You do know that the life of Jackie Robinson is great fodder for a movie, don’t you? What you may not know is that it’s already been done. This is a quick look at “The Jackie Robinson Story”, a movie done in 1950 starring (drum roll, please) Jackie Robinson.
Back in 1950, someone figured out there was money to be made in filming a highly fictionalized version of Jackie Robinson’s life. You could make money, especially among black audiences and with baseball fans (or at least some baseball fans), so a short (76 minute) movie was made. They got Robinson to play himself (and I tried but couldn’t find out how much he was paid). Ruby Dee played his wife and did easily the best job in the movie. Her job was to play a supportive wife and she did it well. Longtime character actor Minor Watson (the guy on the right in the picture above) played Branch Rickey and I’m fairly sure the Mahatma would have approved of the interpretation. Richard Lane (on the left of the picture above) is Robinson’s first manager in the minors, Clay Hopper. I’m not so sure Hopper would have approved of the interpretation. Billy Wayne (who is neither in the picture above nor related to John Wayne) plays Clyde Sukeforth and does a good job.
So far I’ve said some good things about the flick. Time to change that. First, there’s a reason Robinson played second instead of becoming an actor. Honestly, he’s not very good. He doesn’t stumble over his lines (I have no idea how many takes were necessary) but there’s no conviction in them either. Second, large chunks of Robinson’s life are either shot past (like his wonderful college career) or ignored (like his army career with the court-martial and its verdict). You learn he played a little at college and he met Rachel (and Dee does a great job in the early scenes), then it’s on to baseball and glory. Third, except for the Robinsons, Rickey, Sukeforth, and Hopper all the other sports figures are fictional. There’s no Reese, no Walker, no Durocher. There’s a guy who hates him, a guy who likes and admires him, a guy who hates him but comes to like and admire him, but they are fictional people. Maybe they couldn’t get Reese to do the movie, maybe Walker didn’t want to be shown up as a jerk, maybe Leo asked for too much money. I don’t know what happened but they chose to fictionalize the players (at least they didn’t have the Dodgers win the World Series or anything). There’s also the obligatory fan who sits next to Rachel and starts out hating Robinson (not knowing the Rachel is his wife) and begins to like him because of his play.
It’s tough to recommend this movie, because it’s just awful. But having said that both Dee and Watson do great jobs and are worth a look. And it is Robinson playing Robinson. He’s not very good, but you can at least see Jackie Robinson. See it if you want, but don’t expect “Casablanca”.
BTW, I found a copy for one dollar at a thrift store, so it’s available on DVD if you want a copy. The dollar copy had no bells and whistles to go with the movie.