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Let's face it, we're a jock culture, and we're all too fast to ascribe heroism to those individuals who can run, jump, field and throw with physical ability beyond the norm. However, American sports history has seen a rare few athletes whose accomplishments can be regarded as heroic in every sense of the term, and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) offers a worthwhile cinematic portrait of perhaps the most admirable sports hero of all.
Jackie himself starred in this low-budget "B" effort that was shot in the off-season following his third campaign with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Within that span following his groundbreaking entry into Major League Baseball, he had twice led the Bums to the National League pennant, and his professional star was at its brightest. "I thought Jack's decision to act in a feature film was daring," Rachel Robinson wrote in her memoir of her late husband, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1996). "He had never acted, learned lines, or been involved in any drama--except the one he created on the baseball field."
The film's narrative provides a straightforward account of Robinson's life, starting at the sandlots of the all-white Pasadena neighborhood where he spent his youth. While his innate ability leads to a full scholarship and a four-letter performance at UCLA, his efforts to line up a college coaching position garner only a small mountain of rejection letters. While commiserating with his older brother Mack (Joel Fluellen), an Olympic medalist resigned to utilizing his own degree for "good, steady work" sweeping streets, Jackie finally receives a concrete offer of employment -- from the military.
With his discharge, Jackie accepted an offer to play the 1945 season with the Negro League, and found himself quickly dispirited by the demeaning segregationist treatment that he comes to expect as part of life on the road. Still, the caliber of his play did not go unnoticed by Dodger general manager Branch Rickey (Minor Watson), who saw in him both the on-field skill and strength of character to challenge professional baseball's long-standing color barrier. Robinson signed to play with the Dodger's triple-A farm club in Montreal under the proviso that he turn the other cheek to the torrent of race-baiting that he was certain to receive.
In depicting the hateful invective that spewed from opposing dugouts and bleachers when Jackie first entered pro ball, The Jackie Robinson Story is surprisingly candid for the era in which it was released, and it still bears impact when viewed today. Through it all, Robinson not only played but played like an all-star, making converts of the doubters in the stands and within his own clubhouse when he reached the majors and took Brooklyn to the league championship.
For a non-actor, Jackie acquitted himself extremely well before the camera. Frankly, if all he had to bring to the performance was the pure strength of his convictions, that was more than enough. It's doubtful any trained thespian could so convincingly convey in a single look the hurt and anger from the jeers and snubs, as well as the sheer will to put those emotions in a back pocket and play to the best of his ability. "Theater audiences cried at the parts where Jack, with great humility, accepted the abuse heaped upon him and walked away," Rachel Robinson wrote. "His dignity and strength were touching to see."
While The Jackie Robinson Story isn't without its share of stilted performances, several members of the cast make a memorable impression. Most noteworthy is the young Ruby Dee in one of her first screen roles as Rachel Robinson; she turns the cliched stereotype of the baseball wife into a genuine character whose quiet resolve helped her husband to endure difficult times. Other standouts are the veteran actress Louise Beavers as Jackie's doting mother, and Richard Lane as Clay Hopper, the Montreal skipper who was forced to reconsider his own prejudices by Jackie's presence.
Producer: Mort Briskin
Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Arthur Mann, Lawrence Edmund Taylor
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Editing: Arthur H. Nadel, Maurie M. Suess
Music: David Chudnow, Herschel Burke GilbertPrincipal Cast: Jackie Robinson (Himself), Ruby Dee (Rae Robinson), Minor Watson (Branch Rickey), Louise Beavers (Jackie's Mother), Richard Lane (Hopper).
By Jay Steinberg