Friday, April 26, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Directed by: Sam Wood.
Written by: Jo Swerling and Herman J. Mankiewicz.
Starring: Gary Cooper (Henry Louis 'Lou' Gehrig), Teresa Wright (Eleanor Twitchell), Babe Ruth (Babe Ruth), Walter Brennan (Sam Blake), Dan Duryea (Hank Hanneman), Elsa Janssen (Christina 'Mom' Gehrig), Ludwig Stössel (Henry 'Pop' Gehrig), Virginia Gilmore (Myra Tinsley).

When most people think of Gary Cooper, they think of his strong, quiet, heroic leading man roles. People remember him for his two Oscar winning roles as the Sheriff in High Noon, who stands up when everyone else backs down and for playing Sergeant York, a pacifist who became a WWI hero to fight for the country he loves. And they also remember him for playing Lou Gehrig in 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees. I have expressed my opinion in this series already that I prefer Cooper in his more comedic roles – in films like Ball of Fire, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or Design for Living, where his awe shucks demeanor and expert comic timing worked wonderfully well. But there’s no denying that Cooper was able to play heroic roles better than most other actors in history. And his work in The Pride of the Yankees ranks among his best.

Cooper originally didn’t want the role. He was far too old for it – already in his early 40s, and the script called on him to play Gehrig from his days in college until the end of his life in his late 30s. He also hated baseball, and apparently threw like a girl, which was bad enough, but the fact that he was right handed, and Gehrig famously a leftie was even worse. But through training and some movie magic (lighting and camera angles to get rid of the lines on his face, and apparently giving him a uniform with everything printed backwards and then reversing the footage, so when he threw right handed, it appeared on screen that he was throwing left handed), he was able to pull off the role. Now, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.

In many ways, The Pride of the Yankees can be looked at as the prototypical baseball movie. They didn’t really make a lot of sports movies in the 1940s, because they were considered box office poison – women didn’t like them, and research showed that women picked the movies couples saw more often then men. So when watching The Pride of the Yankees, and seeing all the sports movie clichés it pulls it, perhaps we need to be a little forgiving in that regard. And yes, The Pride of the Yankees piles on one cliché after another. Less forgivable, however, is the overly sappy and sentimental romance between Cooper and Teresa Wright, as Gehrig’s wife. Wright was a gifted actress, and she is quite good in the role considering its limitations of being “the wife” (she was nominated for an Oscar for it), but it’s a little much to take. The same could be said for Babe Ruth, who plays himself in the movie, and is more of a distraction that anything else.

Yet, despite these flaws, I could not help but be won over by The Pride of the Yankees. Through Cooper’s Gehrig’s integrity and work ethic comes through in every scene. He is a man you cannot help but root for – kind and generous with his teammates and his immigrant parents. In an age where fans have become more and more cynical about sports figures, it is refreshing to see a portrait of a sports star that was truly heroic.

The movie is best known for its final scene, and for good reason. It’s a doozy. I defy anyone with a heart to watch that scene, where the quiet, humble Gehrig takes to the field at Yankee stadium to give his farewell speech, and not break down in tears. It is played brilliantly by Cooper, and makes The Pride of the Yankees one of the most memorable sports movies ever made.

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