From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Friday, April 02, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Play Ball! Week
The Pride of the Yankees

The Pride of the Yankees presents the life story of Lou Gehrig, first baseman for the New York Yankees from 1923 to 1939. Gehrig, whose nickname of "The Iron Horse" was a testament to his durability as a player, established himself as one of the greatest players of all time. Though accomplishing many great things as a player, the record he was most known for is for consecutive games played (2130). It was a record that stood until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995. Gary Cooper portrays Gehrig in this film which follows the arc of his life from his collegiate playing career at Columbia University to his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939.

Gehrig was born the child of German immigrants. His parents worked very hard to try and give him the opportunities that they did not have. His mother's hope was that he would enter Columbia to earn a degree in engineering. A shy and unassuming individual, Gehrig's play spoke long and loud for Lou in a way he was not inclined to do himself. He actually entered Columbia on a football scholarship, and was a fairly successful fullback before catching the eye of a Yankee scout who persuaded him to sign with New York to play professional baseball.

Gehrig stood out on the Yankees as a player, and as a stark contrast in personality to the legendarily ebullient Babe Ruth. Together they formed possibly the most potent slugging tandem baseball had ever seen. Gehrig and Ruth didn't always see eye to eye, however, due to their different outlooks on life. Conflict that existed between the two men is glossed over in the film in favor of focusing on Gehrig's personal life.

The story of Gehrig's personal life is one that had it been told today, no one would believe it was based on someone real. Gehrig was a very quiet person. He deferred consistently to his mother's wishes on most everything, in an effort to show how much he appreciated the opportunities she and her husband wanted for him. Taking a chance on playing professional ball was such a risk for him because it ran so contrary to her wishes. Eventually, Gehrig's eye was caught by a very charming and attractive woman in Chicago by the name of Ellie Twitchell (Teresa Wright, in a role that was nominated for an Oscar). Ellie and Lou quickly develop a deep affection for one another. Their relationship makes up a good chunk of the heart of the story. It's good material to mine, as Cooper and Wright do an excellent job of showing the audience Lou and Ellie's love for one another.

Gehrig's career was tragically cut short when he developed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neuromuscular disease that now bears his name. Throughout his career, Gehrig was noted for his strength and determination. In the face of death he was no different. As he prepared for his speech to say goodbye to the fans who cheered him for so long, he is very aware of how important it is for him to show strength to help the fans and players move past losing him. The speech in the film is different from the one actually given, but the heart of it is still the same. The actual speech text can be found here, along with video files showing the newsreel footage of Gehrig as he delivers it.

Any and all praise of this film starts with Gary Cooper. His portrayal of Gehrig is one of the classics of cinema. He doesn't overplay the "aw shucks" modesty of Gehrig. Instead, he lets Gehrig's earnest nature guide the personality of his character. And his chemistry with Wright is really solid. There's not any of the overwrought soap opera type melodrama that sometimes comes out in older films. They plays it as a straight love story that exists between two people who just know inherently that they are right for each other. If you know this to be the case, why go over the top with it? Cooper and Wright strike all the right notes in just letting their love for each just be.

The supporting roles are all nicely done. Walter Brennan does a good job as Sam Blake, a sportswriter who quickly comes to like the young Gehrig, and becomes his champion in the sports pages to offset the established fawning over Babe Ruth. Elsa Janssen and Ludwig Stossel are also enjoyable as Lou's parents. It's particularly entertaining to see how much Mom Gehrig comes around from the beginning of the movie to the end. She starts out condemning ballplayers as layabouts in short pants, and finishes the movie dismissing engineers as not having anything positive to contribute to society compared to ballplayers.

There's no doubting that part of the goal of this film is to rally the audience around those two All American staples of Mom and baseball (apple pie is nowhere to be seen). Released in 1942, not long after the US's entry into World War II, and at a time when several current ballplayers were leaving the game to go into service (including Gehrig's successor as the greatest Yankee in pinstripes Joe DiMaggio). But above all this, the most notable thing about the film in my mind is the identification of Gehrig as one of our greatest heroes.

I think the measure of a man is not so much in how he deals with his successes as how he copes with his failures, how he deals with adversity. I argued in a speechwriting, rhetoric, and criticism class that Gehrig's speech ranked second only to the Gettysburg Address for efficiency. The effectiveness of Gehrig's words to me epitomize a man who coped with adversity as well as any of us can. It's not in how far he hits the ball or how many he hits out of the park. It's in how he comports himself after he leaves the filed that tells us who he really is.