MGM // 1942 // 128 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // April 7th, 2008
It's the Great American Story!
Once upon a time, baseball was the Great American Pastime. Baseball players were heroes, known for their prowess on the field, not the scandals of their personal lives.
Lou Gehrig was one of the great heroes of the game, and to this day, his story is inspiring. The son of poor German immigrants, Gehrig was a natural athlete who never coasted on his abilities and, from all accounts, a gentleman both on and off the field.
His achievements were legend. Most notable, perhaps, was his endurance: Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games, earning him the nickname "Iron Horse." The streak ended on May 2, 1939, when he took himself out of the lineup. He was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which would kill him just two years later. This record stood until 1995, when it was broken by Cal Ripkin, Jr.
The Pride of the Yankees gives us a beautiful rendering of Gehrig's story, from his early years to his retirement from baseball at age 36.
He never intended to be an athlete. More than anything, Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper, High Noon) wanted to please his mother by going to college and becoming an engineer.
But fate intervenes -- here in the form of sportswriter Sam Blake (Walter Brennan, Rio Bravo), who sees Gehrig's potential when he's playing college ball and brings a scout to sign him.
Gehrig becomes a member of the legendary New York Yankees of the '20s and '30s, playing alongside such greats as Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, and Babe Ruth (who plays himself here). He and Ruth enjoy a friendly rivalry, each championed by his own sportswriter -- Blake for Gehrig, and young Hank Hanneman (Dan Duryea, Ball of Fire) for Ruth.
But the most important person in his life is his wife, Eleanor (Teresa Wright), whom he loves beyond words.
When, after 16 seasons, he finds his game off, he works harder. But it's soon apparent that this is no slump. Lou and Eleanor have to face the fact that there is something very wrong with him.
If you are looking for a hard-hitting exposé of sports, a flawed anti-hero, a look at the pitfalls of fame, and such, then look elsewhere. The Pride of the Yankees is pure '40s Hollywood biopic. While I've heard it referred to as the best movie ever made about baseball, it really has very little to do with the game itself. Facts about Gehrig's career are presented in montages of newspaper headlines and summarized in bits of dialogue.
The film is really a love note -- to Lou Gehrig, to Gehrig and his wife, and to baseball and its fans. It is unabashedly sentimental and romantic.
It is also perfectly cast and acted, boasts a literate script (from Jo Swerling and Herman Mankiewicz), features great production values (it's a Samuel Goldwyn film), and is deeply moving. It might not be a great film, in the way that, say, Citizen Kane is a great film, but it is a great movie, the kind of classy, "Old Hollywood" production that makes us love the movies.
Gary Cooper was Goldwyn's first -- and really, only -- choice to play Gehrig, and he turns in one of his most memorable performances. Cooper was 41 when he made The Pride of the Yankees -- older than Gehrig was when he died in 1941, a couple of weeks shy of his 38th birthday. It's a little awkward early on, particularly when Cooper is portraying Gehrig during his college years and as a rookie player, but the actor's earnest performance and obvious affection for the man he's playing make these scenes work better than they should.
Although she never achieved status as a great actress, Teresa Wright appeared in some pretty great movies, including Shadow of a Doubt, The Little Foxes, The Men, and The Best Years of Our Lives. She had a wholesome sexiness and evident strength, sensitivity, and intelligence that made her ideal to play Eleanor Gehrig.
Cooper and Wright are a strong combination. They have great chemistry -- we don't doubt for a minute that these two are each other's great love. Their scenes together, scored with the gorgeous Irving Berlin song "Always," are heartfelt and moving, particularly in the latter part of the film, when the effects of Gehrig's illness -- portrayed with a terrifying and subtle honesty -- start manifesting.
Gehrig's brave battle with the disease that now bears his name is well known, and this knowledge adds a poignant overlay to the entire film. The final 30 minutes -- leading up to Cooper's iconic rendition of Gehrig's "Luckiest man" speech at Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day -- might be among the most honestly moving in the history of American film. If you can watch this without getting a lump in your throat, if not outright weeping, then I suspect you might be descended from Cyborgs.
The Pride of the Yankees: Collector's Edition is the fourth release of this film. The first was colorized; the second was bare-bones, but in the original black-and-white. The third release, just a year ago, was unconscionable: a "Sixty-Fifth Anniversary Edition" that was nothing more than the bare-bones black-and-white release reissued with a new slip cover.
The print for this edition seems to be the same one used for the previous two black-and-white releases. It's in reasonable shape for a film of its age, though far from pristine. The mono audio track, offered in English and Spanish and, new to this release, French, is acceptable, though at times the voices seem to fade off a bit.
For extras, we get six short features totaling about 40 minutes, including a "Making of" featurette with anecdotes from Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., film historian Richard Bann, and Gehrig biographer Ray Robinson; a memory piece from Robinson, who saw Gehrig play and attended Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day; a very nice piece on Gehrig memorabilia at the Baseball Hall of Fame; an interesting short about Irving Berlin's song "Always," and some information on ALS.
After all the bare-bones releases of this beloved film, it's nice to have some extras; unfortunately, these just don't go far enough.
What's glaringly absent here is Lou Gehrig. Robinson's recollections are lovely, and all the featurettes are interesting, but the visuals accompanying them are mostly clips and stills from the film. When someone talks about Gehrig's skill as a player, we get a clip from the film of Gary Cooper at bat rather than archival footage of Gehrig. Throughout the six featurettes, I counted less than a dozen stills of Gehrig. In addition, while I understand there exists no full audio clip of the famous speech, there are snippets of it. None is featured here. A more in-depth look at Gehrig's career would have been a great addition to this set.
The only contemporary baseball player we hear from is Curt Schilling, who heads up an ALS foundation. No Cal Ripkin Jr.? No current Yankee -- there must be one or two who are not caught up in the steroid scandal and who would have been able to contribute a few words on the man who brought so much glory to their team.
This is the last year for the current Yankee Stadium. After this season, "The House That Ruth Built," where legends were made named Mantle and Maris and DiMaggio and Stengel and Jackson and Gehrig and "Murderer's Row" -- as the fabled 1927 line-up was known -- will be torn down. The New Yankee Stadium will be right across the street. This all likely makes sense in terms of progress and commerce.
The Pride of the Yankees is a fine example of a Hollywood classic and a tribute to the enduring power of heroes. Whatever quibbles I might have about the disc, the film is above reproach.
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 1942
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "The Making of The Pride of the Yankees"
* "The Man Behind the Iron Horse"
* "What He Left Behind"
* "Always: The Story Behind the Song"
* "Lou Gehrig's Disease: The Search for a Cure"
* "Curt Schilling: A Legend on a Legend"
* Official Lou Gehrig Site
* MoreGehrig: A Lou Gehrig Site
* Eleanor Gehrig's Obituary
* Original DVD Verdict Review