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Beyond the Box Office: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

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A continuing series designed to look a little closer at the intersections of baseball and film history. You can read last week's entry here.

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Gary Cooper and Babe Ruth sizing up a bat
Gary Cooper and Babe Ruth sizing up a bat

Lou Gehrig had only been dead for a year, but Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn decided that was just enough time to canonize the Yankee slugger in his newest film's opening title scrawl as "a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life," a "gentle young man who, in the full flower of his great fame, was a lesson in simplicity and modesty to the youth of America."

One month after the Battle of Midway, audiences flocked to the big screen to watch Gary Cooper take on the life of that great baseball hero, cut down by a terrifying disease who nevertheless "faced death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on far-flung fields-of battle." Your gut reaction to this is perhaps a bit unfair--it's arguable that Americans had yet to fully understand the extent of the carnage that was waiting for the world over the next couple of years, and besides, Hollywood has never been one for measured sobriety.

But lost in all this is a gamble, a gamble on behalf of one of the five major studios of the Classical Hollywood era that people actually liked baseball as much as they said they did. It had been more than twenty years since Babe Ruth premiered at Madison Square Garden in that critically-maligned five-reeler, but by now an entire industrial entertainment apparatus had sprung forth to ensure that even experiments would conform to some safe center. In short, to honor the late Gehrig, Goldwyn wasn't about to enter the golden halls of literary myth or hold still on the long-takes of any sort of lived realism. No--Gehrig was going to leave the concrete confines of the house that Ruth built, past the parks of Pittsburgh and Chicago and far away from magical Iowa cornfields. He was going to Hollywood.

The Pride of the Yankees

128 min. 1942, Samuel Goldwyn Productions/RKO

Directed by Sam Wood

The baseball historian would find quite a bit to quibble over in Pride's depiction of Gehrig's life, which is in this writer's humble opinion often one of the most unproductive of ways to talk about filmed versions of historical events. The truth is that Gehrig lived a quite uncinematic life: born into turn-of-the-century Manhattan immigrant poverty, he managed to luck his way into a contract with the Yankees leading to years of steady play before falling victim to ALS, plucked from the lineup of Murderer's Row before anyone could realize exactly what had happened.

Sure, it sounds like a story by today's standards. But baseball movies didn't make money in the forties. That Goldwyn took this on perhaps shows the extent to which he knew how to both capitalize on topical material, as well as how to craft malleable "reality" inside the Hollywood dream machine. There is a reason you probably recognize his name without having taken a single film class in your life.

To put the story to screen, Goldwyn called on the screenwriting prowess of Jo Swerling and Herman J. Mankiewicz (the latter of whom was fresh off the failure of a certain picture which RKO probably wanted to forget about altogether). Liberties were taken with Gehrig's life in order to give the story the right amount of punch, but also as a result of the power of the self-censoring production code of the time, which would have made it quite difficult to depict Gehrig's alcoholic father, among other things. It would take Hollywood almost thirty years to start screening nudity and foul language again--which by the way, fits the trajectory of baseball's morality cloud almost beat for beat, as Jim Bouton's controversial Ball Four was released only two years after the MPPC's abandonment.

But story isn't what makes The Pride of the Yankees such an interesting moment in baseball, or film, history. Pride was RKO's most successful release of 1942--doubly important because it was actually produced by Goldwyn's independent production company and only distributed by the studio itself. While this structure is common practice now, it was quite rare in the era of vertical integration, which saw studios not only making their films, but distributing them to theaters which they themselves owned outright. I don't know if it says something that the first successful "modern" baseball film only came into being this way, but I think there is something to the whole thing.

pride

(Director Sam Wood and Gary Cooper during the filming of The Pride of the Yankees)

Whereas Headin' Home was able to craft an altogether fantastical myth around the persona of Babe Ruth, Goldwyn knew that the memory of Gehrig and his career were still fresh in the minds of the very people he was hoping to attract for his picture. This caused a few minor logistical problems. Gary Cooper was a fine thespian but he was no athlete--so in came Lefty O'Doul to train him how to at least look like he knew what he was doing. Supposedly Cooper had trouble learning how to swing a bat left-handed like Gehrig, and the myth says that they simply reversed each frame of film, printing NEW YORK in reverse letters on his jersey so as to appear in the correct direction when blown up on the big screen.

pride2

I can't tell if there is any truth to this, however. Hal Erickson casts doubt on the rumor, noting how the shots of the stadium itself do not appear through rear projection, which was a famous technique for studios shooting in soundstages locked into strict schedules. Rear-projection, mind you, looked something like this:

rear

I may be totally wrong on this, but what it looks like to me is that the outdoor shots of the stadium were composited from two separate shots, which allowed for a bit of visual trickery not contained strictly within the camera. This would mean that everything above the red line was shot, cut, and then sort of glued onto a shot of everything below the red line. It's kind of like a matte painting, but with two actual filmed frames, allowing for movement and a better illusion of recreated reality. Again, I could be way off on this, and for all I know these were actually shot on location. Although I kind of doubt that.

pride red

Perhaps most famously, however, the film recreates Gehrig's final speech in quite stirring fashion. Babe Ruth--who actually costarred in the film by the way--appears next to Cooper, and you can only imagine what was going through his mind as he had to relive what in no way shape or form could have been a fun thing to sit through. You can see some of it here, interspersed with footage from Gehrig's actual speech:

If you look closely, you can see that Cooper actually did this in rear projection, which meant that they shot all the external shots of him receiving awards on the field, then went back into a studio in front of a screen with some mics as props, and then let the camera roll. It's an obvious and common aesthetic choice for the time, and follows Hollywood in focusing on the human face as one of the main vehicles for expressing emotion.

I think, however, there is something much more powerful in the way the actual speech was shot, placing Gehrig within three layers of self, teammates, and an ocean of fans to convey his trauma as not merely an inner struggle, but as something which happened very much on a public stage.

The film's final shot gets at this, however, in a stunning longshot of Gehrig walking back to the dugout amid cheers, alone, and facing away from the camera. As he descends into the tunnel, we begin to hear the sounds of activity on the field as the umpire shouts Play Ball! before play resumes. But Lou Gehrig will not be at first base, because he is walking deeper and deeper into the darkness, finally gone forever, while the game continues on in his absence. These final moments still hold up remarkably well, and are quite honestly some of the best I have watched as this little project has unfurled. Either that or I'm just a sucker for the Hollywood machine doing what it does best.

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