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In the fall of 1938, Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton (1912-1982) was regarded as one of the elite young starters in baseball. The rangy Texas farmboy, who had first been summoned to the majors by the ChiSox in 1934, had just reeled off his second consecutive 15-win season, and the promise of his career seemed boundless. It all came crashing in on him that November, when he shot himself in the right knee in a hunting accident, and amputation of his leg was necessary to save his life.
Over the course of the next several years, Stratton gained enough facility maneuvering on an artificial limb that he was willing to attempt a career comeback. In 1946, he accepted an invitation to play in the East Texas League, and proceeded to win 18 games that summer. When approached by MGM to option his story, the ballplayer initially demurred, but reconsidered when the studio talked about the inspiration it would grant disabled veterans of WWII who were struggling to deal with their circumstances. The end result of Hollywood's labors, The Stratton Story (1949), was a major hit in its day and remains one of the screen's most compelling sports biographies.
When the originally slated Van Johnson vacated the title role, and Gregory Peck subsequently passed, MGM turned to James Stewart, who was in fact Stratton's own preference to portray the pitcher. As recounted in Jhan Robbins' Everybody's Man: A Biography of Jimmy Stewart, the athlete knew his instincts were correct when he first screened the film: "When I saw Jimmy on the screen, I wept. He was more me than I am!"
Douglas Morrow's Oscar-winning screen story took its share of dramatic license with the facts of Stratton's odyssey, but the results are no less satisfying for it. The film opens on Barney Wile (Frank Morgan), an ex-big leaguer reduced to riding the boxcars, stumbling upon a semi-pro game where the young pitcher handily dominates his opposition. Recognizing Monty's potential, Wile insinuates himself into the aspiring pro's life, agreeing to help work the Stratton homestead while spending his off-hours honing the hurler's skills.
Monty's loving but pragmatic mother (Agnes Moorehead) finds his ambitions a waste of time, but ultimately gives her blessing once Wile deems him ready to crash the White Sox' spring training camp in California. Stratton's arm is sufficient to wear down the skepticism of ChiSox manager Jimmy Dykes (cast as himself) and earn a contract. In the course of that first pre-season, the shy prospect found himself roped into a disastrous double date with a pretty visitor from Omaha named Ethel Milberger (June Allyson). Regardless, the two ultimately click, and marry once Stratton makes the majors to stay.
From there, The Stratton Story follows the pitcher's emergence as an All-Star up until his fateful accident, as well as a descent into self-pity that his wife and mother were frustratingly powerless to curb. After watching his infant son take his first steps, Stratton makes the choice to use and master his prosthesis, and determinedly takes the mound in the comeback exhibition that exhilaratingly caps the film.
Stewart's preparation for his role was painstaking in many senses of the term. He spent three months consulting with Stratton, and put in five hours a day with various big leaguers perfecting his form. The results are evident in the game sequences of The Stratton Story, where he is utterly credible on the mound and at the plate. Further, beyond researching with physical therapists and orthopedists, the actor donned a steel harness which forced a limp.
Stewart found an ideal complement in the homespun wholesomeness of Allyson, and while directors and cameramen would always have a challenge resolving their 14" height differential, appreciative audiences returned to see them team in The Glenn Miller Story (1953) and Strategic Air Command (1955). The Stratton Story marked the final directorial credit for the dependable studio veteran Sam Wood, whose distinguished resume included another foremost baseball biodrama, The Pride of the Yankees (1942). In addition to Dykes, the film also cast major leaguers like Bill Dickey and Gene Bearden to heighten the authentic feel.
Fittingly, just as its protagonist defied all the naysayers, The Stratton Story turned on the conventional wisdom about sports movies being box-office poison and knocked it out of the park, becoming the sixth-biggest theatrical draw of 1949 and Stewart's first bona fide hit since his return from World War II.
Producer: Jack Cummings
Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: Douglas Morrow, Guy Trosper
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Editing: Ben Lewis
Cast: James Stewart (Monty Stratton), June Allyson (Ethel Stratton), Frank Morgan (Barney Wile), Agnes Moorehead (Ma Stratton), Bill Williams (Eddie Dilson), Bruce Cowling (Ted Lyons), Cliff Clark (Josh Higgins).
BW-107m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg