The are some actors who are forever connected to their movie characters and you can’t fathom anyone else in the role. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite? For me Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees” is another prime example. Cooper has that all-American quality that seemed to be present in Lou Gehrig. It also didn’t hurt that Cooper was a fantastic actor with the exact personality the role required.
“The Pride of the Yankees” is unique within its genre. It’s not your prototypical biopic. It’s more of a memorial to the beloved and respected star player from the New York Yankees. The film was released in 1942, only one year after Lou Gehrig died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (what is now commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was only 37 years old. Naturally his death was fresh on the minds of audiences and there were reservations about the film. Producer Samuel Goldwyn had the now famous opinion that baseball movies were “box office poison”, but he was convinced to go along with it and the end results were respectful and satisfying.
The film doesn’t spend much time following the baseball aspect of his life. Instead the intent is to show his relationships with his wife, his parents, and his teammates. It puts the spotlight on his rectitude and character, on his rise from an unassuming and earnest New York City boy to an unassuming and earnest Major League Baseball player. Screenwriters Jo Swerling and Herman Mankiewicz and director Sam Wood clearly understand Gehrig’s popularity and beloved status. Instead of trying to exploit or manipulate that, their movie aims to build upon the public’s respect by opening up Gehrig’s life which in turn validates his veneration.
The film spends a little time with Lou Gehrig as a young boy before moving to his days at Columbia University. Gehrig (Cooper) has already shown the knack he has for playing baseball, but it conflicts with the plans of his muleheaded but well-intended mother (Elsa Janssen) who wants him to be an engineer. Lou pursues baseball behind her back with the help of his more objective father (Ludwig Stossel) and soon finds himself in the New York Yankees minor-league system. It doesn’t take long for the shy and nervous Lou Gehrig to make it to the big leagues.
Lou is like a child among his heroes. Actual Yankee players Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, and Mark Koenig play themselves which had to be a ton of fun. At first Lou is treated with the normal rookie disregard, but before long his talents on the diamond earns him the respect of his teammates. He quickly becomes one of their best players and a fan favorite. It’s at a game in Chicago where he meets a woman named Eleanor (Teresa Wright). Their playful relationship soon blossoms into a full blown romance and soon they are married. It’s easy to believe and invest in them which makes it tougher once the news of Lou’s illness comes and it makes the ending absolutely perfect.
The movie spends a lot of its time developing the relationship between Lou and Eleanor. From the awkward but charming dates to their lives as a loving and devoted married couple. At first the two couldn’t be more opposite, but over time the film reveals the confident and spirited Eleanor and the shy and reserved Lou to be “companions for life”. Cooper is such a perfect fit sporting a tall athletic build with that signature common man personality. Surprisingly he knew nothing about baseball and had to learn the game for the role. He even learned how to bat left-handed – not an easy task. And the more I watch Teresa Wright the more I think she is one of the true greats. She received an Oscar nomination for this performance. She was also nominated that very same year for “Mrs. Miniver” and won. Several other supporting performances really work including the previously mentioned Babe Ruth as himself and Walter Brennan as a sportswriter and close friend to Gehrig.
It would be easy for a cynical moviegoer of today to dismiss the emotional pull of “The Pride of the Yankees” especially after being nurtured by modern biopic formulas. It would be easy to dismiss it as overwrought melodrama or cheesy sentimentality. But this is a movie that should be looked at through a unique lens. Its sensibility and relevance to the audiences of 1942 cannot be understated and that is an impact the filmmakers were specifically targeting. While I certainly wasn’t around during the time it was released, I’m still easily able to make that connection. That’s just one reason “The Pride of the Yankees” works so incredibly well.