While watching the Golden Age Hollywood classic Pride Of The Yankees (1942), a biopic about the then recently deceased Lou Gehrig, many thoughts and frustrations ran through my head. I’ve been wanting to write about an older classic film for a while, and this film somehow had so little going on it was fascinating and bothersome and the one thought stood out above the others that provoked me into a writing storm was:
Hey that Babe Ruth guy sure can act.
In all honestly, I don’t know what to make of this movie. I guess I’m glad that this movie decided to elevate someone who, as far as I know, wasn’t a piece of shit, but it does so for the sake of propaganda (which is admitted in the film’s opening crawl).
He’s the blandest, most boring everyman who doesn’t get into trouble and is never the subject of scandal. He loves his job and he does it well. That’s what everyone should strive for according to this film; that ultimate Calvinist rhetoric of forsaking any kind of immaturity, or personality for that matter, in favor of pure dedication towards work. This isn’t speculation or interpretation, this is all actual dialogue and opening crawl text, which glorifies Gehrig as a hero for this reason. Like, implying the <b>real<b> reason he was one of the best baseball players of all time was because of how hard of a worker he was from a young age, despite the pleas of his overbearing parents to study engineering.
This is bothersome, because the film portrays Gehrig as a child prodigy at baseball, so it’s not like you ever see him work to get better at the sport. If anything, when he signs on to the Yankees he waits patiently like a Good Boy until he is allowed his time to shine at bat. It’s just so emblematic of the contradictory nature of the American Dream that somehow manages to glorify exceptionalism (Gehrig defying his mother to play baseball and miraculously being good at it) while punishing anyone who attempts to break the mold of the hardworking everyman – that is, unless they are <i>really<i> exceptional. Do what you’re told, unless you know better. This is a film that attempts to celebrate modesty over showboating excess (Ruth), but in painting Gehrig as such he becomes such a blank slate that his actions lack meaning.
I shouldn’t be surprised that old Hollywood could make effective propaganda. The film is comprised of scene after scene of mini-Full House-esqe arcs in which Gehrig confronts a non-problem (his mom doesn’t approve of his wife’s taste in wallpaper!) which gets resolved within that same scene or a scene later. It’s very non-confrontational and feel-good and conveys the illusion that Gehrig is growing as a person over time. There is some good visual storytelling utilizing depth of field cinematography that I found interesting when it was used to single out Gehrig as a loner (an exceptional loner!).
Ultimately, the filmmaking employed here is very bland. For a film so admittedly well paced, I could not get over how short scenes are and how much it feels like the filmmakers jump around when exploring Gehrig’s life. We are fed information about Gehrig, but not anything about how he feels about what he’s going through. There are two very small nuggets of conflict that suggest otherwise: his fight with a frat brother who courted a woman he liked and his lying to mother about signing on with the Yankees. This is within the first 30 minutes of the film and neither event really leads to anything of much consequence. Gehrig’s mother even flips down the portrait of the ancestor to whom she wanted her son to aspire – the engineer who is jokingly denounced as nothing but a ditch-digger. I guess he wasn’t an exceptional enough soldier.
Perhaps the overzealous portrayal of Gehrig in such a light is due to the fact that Gehrig had died a year before this film’s release. I would be quicker to call this exploitative, which it is, but I understand that his career helped define earlier American pop-culture, and the creation of a project like this – with his actual former teammates signing on to feature in the film – is practically instinctual, especially when you consider that the United States had just entered World War II. It was important to remind the public to not worry too much about those who face certain death, as they were willing to face it with bravery. Look up to their example, and honor them by working hard at what you do best too. I may have looked too much into a film as innocuous as this, but something about how cheesy and two-dimensional this movie is got to me. Gehrig’s mother insists that they came to America because it offered equal opportunity for all, but back then (and still now) that was simply not true. Like many films of Golden Age Hollywood, this film sells you on a comfortable lie and it makes the absolute lack of any kind of nuance or complexity in the story even more frustrating from a modern perspective. It by no means holds up. I would not want to take away Gehrig’s ability to inspire others if he was truly the boy scout this film makes him out to be, but there are certainly better ways to learn about him and his achievements. If he really was the luckiest man on the face of the earth, then it was because he had a life that would’ve made Norman Rockwell blush.