Saturday, August 22, 2015
PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, THE
(July 1942, U.S.)
Re-watching the American black and white classic THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, the tale of New York Yankees first baseman legend Lou Gehrig, reminds me that there was once a time in baseball history when players were considered genuine heroes rather than overpaid scandal artists (Derek Jeter the exception, bless him!). It also reminds me of the tremendous place in historical excellence the New York Yankees holds in my heart, as well as countless other fans. I've been a loyal Yankee fan since the great days of Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson in the late 1970s - that was my Yankee era! For all other Yankee fans, or any other great American baseball team (actually, the Mets suck!!!), they have their specific eras that their hearts and their memories cling to. For those old enough to still be living and still hold any great treasured memories of Yankee greatness, there's Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and any other legendary player who just happened to be a part of the New York Yankees!
THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES is less a sports biography than an homage to a heroic and widely loved baseball figure whose tragic and premature death touched the entire nation. The film emphasizes Lou Gehrig's (played by the great Gary Cooper) relationship with his parents (particularly his strong-willed and often interfering mother), his friendships with other players and sports journalists, and his storybook romance with the woman who became his wife and companion for life, Eleanor (played by Teresa Wright). Details of his baseball career, which were likely still very fresh in the minds of baseball fans in the year 1942, when the film was released just one year after the real Lou Gehrig's death, are rather limited to montages of ballparks, pennants, and Gary Cooper swinging bats and running bases, though the Yankees World Series championship of 1927 is prominently cited in the film. Still, as a film homage, it also effectively highlights Gehrig's legendary standing with the Yankees by featuring real-life Yankee ball players playing themselves, including Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Mark Koening and Bob Meusel.
Because the true emphasis is to paint a proper portrait of baseball figures as folk heroes, it's important to note that all the facts of Lou Gehrig's life are not necessarily portrayed to complete accuracy in the film. Hollywood has always taken it's liberties with the truth when it comes to their own version of artistic content, but it's particularly valid to understand that when you're experiencing a film about the great game of baseball and it's heroes, truth and accuracy may not necessarily be what you want to watch. As an actor on screen, Gary Cooper was always the man of bravery, valor and virtue in just about all of his roles. No less could be expected of him as the one playing Lou Gehrig. Teresa Wright was almost no different, having played a very good and virtuous woman in all that she did. I know nothing of the real Eleanor Gehrig, but if Cooper's portrayal of Gehrig is anything close to who the man really was, then I feel more than comfortable in the idea that his wife was just as "perfect" as he was. Again, we may not know the facts for sure, but it's the ideas behind the sentimental epitaphs of great heroes that baseball and movie fans long to cling to, and I can't find any fault in that.
Now with regard to Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium in 1939, it seems there is no known intact film of the man's actual speech as it was. A small portion of black and white newsreel footage, incorporating his first and last remarks, are all that survives. For the film, however, the speech couldn't be reproduced verbatim, so the script reorganized and condensed Gehrig's actual unprepared and spontaneous remarks, and shifted the iconic "luckiest man" line from the beginning to the end for the heightened dramatic Hollywood effect. Gehrig's essential message, however, remained unchanged, and I suppose that's what's most important when you're telling a tale of a great American sports hero, because Heaven knows, we don't seem to have to many of them anymore in today's world!
I first saw THE PRIDE OF YANKEES when I was thirteen years-old in seventh grade English class. It was 1980, and movies shown in class were still reel-to-reel and still being set up by the boys that came to be known as geek members of the Audio-Visual Squad (some stigmas never change over time - poor bastards!). That was one of my earliest true appreciations to black and white cinema (following KING KONG, of course!). However, the true memory for me stems with the early morning hours of February 5, 2006. My son had just been born at 11:31 pm the previous day. It was two o'clock in the morning when I finally got home to my New York City apartment and I needed to watch a little TV before winding myself down to finally sleep. I turned on Turner Classic Movies and the movie that happened to be in progress was THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES! I've never failed to equate that iconic film with the night my son was born. As it turns out, my son loves the New York Yankees, though he's not much of a fan of playing baseball himself. Oh well, can't have everything, I guess.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Lou Gehrig: " "People say that I've had a bad break. But today...today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."
Yeah, as if I would have chosen anything else!