Monday, July 23, 2012

War Memorial: Pride of the Yankees

"Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Seven months after Lou Gehrig died, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And so it came to be that two-and-a-half years after a retiring Gehrig delivered one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th Century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered another. These events, and these men and their words, would seem to have nothing to do with each other, and yet they were united by Damon Runyon, who in a prologue for Pride of the Yankees wrote: "[Gehrig] found death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans in far-flung fields of battle." Pride of the Yankees was released in March 1943, less than two years after Gehrig's death and with two-and-a-half years to go until Japan surrendered to end World War II, and this context is critical to recognizing the film's intent. Light on baseball and heavy with virtue, Pride of the Yankees isn't meant to chronicle Lou Gehrig's life for posterity. It's designed to help a specific generation cope with the loss of a public hero, and to pay tribute to mettle in the face of heartbreaking, premature loss — something its initial audiences understood all too well.

Despite Runyon's ominous forward, Pride of the Yankees is a spirit-bolstering comedy long before it's a gut-wrenching tragedy. Gary Cooper plays Lou Gehrig as Christopher Reeve would play Clark Kent decades later — suppressing an unmistakable physical prowess behind a sheepish social awkwardness. Much like Superman, Gehrig launches baseballs through glass windows thought to be safely out of reach. He doesn't swear. He doesn't assume victory. And he doesn't turn down home run requests from kids at the hospital. Gehrig's only apparent flaw is his willingness to avoid conflict with his domineering mother by any means necessary, even if it means little white lies. (When Gehrig joins a minor league team in Hartford, he allows his mother to mistakenly believe that he's gone to Harvard.) But such vices only accentuate a man's purity. Written by Jo Swerling and Herman J. Mankiewicz, from a story by Paul Gallico, much of the film observes Gehrig's romance with Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), which begins with playful teasing and innocent chastity and leaps straight to outright devotion and commitment. (Years into their marriage, Lou and Eleanor still can't stand to be out of one another's sight.) It's a relationship as consistent as Gehrig himself, who famously played in a then-record 2,130 consecutive games.

But, one way or another, all love stories must come to an end, and we watch Pride of the Yankees fully aware that each triumph of athleticism and virtuousness is setting us up for a greater fall. Gehrig's physical deterioration is swift and cruel. In one scene, he topples out of his chair in the locker room while attempting to tie his shoes, and then he looks around the room less in embarrassment than in horror as he tries to process what just happened. Later on, the camera joins Eleanor in peering through the crack of an open bedroom door as Gehrig struggles to tie his bowtie. In between, in what makes for the film's most striking on-field image, Gehrig sees the game from just off the field, after subbing himself out to mark the end of 14-year streak of indomitability: First, in a lovely tracking shot, Gehrig walks through the dugout between the solemn sagging heads of his teammates in the foreground and the frenzy of the baseball diamond in the background, and then director Sam Wood shows us Gehrig's view from the end of the bench: the lip of the dugout wall obscuring Gehrig's view of his replacement at first base and cutting him off from the game he loves. From there, Wood cuts to a soft, tight close-up of Gehrig's forlorn face as an umpire in the distance shouts a normally joyous phrase that in this context feels like a punch to the stomach: "Play ball!"

That excellent sequence precedes what has become the film's most famous moment, when a glassy-eyed Cooper delivers the words that Gehrig had already made immortal: "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." In movie form, and probably in our collective memory, these are Gehrig's closing remarks, but in reality they occurred near the beginning of Gehrig's speech — the second line. Diversions from historical accuracy are hardly unusual in cinema, and the film's rearrangement remains true to the general spirit and content of Gehrig's remarks. Still, it's a shame Gehrig's actual speech isn't honored to the letter, because it's fit for the big screen: "When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing," the real Gehrig said as he wrapped up his farewell speech. "When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that's the finest I know. So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."

Alas, as the first audiences to see Pride of the Yankees already knew, Gehrig didn't have long to live. The final shots of this film, about a man for whom everything came easily until it all went away, are, fittingly enough, in perfect contrast with the closing shot of 1957's Fear Strikes Out, about a ballplayer for whom everything came with great difficulty. After Gehrig's final words, Wood captures the icon as he walks into the distance, toward the dugout, and then down the steps and into the tunnel, leaving behind him a world of spirit and light for one of loneliness and darkness — Jimmy Piersall's story in reverse — as the umpire once again calls out, "Play ball!" Baseball would go on after Gehrig, just like the world would go on after the war. There was no other choice. But heroes who died too soon wouldn't be quickly forgotten. Complete with numerous shots of long-gone baseball parks, not to mention a fairly meaty cameo by Babe Ruth as himself, Pride of the Yankees is indeed noteworthy for its cinematic preservation of baseball history. But more than anything it's a time capsule holding the mixed emotions of a battered nation.


Marilyn Ferdinand said...

Jason - You gave this your all, but I'm sorry to say that I find this film unworthy of your gifts of insight and prosety. I found the film a highly rushed affair, so idealized as to be utterly ridiculous (even people looking for escape must have laughed at unreality of the film, including making Gehrig, who was left-handed, into a righty and flopping the actions scenes of him at bat), and Babe Ruth was unforgivably shameless in inserting himself like a TV logo into the corner of the screen to try to upstage the "luckiest man" speech. He didn't speak to Gehrig for the last 6 years of his life, so this was utterly cynical on his and the studio's parts.

Jason Bellamy said...

" idealized as to be utterly ridiculous."

Marilyn: Yeah, although I find perfection in some of the scenes I mentioned, on the whole that's an accurate description. (The scene in which the cops rush Gehrig to the stadium is particularly painful. And the moment when Gehrig is "caught" umping a kids' baseball game goes from being clever to painfully goofy in an instant.)

I'm not going to blast Ruth for being framed in the lower-left of the shot. That's a director's call and a logical one. I don't pretend to be an expert on the Ruth-Gehrig relationship, but my understanding is that their wall of silence was two-way, and that they both came together after Gehrig's diagnosis (which isn't to say that they were close ... but at least speaking). But that might be wrong.

Thanks much for the comment! (I always try to keep up with your site, but for whatever reason the RSS feed never works consistently in Google Reader, and so I fall behind when things get busy.)

Marilyn said...

I have a new subscription feature on the site, so try signing up again.

I don't know what is logical about putting Ruth in the frame, honestly. This was Gehrig's moment and should not have been shared with someone hostile to Gehrig, regardless whether the wall of silence was mutual. Wood was insensitive, and I don't believe for a moment that Ruth, a self-promoter par excellence, had nothing to do with the decision.

Jason Bellamy said...

Cool! I'll update the feed!

"I don't know what is logical about putting Ruth in the frame, honestly."

Ah, what I meant was that Ruth is baseball's greatest icon. So it doesn't surprise me that the director would want him in the shot. It just seems like a natural cinematic instinct.

That said, it might have indeed been "insensitive" on a human/personal level. That's where I'm not up on the Gehrig/Ruth history enough to know. So you're instincts might be right on the money there. Just saying that, generally speaking, if I'm a director and Babe Ruth is on the set, I want him in that shot...because he's Babe Ruth.

Sam Juliano said...

Well I didn't have a problem with Ruth in the frame at all as it served to accentuate the duo's offensive leadership of Murderer's Row and the legendary 1927 New York Yankees. I found the film neither rushed nor ridiculous, but rather a moving testament of an an iconic sports figure who defined the connection between the masses and their heroes. Of course, I will admit unlike my good friend Marilyn, I am a dyed in the wool, lifelong New York Yankees fan who grew up with the team, this famous film, and a sustained reverence for "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Yeah, Sam Wood, who directed GOODBYE MR. CHIPS is a shameless sentimentalist, and sometimes the syrup is thick, but there's an innocence and an honesty to the film that reflects the less convoluted times, a time when Dreams may have at seemed more palpable. Cooper and Teresa Wright give stirring performances, and the Babe injects a real authenticity in a film that deserved as much. In the perceptions of most Yankee and baseball fans there was an unwritten kinship between Ruth and Gehrig that validated narrative re-enactment. This is a flawed film for sure, but still one of the most justly venerated of the earlier baseball pics.

Anyway, as always a beautifully-penned review in every sense.

Marilyn said...

I think you're looking from the future into the past, from a culture obsessed with any kind of celebrity at one that was more grounded in the particulars of hero worship. Ruth was, obviously, well known, but the nation was grieving for Gehrig, who was as important a baseball legend as anyone who ever lived, particularly at that time. I don't think film fans of the day were rubbernecking to see Ruth, who had plenty of screen time in the film as it was. At least, that's how I see it.

Marilyn said...

I don't mean to upstage you, Jason, but this gives you a little more on why I feel the way I do. (Hi, Sam.)

Jason Bellamy said...

No apologies necessary. I appreciate the link.

"I understand why hero-worshipping baseball fans would hug this starry-eyed film to their numbered jerseys. Film fans, though, have no excuse. Although a star-studded cast was assembled, headed by the great Gary Cooper as Gehrig, with a competent, if sentimental, director at the helm, this film is all ham and no bone."

I think that's fair.

I think the thing you leave out is the timing in relation to the war, which I don't think is insignificant. So it isn't just about Gehrig. It's about what a story like this meant in that time.

You make a good point in the comments here that the sight of Ruth now, in 2012, is more precious than it would have been to the movie's original audiences. But, still, it's Babe Ruth. Plain and simple, there weren't many people on the planet who were more famous at the time. So, again, it just doesn't surprise me that Wood wanted him in the shot at the end. (And for what it's worth, the first time I watched that scene I didn't notice him, because my eyes were drawn to Cooper. So to Ruth's credit, by standing there like a logo at least he doesn't draw attention away from the guy at the microphone. Now THAT would have been distasteful!)

One other note: I remember reading a while back that the reporter character is largely based on an actual reporter who indeed was one of Gehrig's closest friends. His ONLY friend, as this movie essentially implies? Probably not. But I don't think that's much of a historical fudge.

Marilyn said...

Jason - I can't deny that this kind of film would have boosted morale during WWII, and hagiography is certainly a staple in Hollywood. Apparently, Paul Gallico's book was written in a similar vein, though I haven't been able to find evidence that he and Gehrig were close friends (though that hardly matters).

As for Ruth, that mug stuck out like a sore thumb to me, and if it was Wood's intention to make hay with him in that scene, as you contend, then we have to assume he was meant to be noticed. If it was as a tribute to the Yankees, as Sam contends, we may never know. I just thought it was a terrible choice.