Monday, September 14, 2015

Pride of the Yankees, The (1942)

Director: Sam Wood


The United States had been drawn into the conflict of World War II for less than a year and was in need of heroes to share the American spirit throughout the land while citizens were attempting to contribute to the war effort. In the summer of 1942 one of Hollywood’s answers to the need of a hero was portraying one of the nation’s most popular sports idols who shared an ideal that doing your best and caring your family brings out greatness. Just a year after the New York Yankee great Lou Gehrig’s death the man would idolized in a biographical motion picture feature that impacted audiences with still fresh memories of Gehrig on their minds.

The Pride of the Yankees is a sports biographical feature portraying the life story of Lou Gehrig from a loving son of immigrants to an adored baseball star whose tragic illness prematurely ended his career. Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) was a Columbia University student whose exceptional ball playing led him to playing for the New York Yankees, becoming one of the most widely loved players in the game’s history. The film covers various aspects of Gehrig’s life including his strong relationship with his mother (portrayed by Elsa Janssen), his romance with his devoted wife Eleanor (Teresa Wright), his rise to baseball superstar status, and the conclusion of his career due to a rare, incurable disease which would bear his name. The film’s finale focuses on Gehrig’s well-known “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech at Yankee Stadium as his goodbye to the sport that made him an American icon.

The picture is an over-simplified, over-glorifying, and over-Hollywood-ized movie that quickly covers the highlighted, book report-style retelling of Lou Gehrig’s life story that is almost too sugary to be palatable. However, at the same time it is enduring as it encompasses a tale of a the blue collar man that became a hero to many fans of baseball and American ideals the nation over. The film would roll out of theaters in just over a year’s time after the death of Lou Gehrig the previous summer, which surely played a role in the impact with audiences of its day. For later generations The Pride of the Yankees remains a solid sports movie for immortalizing a real man that appeared to be as honest and virtuous as a mythological hero of legend, with this motion picture as a shrine.

Most sports movies suffer from unrealistic representations of athletics by nonphysical actors, poor acting by performers that cannot connect with these characters, and the overly melodramatic plots tied into them. This film is not really all too different. Conversely this film does not focus on a player winning the “big game” as its plot, rather it centers on the relationship of Gehrig with his family as well as his legend in this sport that encompassed the American spirit.

Two performance that garnered Academy Award nominations.
Gary Cooper was not even a fan of baseball when approached for the role of Gehrig. For an actor that was not fond of the sport, let alone even able to play it he would need much coaching in order to make his baseball mannerisms to come close enough to mimic the ability to swing a bat or throw a ball. To further add to the difficulty of his performance Cooper as right handed, as opposed to Gehrig being left handed, which took extra effort on Cooper’s part left to play with his weaker side in order to sell playing as Lou Gehrig . Movie legend states that director Sam Wood had Cooper wear a backwards uniform so that Cooper can perform his baseball actions as a righty and have editors reversed the action to achieve the look that Cooper was playing as a lefty, but modern records tend to refute this claim. Cooper’s playing would do well enough to not stand out from his dramatic performance, for which he would nominated for Best Actor that year.

Teresa Wright appears as the playful, compassionate, and ever loving wife of Lou Gehrig, Eleanor. In just her third major motion picture Wright’s emotional performance would garner her an unprecedented third Academy Award nomination. Although she would not win in the category of Best Actress for her performance here in The Pride of the Yankees, she did leave the ceremony with the statue for Best Supporting Actress thanks to her work in Mrs. Miniver that same year.

Babe Ruth portrays himself in the feature.
The Pride of the Yankees does suffer from the overly spruced up feel of a glorifying biographical film, yet the feature remains so charming that it appears to polish out the unfortunate lacking points of the picture. Many aspects add to the general appeal that makes this feature stand up despite the cliché filled vessel that this film provides. It is because ofthe love the general public had for the recently fallen icon of Lou Gehrig, and the enduring performances of Cooper and Wright, the wonderful supporting appearance by the likes of actors Walter Brennan as the scout that found Gehrig and Elsa Janssen as Lou’s mother that all converge to make this film so appealing to American audiences. There are even memorable cameos by real life baseball figures within the film including the incomparable superstar Babe Ruth that allow this movie to hold up it respectability and add fun to baseball fanatics who paid their ticket to the theater to see such a sports picture.

L.A.'s Wrigley Field stands in as Yankees Stadium as Cooper prepares for Gehrig's speech.
With the aid of timing in conjuncture with Gehrig being fresh in the minds of the public and the wanting of an American hero on the silver screen The Pride of the Yankees would be a significant success with the public despite general critics recognizing the overly simplified motion picture that it might actually be. At that year’s Academy Awards the feature was nominated astonishingly in eleven categories, including for Best Picture of the year. Daniel Mandell would take home the prize for Best Editing, the lone win for the film, as his ability to splice in stock footage of major league games with Sam Wood directed shots of Cooper’s playing. Furthermore his assembly of the final speech by Cooper furthermore proved effective for the overall success of the feature.

Despite all of the film’s inaccuracies, clichés, and overall sugar-coated story The Pride of the Yankees remains one of the more well received sports films in cinema history. Sure, better sports films have been produced since, but this feature captures Gehrig in a gleaming capsule in a manner of how the public and baseball fans desire to remember him. Gehrig was a blue collar baseball hero and it was his work ethic and devotion that made his career’s sad conclusion so tragic. Audiences can relive this American sports legend and what has been deemed “The Gettysburg Address of Baseball” by simply viewing this picture in remembrance of him. This film will live on more as a shrine than as a piece of cinematic elegance or achievement, but film can sometimes just be that because that is what the audience wanted at that time.

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