing in the world can't change the decision of the umpire." He tries to withhold the bad news from his wife, but she can see right through his brave front. Then, in the most famous scene in the movie, he is honored with a day at Yankee Stadium. This scene feels oddly rushed at first, as we hear a radio announcer rapidly recount the speeches of various politicians and bigwigs in attendance. But director Sam Wood knows where the real crux of this scene is, in Gehrig's magnificent speech, which Cooper appropriately delivers with more heart than he has shown in the rest of the movie.

Baseball needs more players like Lou Gehrig, or at least the fictionalized version presented in this movie (although, by all accounts, he really was this modest and decent). Hardly anyone in baseball history has possessed the combination of talent and nobility that marked Lou Gehrig. In the movie, as he struggles through his final spring training when something is clearly wrong, a teammate says to him, "Maybe you're trying too hard." Lou replies: "You can't try too hard." Is all we are left with steroid-addled showboats and mercenaries who would probably rip into the press at their farewell speeches? Say it ain't true, Lou.

NOTE: I unknowingly rented the colorized version of this black-and-white classic. As a film buff, this is akin to blasphemy. If you rent it, make sure to rent the B&W DVD rather than the colorized VHS.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan," appears alternate Fridays

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