Monday, November 10, 2014

Knute Rockne, All American (1940)

Director: Lloyd Bacon


Knute Rockne was the most celebrated football mind of the early decades of the twentieth century and in Warner Bros.’ film Knute Rockne, All American celebrates his impact on the college sport and the numerous lives he played a part in with a Hollywood take on his life story. The picture stars Pat O’Brien in the role that his career would be most critically remembered for. Also featured is a 29 year-old actor in performance that takes up very little screen time, but helped to give him a nickname that followed him all the way to becoming one of the most influential men of his time. It would be a quaint biographical tale of one sports legend that would live on for other reasons than being a well-liked movie of 1940.

Knute Rockne, All American is a biographical film about the famed college football coach that revolutionized the game and helped make a small catholic college in Indiana into a national recognized institution within the sport. Born of poor, humble Norwegians Knute Rockne (Pat O’Brien) works himself through college at Notre Dame where he would play football and later serve as their head coach. On multiple occasions through his career he revolutionizes the game with many new strategies including the forward pass and offensive shifts, as well as supplying great promotion for both his school and the sport. In his career he turns the small college of Notre Dame into a national power in football, winning multiple national championships while helping to mentoring many young men, dealing with personal health issues, and defending the game when professionalism in the college ranks brings the sport into question. Tragedy strikes when while on his first real vacation with his wife (Gale Page) and family after devoting so much time to his job the famed coach is called away on business and unfortunately loses his life in a plane crash.

Future President Reagan as "The Gipper"
The film presents itself more as a celebratory eulogy for the man that had perished in 1931 as the feature creates an image of Rockne as a near saint for Notre Dame and of football. As the movie moves forward through the major events in his life the film oversimplifies the man’s achievements and few bumps along the way. One short segment which is glanced over, but is memorable is Rockne’s relationship with one of his star players George Gip (Ronald Reagan) who at the end of his college career dies of illness. The picture is more of an ultimate highlight reel of Rockne’s life with very little overarching story.

If one was to attempt to zero in on a singular storyline that carries throughout it would be the relationship with his wife, Bonnie, played by Gale Page, and her overly supportive nature while wishing that she could have more relaxing personal time with her husband. Near the end of the picture when she receives her wish “Rock” is plucked away from her, at first by the sport calling on him again, but ultimately by the plane crash that claims his life while he travels to a football convention. The feature literally ends with a eulogy for Knute Rockne and provides the audiences with examples of how today’s game (meaning 1940’s football) is impacted by Rockne’s influence.

The picture was an act of honor and love to the man as his widow, the real Bonnie Rockne, who gave her blessing for the production of the motion picture. With her approval Pat O’Brien was chosen to portray Rockne, and the make-up which helped to transform O’Brien into the famed coach. O’Brien was a well-respected actor of the time, on most occasions serving as a moral center in many of the pictures that featured him.  He was selected by Mrs. Rockne with no reservations on his casting. James Cagney, a dear friend of O’Brien lobbied hard for himself in the role, but do to his past disputes with Catholics would not be made a possibility of the role. (…or so a legend claims) O’Brien would put on a rather stiff performance of the famed coach creating a relatively two dimensional character, but with the movie being a praised overall look at Rockne’s life, it would not leave for much emotion in the first place.

As for the role of Bonnie Rockne, that would go to actress Gale Page who was best known for her work in the “daughter” films, Four Daughters, Daughters Courageous, Four Wives, and Four Mothers. With the majority of her professional career being on radio and as a singer Page does have a sing-songy characteristic to her voice, but that would ultimately not equal to better acting jobs. Here we see Page as a saintly house wife in the Rockne household for whom the audience can really feel bad for with her husband devoted more to his sport than almost anything else..

Originally the feature was to be directed by William K. Howard who was considered one of Hollywood’s leading directors during the late 20s and early 30s. However his career was wavering during this period and when he wished to add more of religious tones to the feature showing Rockne as a convert to Catholicism producers decided to release the director from the picture and replaced him with Lloyd Bacon. Bacon had a history of directing larger productions, including the successful musicals 42nd Street and Footlight Parade before working into the grittier drama that Warner Bros. would be known for in the 1930s. His direction would not necessarily add to the picture as near all of the football action in the feature would be stock Notre Dame footage spliced into the principle photography of the movie, leaving Bacon to be move of a push button director that just got the coverage to finish the film.

"Win one for The Gipper"
Perhaps the largest impact the picture had in overall history actually comes from a rather short segment of the picture that covers the time of George Gip at Notre Dame. The star football player is portrayed by Ronald Raegan, an actor in his late 20s with a vast résumé in B-movies and supporting roles in larger pictures. “The Gipper” would pass away at a young age literally days after his final game at Notre Dame leaving behind inspiring words that conclude with “…win one for the Gipper.” Although Reagan’s time on screen was short he would take the nickname with him as he moved from acting to politics decades later. During the 1980 Presidential election he would use the phrase “Win one for The Gipper” as a rallying cry that helped him win the White House, and aiding in keeping Knute Rockne, All American a relevant film in American history purely by Reagan’s use of the nickname.

Knute Rockne, All America was a well like picture for 1940, but had no great cinematic relevance beyond Ronald Reagan keeping his character’s nickname alive. However with Ronald Reagan’s overall historical impact the film would be long remembered and in 1997 be elected to National Film Registry as “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.” Looking back at the sport of football during this period through the feature audiences can see how very different it was by look, style, and rules making this picture difficult to enjoy as a good sports movie. Looking at it differently it does capture many clean images of how the game was played in the early part of the twentieth century for students of the game’s history.  However the film itself is most memorable for the men that performed in it rather than the content the film actually provides.

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