The Pride of the Yankees
The sports biopic is obviously an evergreen, but you do rather need something more substantial than the noble intention of paying tribute to a successful athlete (or cashing in on his reputation, as the case may be). A story to tell, for starters. Baseball player Lou Gehrig dying from ALS isn’t really enough, although the makers appeared to believe it was. Damon Runyon’s seal of approval practically lays out The Pride of the Yankees‘ thinness at the outset: “This is a story of a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life”. Which is code for: “You’re absolutely going to have to adore Lou Gehrig – or the Yankees – to get down with this one”.
I had it in my head that Seinfeld was the source of the joke about Gehrig (“You ever think what a coincidence it is that Lou Gehrig died of Lou Gehrig’s disease?”), but it seems it might have been The Sopranos. Doubtless it had a good few decades of history prior to even that. Seinfeld did have Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David) wearing Gehrig’s baseball pants – “Big Stein can’t be flopping and twitching” – in The Millennium. And in The Opposite, mimicking a mawkish scene here that precedes one The Pride of the Yankees’ few instances of urgency, Kramer asks Yankees’ Paul O’Neill to hit two home runs for a sick child in the hospital.
Baseball’s appeal is only about as foreign to me as that of any sport. As in, while I might not be American, I can enjoy a good baseball movie – Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Major League, Eight Men Out, The Natural – as much as any native. Gehrig’s mythos simply isn’t enough, however. He succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1941, at 37, and it seems Sam Wood (A Night at the Opera; A Day at the Races) had to persuade Sam Goldwyn of the material’s merit; it seems the latter succumbed after welling up when viewing Gehrig’s “Luckiest man” speech, the big mush.
Wikipedia will tell you the exact cause of ALS is unknown, which is often a signal that something is known but doesn’t fit with mainstream opinion. Certainly, heavy metals have been linked to the condition, and we all know of a popular “preventative” procedure that contains heavy metals as part of its cocktail. More recently, servicemen claimed the Anthrax vaccine gave them Lou Gehrig’s Disease. For some reason, the idea that the State would not only knowingly, but further still intentionally, poison its citizens remains an absurdity to many.
Take Lou’s condition out of the equation, and the movie has nothing: nice guy, none-too-bright, overbearing mother (a supremely irritating Elsa Janssen), picture postcard marriage, sports star. Even without the essential lack of tension and the determinedly saccharine tone struck by Jo Swerling and Herman J Mankiewicz’s screenplay, The Pride of the Yankees would have been fatally flawed through its casting.
Gary Cooper was in his forties when he took the part, and he could easily have passed for a man a decade older; the sight of him posing as a Columbia undergraduate is patently ludicrous (similar considerations didn’t stop Robert Redford in The Natural, mind). Rather like watching Will Ferrell attempting to pass for an elf. Cooper’s performance is no less problematic. He simply cannot embody the essence of a man who isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, so resorts to lots of slow blinking and vague hesitancy. Since I’m on a Seinfeld track, I could easily imagine say Patrick Warburton in the role; Cooper makes the whole enterprise seem a bit silly.
You’ve also got Babe Ruth as Babe Ruth, and sad to say, he isn’t very good at playing himself. In contrast, Teresa Wright – who I’m only lately noticing was often the MVP of any movie she appeared in during the ’40s, until she and Goldwyn fell out – a mere seventeen years younger than Cooper, is very impressive as Eleanor Gehrig, both amusing and knowing (such that you wonder at her devotion to the big lug). Walter Brennan’s also notable as Sam Blake, the slightly unlikely reporter who seems to be there at every important moment – I use “important” with caveats – in Gehrig’s life.
There are occasional scenes that muster vague interest. Gehrig being shown how to win at a fairground high striker. Mom attempting to dictate terms to Eleanor regarding the newlyweds’ décor. The frankly bizarre practical joke where Sam is led to believe Lou is having an affair. The aforementioned promise to Billy (Gene Collins) that he will hit two home runs (a toe-curlingly sentimental prospect, but one that nevertheless ekes out suspense). Presumably it was sentiment and love of the game that led to The Pride of the Yankees becoming a big box-office hit, and also a critical one; it received eleven Oscar nominations, second only to Mrs. Miniver that year (it won one, Best Film Editing). If you aren’t a fan of either, The Pride of the Yankees will be a treacly, turgid bore.
First published by Now in Full Color on 07/04/22.