Well, it’s been forever since I did my Roger Ebert impression, so it’s time to do it again. I’ve spent years trying to convince my wife, son, and niece, that old movies can be really good (and that an inordinate number of them can also be really awful) and I seem to have succeeded to some degree. One of the best old movies is the Gary Cooper vehicle “Pride of the Yankees.”
“Pride” is a highly fictionalized version of the life of Lou Gehrig. In the flick, Gehrig is from a lower class family in New York. He loves baseball, as does his father (old line character actor Ludwig Stossel). Momma, played by another veteran of the era Elsa Janssen, thinks Lou should go to college and become a success. Of course Louie goes to school (Columbia) where he doesn’t exactly fit in with the frat, but also plays a little ball. He gains the attention of a newspaper man played by Walter Brennan who starts touting Gehrig to the Yankees. Eventually Momma gets sick, Gehrig drops out of school to play minor league ball in order to pay for her hospitalization. He makes the Yankees where he meets Babe Ruth (played by the Bambino himself), meets his future wife (Teresa Wright), and goes on to glory. Of course he ends up with ALS, gives a great speech on “Lou Gehrig Day”, then walks off into the tunnel as the ump yells “play ball” and the credits roll.
A lot of that is utter nonsense (although Gehrig was close to his mother), but it’s still fun. Gary Cooper as Gehrig is great and Teresa Wright as Mrs. G is maybe even better. As a couple they do a great job working together. And of course Walter Brennan is Walter Brennan and Dan Duryea does a fine job as the other reporter who favors Ruth over Gehrig. Finally, as an actor Ruth is a great ballplayer, but heck, it’s Babe Ruth and who cares if he can act?
It helps that you know how this is going to end before you start watching it. You can just sit back and enjoy the dialogue, the acting, the fun, and the nonsense. They do a good job with the atmosphere of the ballpark and the filming is excellent. Cooper was right-handed, Gehrig left-handed. To solve the problem they sewed “Yankees” onto Cooper’s uniform backwards (seekanY), had him bat and field right-handed, then simply reversed the film. It was a new technique for the era (although not the first time it was used) and is still something they do.
One major problem is the “Luckiest Man” speech. Cooper delivers it well, but it’s the wrong speech. For reasons I have never understood (except maybe they wanted “luckiest man” at the end of the speech) the film writers rewrote the speech. Frankly they didn’t make it better and I wish they’d left it alone.
The film won one Academy Award (for film editing–see what I mean about the reversed film). Cooper was nominated (he won two other Oscars), as was Wright (who won one). They lost to James Cagney and Greer Garson. It was also nominated for best picture, but lost to “Mrs. Miniver” (Garson’s picture). Frankly, “Pride of the Yankees” has withstood the test of 70 years much better. It’s worth seeing when it shows up (which it does on TCM frequently in April). It runs 128 minutes, is in black and white, a makes a great holiday gift.