Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 26, 2008)
Most successful baseball movies involve fictional subjects. However, one of the earliest hits in the genre provided a biographical piece, or at least it purported to do so. 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees attempted to tell the tale of the great Lou Gehrig, the Hall of Fame first baseman whose career ended abruptly when he became afflicted with a fatal disease.
I state that Pride purported to tell Gehrig’s story for it seems clear that the movie only tangentially related to the facts of the ballplayer’s life. Released barely a year after Gehrig’s death, there was no way anyone would make a “warts and all” biography at that time. Heck, for all I know, maybe Gehrig possessed no warts to display. However, I can’t help but feel that Pride provided an awfully false and superficial look at his life.
The film starts during Lou’s childhood, when we see him as he attempts to play on a neighborhood team. After he finally gets in the game, we get a sense of his talent with a bat. The movie soon skips ahead to Lou’s college years at Columbia, and we watch adult Gehrig (Gary Cooper) as he struggles to pay his tuition. Despite his mother’s (Elsa Janssen) insistence that he avoid sports and become an engineer, Lou eventually gives in to pressure and becomes a star athlete.
Of course, he excels at baseball, and a newspaper columnist named Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) soon touts Gehrig’s talent to the world. Eventually the all-powerful Yankees come a-calling, and they eventually make him an offer he can’t refuse. Lou tries to come clean to his mama, but when he tells her he’s headed to the Yankees’ farm club in Hartford, she thinks he says he’s going to Harvard. Lou can’t bear to break her heart, so he enters into a complex ruse to hide the truth from her while he works his way through the minors.
Eventually, Lou does tell his mother the truth, and in time, she comes to accept his chosen profession. Along the way, rookie Lou meets the love of his life in Chicago. The daughter of a local tycoon, his initial encounter with Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright) goes poorly; after he falls over some bats she calls him “Tanglefoot”. However, the pair soon connect and become fairly inseparable. Marriage follows not long after that, and we watch the young couple as Lou’s career continues to prosper.
Of course, we all know where this will go, and eventually Gehrig starts to falter at baseball. The last act of the film enters tragic territory. Lou takes himself out of a game when he realizes that he simply can’t perform anymore, and that ends his then-record streak of 2130 consecutive contests in which he played. The film concludes with the famous “luckiest man” speech Gehrig made in front of a packed house at Yankee Stadium on a day set aside to honor the legend.
Pride rarely focuses on Gehrig’s career, as it prefers to examine his personal life. That would be fine if the movie actually attempted any form of depth. Instead, his conflicts with his mother receive comic treatment, and his time with Eleanor offers a candy-colored romantic paradise. Gehrig never remotely comes across as a realistic character, and these scenes seem to exist for one reason alone: to make the tragedy of Gehrig’s end appear all the more heartbreaking. I guess the filmmakers felt that if the movie portrayed him as flawed in any way, we’d not care if he died. (For the record, Gehrig doesn’t die during the flick; though virtually every member of the crowd knows of his end, the movie concludes with Gehrig’s departure from the field after his speech.)
Admittedly, I didn’t expect anything harsh and realistic from Pride, but the film’s light touch really seemed weak. It portrayed the ballplayer as an unrealistically perfect icon, and the tone remained exceedingly puffy and light with no real exploration of his personality. The movie also seemed badly padded, as we encountered many extended - and pointless - sequences. Why did we see a very long dance sequence that involved a couple named Veloz and Yolanda? I have no clue - I guess audiences at the time simply dug that kind of stuff, even if it had no place in the film.
I’d like Pride a lot more if it focused more strongly on Gehrig’s career. Imagine that - a baseball movie with some baseball in it! Unfortunately, Pride just glossed over Lou’s successes in the most routine manner so we can quickly see more schtick with his wacky parents or watch him act lovey-dovey with Eleanor. Even when the movie did deal with baseball, it offered absurd moments like his alleged promise to a sick kid to hit two home runs in a World Series contest.
Pride even botched the movie’s only sure-fire moment, the concluding speech at Yankee Stadium. Gehrig’s real-life comments always stir emotions in listeners, but Pride couldn’t leave well enough alone. As Cooper delivers the original speech, we hear an announcer narrate everything he does! Why couldn’t they simply let the moment stand? These remarks ruined a moment that otherwise would have provided something of worth in this silly film.
I found The Pride of the Yankees to offer a major disappointment as a movie. While I didn’t anticipate a thoroughly factual examination of the life of Lou Gehrig, I expected something more than this lightly comic romantic piffle. The film focused on fantasy and couldn’t even deliver any good baseball moments. I’ll say this: it was cool to see Babe Ruth play himself. Otherwise, Pride failed to engage me.