Monday, April 26, 2010

Pride of the Yankees (1942)

We have a triple-play of baseball-related themes on my blogs this week, from amateur play in the 18th and 19th centuries on my New England Travels blog, to one of theatre’s biggest baseball fans, Ethel Barrymore, on Tragedy and Comedy in New England. Today, we begin with the king of baseball movies.

“Pride of the Yankees” (1942) is lauded for its inspiring tone about one of baseball’s greatest legends, Lou Gehrig. Ironically, there is actually very little baseball action in the movie; most of it is comprised of vignettes aimed at illustrating the self-effacing personality of the quiet man.

Since humility, according to this film, was as great a virtue as his athleticism, one wonders if that seemed as difficult a thing to capture to the makers of this movie as it would be today. Today it might be even more difficult, as quite often when a reporter interviews an athlete right after the event, the first words out of the athlete’s mouth are usually something like, “Well, I’m really proud of myself.”

This was especially apparent, to a nauseating degree, during the last Olympic Winter Games, when I lost count over how many athletes were proud of themselves. To be sure, competition is as much mental as it is physical, and modern athletes are trained to be goal-oriented and focused on objectives. Still, if expressions of humility do not make a better athlete, they do make a better human being. Perhaps we have taught the importance of self esteem sometimes at the risk of encouraging overbearing conceit.

But, here we have a movie whose sole purpose is to laud humility and to show it as a courageous act.

By now, probably most people who’ve ever read anything about “Pride of the Yankees” know that its star, Gary Cooper, was not an athlete and knew very little about baseball. Moreover, he was not able to even fake batting left-handed to imitate Lou Gehrig. A distinction can be made between what is sometimes pointed out as the phoniness of old movies, and what is movie technical trickery. The former we may roll our eyes at; the latter earns our admiration.

Movie trickery in this instance is how they managed to get Gary Cooper to bat like Gehrig. They sewed the number 4, Gehrig’s Yankee’s number, backwards on the back of Cooper’s baseball uniform. When he swung right-handed and “hit” the ball, Cooper ran down the third base line, rather than the first base line. Then the mad geniuses in the production department just reversed the image for the final print of the film so it looks like he’s batting left and running down to first base.

The phoniness comes in the typical movie bio vignettes, including events which did not happen, and ignoring some stuff that did. We start with the pushcarts and ice wagons that take us back to Gehrig’s turn-of-the-century childhood in the poor New York neighborhood. He plays sandlot ball and breaks a window. His parents are hard-working immigrants. Papa, a mild man who assiduously avoids irritating his strong-willed wife, is played by Ludwig Stössel, who we saw in “Casablanca” (in this previous blog post) as the émigré who asked his wife “What watch?”

Mama, loving but bossy, is played by Elsa Janssen. Lou will adopt his father’s gentle demeanor and spend a lot of the time placating Mama. We see Lou in the old neighborhood as a boy, we see him off to college working as a waiter in the college cafeteria where Mama is a cook. We see him want to play baseball more than anything else. Mostly, we see what a humble man he is, even though he stands head and shoulders above any other of his fast-talking pals like a Greek god in his looks, his demeanor, and his athletic abilities.

Walter Brennan plays a sports writer who discovers Gehrig and becomes his one-man publicity team, a man so impressed that he predicts great things for Gehrig. As time passes, Brennan becomes deeply devoted to Gehrig because of his integrity and his humility, even more than his athletic skill. The character Brennan plays is fictional, but could stand as a composite for many whose lives crossed Gehrig’s and felt the same protective devotion of a parent, a sibling, a fan and hero-worshipper all rolled into one.

It must have been difficult to cobble together a script about Gehrig’s life since he was simply a quiet man who played baseball well and never missed a game. Samuel Goldwyn, producer of the film, was reportedly not interested in doing a baseball movie because there seemed nothing exciting about it.

What sold Goldwyn was newsreel footage of the famous “luckiest man” speech Gehrig made at the end of his life when the New York Yankees paid a public tribute to him at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when everyone knew that he was dying.

The speech moved Goldwyn, and was enough for him to give the green light to a movie featuring two of Goldwyn’s brightest stars about a man who did nothing more than do his job well and was humble about it.

Teresa Wright, who plays his wife, was probably the best match for Gary Cooper in this film, as her own open-hearted warmth and natural quality to her acting complimented Cooper’s understated style perfectly. They were both able to convey great sensitivity with their faces and movements, and Cooper perhaps saw this himself enough to request her specifically to team up with him later in “Casanova Brown” (see prior post on that movie here).

We see a courtship interrupted by montages of baseball games accompanied by many refrains of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, and a lot of team hijinks on trains. There is an interlude at a nightclub where we get a performance by Veloz and Yolanda, a novelty dance team who are really very good and fascinatingly acrobatic, but otherwise have nothing to do with the plot, with Ray Noble and His Orchestra in the background

Brennan touts Cooper’s virtues against his rival in the press box played by habitual movie wise guy, Dan Duryea, who backs Babe Ruth.

There is the scene, much parodied in the decades since, about “Billy” in the hospital to whom Ruth promises a homer in the World Series Game that afternoon. When the crowd of reporters leaves, Gehrig hangs around and exchanges a few words with Billy that are more heartfelt and less bombastic, and promises him two homers if he will try to walk again. Ruth seems compared unfavorably to Gehrig in this film as someone less sincere and more full of himself, and one wonders if that was okay with the Babe, who plays himself in this film. He’s not portrayed as a villain, just not as nice. The two had a rift and did not speak for some years, which is not brought up in this film.

Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, and Bob Meusel, other teammates, also play themselves, as does radio sportscaster Bill Stern.

Trophies accumulate, and Teresa Wright pastes a few more clippings in the scrapbook to show the passing parade of years. We see the first sign of Gehrig’s mysterious illness when they playfully wrestle on the floor, and he has muscle pain. Soon it is harder for him to grip things as he loses strength in his hands. The doctor holds up x-rays and intimates to Gary Cooper that it’s the end of the road for him, but we never hear a diagnosis or an explanation of the disease. This is probably only partly due to that vague manner that old movies addressed illnesses, and mainly because the disease was as mysterious to the medical profession as the public.

The disease, we know now, was Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects nerve cells in the brain and in the spinal cord that control the muscles. The nerve cells, or motor neurons, die, and the victim loses the ability to control muscle movement. The disease is progressively degenerative, and is fatal.

At some point after his death, the disease came to be commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

There are momentary scenes that speak volumes of the equal anxiety and fear of both Teresa Wright and Gary Cooper, but the illness is not played for melodrama or even addressed much in this film. It is simply what brings closure to the film even as it brings Gehrig’s life to a close.

The final sequence showing the tribute at Yankee Stadium in 1939 builds the emotion to a climax, yet is handled in sensitive and imaginative ways, when I suppose it could have been merely exploitive. First, upon entering the ballpark, Miss Wright and Mr. Cooper run into young David Holt, who plays the now 17-year-old “Billy”, who took Gehrig’s two-homer promise to get well, and did. He says hello briefly and explains who he is, and we see tears glistening in his eyes because his gratitude and hero worship for this man are tempered by anguish that his hero is dying.

Nobody says he is dying, we just all know it. The teammates know it, and tactfully turn their heads when he stumbles. Nobody offers him help, partly so as not to embarrass him by noticing his failing body, but also as a signal to us to show that a man is really on his own when he is dying. Despite whatever comfort is extended to any of us in our last days, we are made alone by the uniqueness of our pending experience.

When Gehrig cannot physically play his last game, he takes himself out, and we see him exchange a brief moment with the rookie who will be taking his place. The announcer lets us know that a change is being made in the lineup, and Gehrig will not play in the game for the first time in 14 years. Even wise guy Dan Duryea feels the weight of the moment.

When Teresa Wright cannot cry or express her anguish to Cooper because she does not want to let him know she knows he’s dying, she falls apart on Walter Brennan’s shoulder. That wonderful character actor tears at our hearts with his blank frightened stare and his very inability to say anything of comfort to her.

When Cooper steps out for the ceremony on the infield, the historic newsreel moment is re-created here. Cooper delivers the most famous speech in sports (changed a bit for poetic license), and then walks off the field, down into the darkened tunnel. That’s the last we see of him; the tunnel is metaphoric.

Possibly the only more stunning speech ever made was by the announcer of the last game Gehrig ever played in May 1939: "Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Gehrig's consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended."

His record was not broken until 1995.

Lou Gehrig died in June 1941, about a year and a half before this movie was released, about two years after he was diagnosed. For more on Lou Gehrig’s life and career, have a look at this website.

There have been great strides made in the treatment of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but there is still no cure. About half of its victims will live less than three years. For more on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, have a look at this website.

Teresa Wright, who, like Gary Cooper was not much of a baseball fan at the time of the film, later became a devoted Yankees when she was 79 years old. On July 4, 1998, to commemorate the 59th anniversary of Yankee Stadium’s Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day and the “Luckiest Man” speech, Miss Wright was invited to throw out the first pitch. She watched the game, and the Yankees gave her a dozen roses and a World Series jacket. She followed baseball avidly after that.

Below, we have Gary Cooper delivering the “Luckiest Man” speech from “Pride of the Yankees.” (Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of the page and mute the music.)

Here is actual footage of the event as shown in the Ken Burns baseball documentary:

And here is a recitation of the “Luckiest Man” speech in its entirety.


K. said...

One of the great sentimental movies ever, up there with the 1939 version of Goodd Bye, Mr Chips. Ideal role role for Cooper, and we're talking about an actor who had more than his share of great parts.

Teresa Wright passed away in 2005 at the age of 87. She acted as recently as 1997, in The Rainmaker, based on the John Grisham novel of the same name.

Jacqueline, it's hard to hear the video tracks with the soundtrack on. Is there a way to disable it from my end?

Caftan Woman said...

Your article has me wanting to search my cupboards for my copy of "Baseball As I Have Known It" by Fred Lieb, the sports writer on whom Brennan's character was based.

Cooper's diffident portrayal of Gehrig is quite different from the Lou I saw as an actor in the B western "Rawhide" from 1938. Playing himself, the star ball player became owner of a ranch beset by crooks. While most of the script was handled by singing cowboy Smith Ballew and Lou's sister played by Evalyn Knapp, Lou Gehrig came across as a genial man of action ready to joke with the cowpokes and punch it out with the baddies. He seemed like a swell guy.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

K, I agree that this was right up there as one of the best sentimental stories. I'm glad Teresa Wright got one more shot at the silver screen in "The Rainmaker", she was terrific.

Turn off the music, just scroll down to the very bottom of this blog page and you'll see a black box with the songs listed in it. Just hit the pause button, and you'll get silence.

Caftan Woman, one of these day's I'd like to discuss "Rawhide". The interesting thing is that the physicians at the Mayo Clinic referred back to this film during their examination of Lou Gehrig to try to determine when the first signs of his muscle deterioration became apparent. (Most of Lou's Yankees games were not filmed, of course.)

I'll bet he was a swell guy.

panavia999 said...

Apparently it's fatal in movies to tell a dying person that they are going to die. Did that ever really happen in those days or is that a movie convention? It was a plot device in lots of movies.

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