The Pride of the Yankees
When you watch a movie from the ‘30s and ‘40s it’s useful to remind yourself that they were made from a different sensibility. Some are timeless, will probably be watched and understood and cherished in 100 years, like Casablanca. Others, like most of the films of Frank Capra, already look pretty corny in some ways. I still love them, but there are some things you need to ignore.
But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes the conventions of the day are so godawful that you simply can’t tell yourself that this is how they did things back then. Of all these movies that have become painful to watch over the years, none are worse than sports movies. And this one is, frankly, terrible. Pathetic. Cringe-inducing. It stars Gary Cooper at his aw-shucks, overacting worst. Coop was good at certain action roles, but that didn’t carry over into parts like this.
Back then you didn’t dare say a bad thing about baseball heroes. Even worse, they had to be portrayed as without flaws, frequently child-like, just overgrown boys who wanted to play the game. If the details of the man’s life didn’t fit easily into Hollywood conventions, if they were maybe even a tad unsavory, no sweat. Just make it all up.
There were a certain requisite number of story-telling clichés that had to be in every baseball movie, and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz made sure to use as many as possible. (He also did another one a bit later, The Pride of St. Louis, about Dizzy Dean, that I recall as being a bit better than this. Studio hack writer, right? And yet he also wrote Citizen Kane. Go figure.) So we get the mamma’s boy who dreams of baseball but dutifully goes to college to become an engineer … until mamma gets sick and he’s “forced” to sign with the Yanks to get some money. Naturally he and daddy hide this from mamma. Later, you just know mamma will clash with her son’s new wife, and Lou will finally grow some balls and stand up to her. Later, Lou “hides” his lethal diagnosis from his wife, who of course is fooled for about one nanosecond, but elects to pretend that she doesn’t know. So we get half a dozen teeth-gritting moments of awfulness where he’s pretending he’s all right, and she’s pretending she doesn’t know. Oh, god, the horror. When in reality, it seems that she was the one keeping the bad news from him. But what did reality ever have to do with a Hollywood biography? Zero, back then, anyway.
No sense in detailing all of the other sickening clichés; let this one stand in for all: Babe Ruth (playing himself, and he’s a better actor than Cooper!) tells a crippled boy in a hospital bed that he’s going to hit a homer for him in today’s game. For some insane reason, Gehrig then promises to hit two homers for him. Then he delivers his wisdom that, if you only work hard enough, you can do anything. Like, get up and walk. Screw polio, screw spinal injuries; if you want to, you can do it. This is such a pernicious philosophy that I have never understood how people can swallow it. It is so demonstrably false. But sure enough, Lou delivers on the two homers. Later, when Lou is just starting to feel the effects of his ALS, who should show up but … yes! The little cripple, who is walking just fine. Amazing what a couple of homers can do. This is all played in the treacliest, most deliberately tear-jerking manner … oh, it is to puke.
The whole reason this movie was made was to re-enact that famous moment in Yankee Stadium when Gehrig pronounced himself “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” And by golly, that moment is so moving that, in spite of all the phony bullshit that came before, I was leaking tears. But how much more moving might it have been if the preceding two hours had borne some relationship to real human beings who sweat and curse and sometimes have actual character flaws? And I’m very glad that I didn’t know until just this moment that studio hack Mankiewicz re-wrote Gehrig’s speech! Well, burn in Hell, Herman! Not even Citizen Kane can make up for that. How about a Lincoln bio? I’m sure the Gettysburg Address could be sharpened up a little.