Saturday 28 June 2008

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

'It's the Great American Story!' reads the tagline and it's apparently a pretty appropriate one, because it's about baseball and Lou Gehrig, who reached the heights of the game, only to succumb to the disease that bears his name. As a baseball film, it also has the benefit of featuring Babe Ruth, at the other end of his film career to the first film I saw him in: 1920's Headin' Home. In this one, like in most of his films, he plays himself. He's also mentioned quite often too. When we first see Lou Gehrig the kid pick up a baseball bat, it's Babe Ruth the rookie he has as a trading card in his back pocket. When he's at Columbia the newspapers proclaim him the Babe Ruth of the Colleges.

So it's a real American story, one that is hard to not appreciate on a human level even if like me, you're not American and can't understand what the fuss is about baseball. I'm English and I played plenty of games of rounders, the best of which were after the local village school summer fair with kids of all ages and coats for bases. It seems completely bizarre to me that something that's so obviously a game and not a sport would be treated as one in the States, but hey those wacky Americans have a bunch of strange habits and baseball seems to be the top of the list.

I know enough to recognise the opening music as Take Me Out to the Ball Game, but Babe Ruth is the only name I recognise on the lockers he walks past so reverently in the Yankees dressing room mean nothing to me. What surprises most though is just how little baseball there is in this baseball film. At heart baseball here is just one thing that makes a man an American, and from the way the introductory text by Damon Runyan sets us off, he's a hero and a patriot and a perfect example of what an American should be.

He's tall and handsome, he has a winning smile and he treats the girls according to the rules. He's decent, polite and modest. He's a peaceful man but isn't afraid to get into a fight when it's warranted. He does what his mother wants, at least until he has a wife so he can do what she wants instead. He eats a stack of pancakes every morning and heads out to work without fail. He plays baseball in the spring, summer and autumn and talks about it during the winter. And naturally he can hit a home run out of the field whenever anyone's watching. All this philosophy is rooted in American tradition, right down to the poor man living the American dream and achieving everything anyone could ever want. He even chews gum while he's kissing his new bride. He couldn't be any more American if he tried.

I have no idea how much of this is true and how much is Hollywood, but it would seem that the bias is heavily towards the latter. Like most Hollywood biopics, it works roughly like this: write down a bunch of true facts or events on different cards, then rearrange them into something that makes for a better story and fill in any gaps with fiction. It's what prompted George M Cohan to comment on Yankee Doodle Dandy, the biopic of his own life: 'It was a good movie. Who was it about?' I have a feeling this one seems to follow the same trend.

For instance, it would seem to be unlikely that his very first game would prompt so much. The film would suggest that five seconds after being called up to bat for the Yankees for the first time, he trips over a stack of bats and falls flat on his ass. That prompts his future wife who he's never met before who's sitting in the front row to land him with the nickname of Tanglefoot. Twenty seconds later he gets dropped by a baseball to the top of the head. From what I'm reading, these things sort of kinda happened, just at completely different times and in completely different places.

What seem to be the most famous parts of the film are played around with too. The scene with a hospitalised kid called Billy is based on fact, but while Babe Ruth's part in his story looks pretty superficial in the film compared to Gehrig's, the fact was all Babe Ruth. The retirement speech that made the AFI's list of the 100 greatest film quotes of all time with it's 'Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth' line, was pretty much completely rewritten. In the real speech that line came at the beginning, in the film it comes at the end.

It's not a bad film and it's a legendary weeper, but the job it does wouldn't seem to be the job it really ought to be doing. I wouldn't know him from Adam but apparently Lou Gehrig was a true legend in the world of baseball. He set records that sound impressive even though I really don't know exactly what they mean. He's been voted the greatest first baseman of all time by the Baseball Writers' Association, who presumably know what they're talking about. He still holds the record for most career grand slam home runs. His record of 2,130 consecutive games, over 15 seasons from 1925 and 1939, stood until 1995, and the man who took it didn't have to retire because of degenerative neuromuscular disease.

Yet most of this is missing. Those 16 years and all those records go by in a few scrapbook pages and offhand comments. None of it's really explained and the key people in the story, Gehrig included, aren't explained either. We don't get any real motivation for anything that anyone does, just see them go from beginning to end. In fact we probably find out more about Gehrig's mother than we do about anyone else, even Gehrig himself. He's played very aptly by one of the most American of American actors, Gary Cooper, but as he's depicted here I learned almost nothing more about him after over two hours than I did going in. And that was almost nothing.

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