The Best Movie Critic + TIME

Notes on Schmaltz: The Pride of the Yankees

Bah! First my PS3 gets all hackzors and then Blogger goes down. Here is my planned post from last night.
Justin here with some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that Notes on Camp contributor, Ryan Thompson, is taking a hiatus from the column. Ryan got a promotion at work that means he’ll have less time to get drunk watch schlock. He assures us that he'll be back someday. Hopefully now he can afford something better than box wine… The good news is that starting next week we will have an awesome guest contributor.

In the meantime, I give you a one-off Notes on Schmaltz: The Pride of the Yankees, cause it’s too good to be campy.

I love baseball; try as I might to be too hip to care about baseball, I can’t escape its gravitational pull. Every spring that force is a little stronger. I used to be able to avoid reading the sports page or listening to the game. This may go down as the year where things got really serious. I’m watching Ken Burns’ Baseball, I’m reading George Will’s Men at Work, I’m following a daily baseball podcast, and not only am I listening to practically every Rockies game, I’m listening to teams play that I don’t even care about. Naturally, this got me interested in checking out some baseball movies. I tried Cobb, and much like that movie’s eponymous subject, I hated it. That led me to the Gary Cooper classic, The Pride of the Yankees.

The Pride of the Yankees stars Cooper as the legendary Yankees star, Lou Gehrig. Gehrig is of course known for two things, playing 2,130 consecutive games and the terrible disease that bears his name now. Gehrig was the son of immigrants and from very meager beginnings pulled himself up to be one of the best baseball players of all time. By all accounts, he was a swell guy, a hard worker, and a devoted husband. In other words, Gehrig was the archetypal hero of golden age Hollywood.

This puts director, Sam Wood in an interesting place. Wood clearly understands how to balance story and sentiment. He directed one of my all-time favorite movies, The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. In The Pride of the Yankees though, Wood has to balance storytelling with a modicum of truth. Luckily, there was a decent amount of historical fact to help him spin drama. Gehrig had the perfect foil in Babe Ruth. The Bambino was everything that Gehrig wasn’t, a brash womanizer, a drunk, an unreliable player wracked with scandal on field and off. Interestingly, Babe Ruth plays himself in this movie. Though his screen time is brief, it is fascinating. Ruth’s trespasses are not so much as alluded to in the movie, though the audiences of 1942 would no doubt be intimately familiar with them. Otherwise, Wood makes conflict where he can. Gehrig’s fraternity brothers pick on him early in the movie and he has to deal with drama between his mom and his wife later on.

The most important thing to remember when watching The Pride of the Yankees is that the movie was released a mere 13 months after Gehrig’s death. Anything remotely controversial is off-limits. Gehrig has been mythologized so much, I’m not sure there even was anything controversial about him. Gehrig’s descent into ALS is handled with so much tact, that it could actually be a little confusing for some viewers. Cooper has trouble hitting the ball and complains about shoulder issues. I’ve seen archival footage of Gehrig trying to hit in the throes of ALS, and it was heartbreakingly devastating and anything but subtle.

Cooper is both the films’ greatest asset and liability. From about the time that the love story between Gehrig and hot dog heiress Eleanor Twitchell takes off, Cooper owns the movie. He absolutely has the self-confident but humble act down pat. He’s handsome but not a pretty boy, athletic but wiry. You actually believe the guy during the classic scene where Gehrig promises an ailing child that he’ll hit two homers for him in one game. It’s schmaltz as only Hollywood and Cooper can deliver. The weridness comes in during the college years of the movie. Cooper was 41 during production. To put it lightly, he does NOT look like a college student. And beyond that, Gehrig died when he was only 37.

Then there’s the famous scene on the day of his retirement when before a sold out Yankee Stadium, Gehrig delivers his, “luckiest man on the face of the earth,” speech. If that doesn’t move you, then you’re not human. This speech actually happened. I can’t imagine anything like that happening today. It’s amazing that event actually happened, and frankly, it’s why this movie exists. A simple, beautiful, wholly sincere sentiment from a dying man who inspired millions by playing a children’s game. For all of Cooper’s talent and Sam Wood’s skill, they never manager to transcend that moment from real life.

best, Cinema, drama, favorite, hope, legend, Movie, review, sport, and more:

Notes on Schmaltz: The Pride of the Yankees + TIME