“People all say that I’ve had a bad break. But today…today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
By early 1942, Gary Cooper had been under contract to producer Samuel Goldwyn since 1939 when a six-picture deal had been signed. Cooper had one commitment from that deal remaining and it would be satisfied by his taking on the lead role of playing Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. The film was one which Goldwyn had been at first reluctant to produce, feeling that baseball pictures were box-office poison. Niven Busch, later an important writer of westerns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was Goldwyn’s story editor at the time and he persisted with the idea of the Gehrig picture. Goldwyn was finally convinced when he screened footage of Gehrig’s moving “Appreciation Day” speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. Gehrig (known as the “Iron Horse”) had been stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (later often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), which ended his baseball career after 2130 consecutive games.
Shooting was carried out between February 11 and late April 1942 with the completed film premiering in New York in mid-July. The film was widely acclaimed by reviewers and the film-going public, and it proved to be the highest grossing film that Goldwyn had made up to that time. At Academy Award time, The Pride of the Yankees received 11 nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper), and Best Actress (Teresa Wright), but would only win for Best Editing (Daniel Mandell).
The film was previously available on DVD from HBO but only in a colorized version. MGM has now corrected that fault by releasing the film on DVD in black and white as originally shot.
A young Lou Gehrig finds himself at Columbia University studying engineering in an effort to follow in the footsteps of his Uncle Otto. It is the culmination of his mother’s dreams for Lou. Lou, however, is also proficient at baseball and when his mother falls seriously ill, Lou signs with the New York Yankees to play baseball professionally. After a stint in Hartford, he is called up to the big team. When first base man Wally Pipp is injured, Gehrig gets his chance to play and he begins a string of 2130 consecutive games (only surpassed by Cal Ripken Jr. almost 60 years later). His mother gradually becomes resigned to Lou’s new profession and becomes his greatest supporter. Lou meets an attractive young woman named Eleanor Twitchell attending a game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park and the two eventually fall in love, beginning a devoted eight-year relationship covering the last six years of Gehrig’s baseball career and his two years suffering from a life-threatening illness.
Many people cite The Pride of the Yankees as the best baseball film ever made and indeed it is an effectively done effort, but the film is overall less about baseball and more about the love affair between Gehrig and his wife Eleanor. Those seeking an in-depth portrait covering the baseball milestones of Gehrig’s splendid career — his seven world series appearances, most valuable player award in 1936, 1990 RBIs over 17 years, 33 lifetime grand slam homeruns — will not find it here. Yes, there is a baseball atmosphere to the film with several vignettes including Gehrig perfecting his hitting and fielding techniques while with a minor-league team in Hartford and later hitting two homeruns in a game as promised to a young boy in hospital. The presence of actual players appearing as themselves (such as Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Bill Dickey, and Mark Koenig) also adds to the baseball flavour. But this is a film that leans more to detailing Gehrig’s family life — his relationship with his parents and particularly his meeting and falling in love with Eleanor Twitchell of Chicago. It does so with sensitivity and good-heartedness. The film’s reputation rests on its depiction of Gehrig’s famous speech to the Yankee faithful delivered as the culmination of the appreciation day held for him at Yankee Stadium. Gary Cooper’s handling of this moment is poignant indeed and if you are moved to tears, you are not alone.
Much of the reason for the film’s emphasis on Gehrig’s personal life was the timing of the film’s release. It premiered only half a year after the United States’ entry into World War II, with many of the country’s men already headed into the various branches of the military. With the air of serious concern that existed, a film that focused strongly on the comparative triviality of baseball as a pastime for healthy young men was not then appropriate. It was also obvious that women would make up a larger percentage of the film-going public and the film was structured to appeal to them accordingly. Hence, the inclusion of a nightclub sequence featuring Veloz and Yolanda, a popular dance couple of the time, and the prominence given the song “Always” — a favourite of the Gehrigs.
Cooper was reportedly always Sam Goldwyn’s first choice to play Gehrig. Others were considered, including Spencer Tracy, Eddie Albert, Brian Donlevy, and Cary Grant. Once you see Cooper as Gehrig, however, he seems perfect for the role both physically and temperamentally, and the idea of any of the others ridiculous indeed. Cooper had one liability, though; he was right-handed while Gehrig was left-handed and batted accordingly. Cooper had to be able to bat left-handed to look realistic, but he was unable to develop a natural-looking swing. In the end, film editor Danny Mandell came up with a solution. Cooper batted right, but ran to third base rather than first. The film was flipped over in the editing process for those few shots, which gave the impression of a left-handed batter running to first.
Also starring in the film is a young Teresa Wright as Eleanor Gehrig (actually Wright’s first starring role). The 1940s was Wright’s decade, for she would go on to appear in a number of top films of the time including Mrs. Miniver, Shadow of a Doubt, The Best Years of Our Lives, Pursued and Enchantment. Ever a very natural and earnest actress, she enhanced virtually any film she was in and The Pride of the Yankees was no exception. Her portrayal of Eleanor Gehrig is funny and touching as appropriate, yet always conveying an air of mental strength that matches the physical strength of the healthy Gehrig. Among the supporting cast are such stalwarts as Walter Brennan playing a sports reporter who recognizes Gehrig’s potential, Dan Duryea in a typical weasel role as a reporter less impressed with Gehrig, and Elsa Janssen and Ludwig Stossel as Gehrig’s parents. The direction by Sam Wood is efficient and unobtrusive.
It is a distinct pleasure to see Babe Ruth appear as himself in The Pride of the Yankees. The camera treats Ruth well, even if he is presented as a bit of a buffoon in the film. One imagines that Ruth must have hoped that a film of his life would be made with as much class as this one about Lou Gehrig. How sad then that Ruth himself never received a screen biography worthy of the name, having to settle instead for the abominable The Babe Ruth Story (1948) in which he was portrayed by obnoxious William Bendix and 1992’s somewhat better The Babe with John Goodman.
As a final historical note, Lou Gehrig himself acted in a film called Rawhide, a Principal production released by Fox in 1938. The film was a Smith Ballew B-western in which Gehrig played himself as a rancher who settles out west after a baseball season and gets involved with a racketeer trying to extort money from other ranchers. Variety noted that Gehrig had a pleasing film presence that might translate into a film career.
MGM’s DVD release of The Pride of the Yankees is particularly welcome in light of the colorized versions of the film that have often provided the only way to find it on video lately. A previous DVD release by HBO suffered from this deficiency. MGM’s effort presents the film in black and white in its original full-frame aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The image transfer is not among the handful of top restorations of such vintage black and white material, but it looks very good indeed. There is some speckling and the odd blemish evident, but for the most part, the image looks crisp and clean. Shadow detail is very good and edge enhancement is not an issue.
The audio is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix that does a fully satisfactory job of conveying the story. Age-related hiss is minimal. Dialogue is clear and understandable. The lack of dynamic range, however, is evident in the rather lifeless rendition of the song “Always.” A similar mix is also offered in Spanish, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
After the enjoyable film, one turns to MGM’s nice array of supplements. Except there is no array. In fact, there’s nothing at all, not even a measly theatrical trailer. MGM has missed a splendid opportunity to do full justice to a classic film. Surely it would have been possible to unearth some actual newsreel footage of Lou Gehrig in action or even giving his farewell speech. Was an approach to Teresa Wright to do an audio commentary ever considered? Did MGM consider matching the film with a 1978 TV movie Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story? One suspects not. It’s just another old film to MGM. After all, why make the effort to provide any supplements for it when you’ve got swell stuff like What’s The Worst That Could Happen? or Buckaroo Banzai to lavish your efforts on?
The Pride of the Yankees is one of a handful of sports films that is really worthy of your attention. It provides a pleasing blend of baseball and love story that conveys affection for the game along with respect for a fine player and his final struggle without descending into bathos. MGM’s DVD is recommended because it makes a fine film available in an equally fine transfer (and finally in black and white).