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Although he was considered the greatest football coach of all time and the man who revolutionized the sport (by introducing the passing game), most moviegoers today are probably not that familiar with the name Knute Rockne. Yet the film biography, Knute Rockne All American (1940), has achieved a certain immortality because of a line spoken by a player who is on screen for only a fraction of the entire film. It helps that that actor went on to become the 40th President of the United States. As flippant, independent Notre Dame team player George Gipp, Ronald Reagan not only had a part that helped boost his career despite its brief screen time, he also got to do a memorable deathbed scene uttering words that were recently ranked number 89 in the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest movie quotes of all time: "Tell 'em to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper."
Reagan almost didn't get the part at all. The young actor, a featured contract player but not a major star at Warner Brothers studio, was inspired by the story of Rockne, the Norwegian immigrant who served as head coach of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame from 1918 to 1930, racking up the greatest all-time winning percentage with 105 victories, 12 losses, 5 ties and 6 national championships. But beyond this impressive career, Reagan was most taken with the father-son relationship between the coach and Gipp. One of the all-time great stars of the sport, the young player died of pneumonia just two weeks after his final game. Reagan desperately wanted to see Rockne's story on film - with himself as the Gipper. He haunted every office on the lot for months, telling his idea to anyone who would listen, questioning the best way to go about getting the project going. One day, he heard that the studio had in fact planned a production and was already considering a number of other young actors for the part, including William Holden, John Wayne, Robert Young, Robert Cummings and - thanks to a successful test - frontrunner Dennis Morgan. Reagan rushed into a producer's office, begging for a shot at the role but was told he wasn't believable as one of the greatest football players of all time. Finally, he went home and dug up photos of himself as a college player and convinced the producer to give him a screen test. He was lucky enough to test not with some stand-in, the usual practice, but with star Pat O'Brien himself, in full Rockne make-up, a gesture for which Reagan was always grateful to the older actor.
O'Brien, however, wasn't a shoo-in for the part either, much as he wanted and campaigned for it. Casting the beloved Rockne was a difficult task. The coach's distinctive image and style were still fresh in everyone's minds, having died tragically only nine years earlier in a plane crash at the age of 43. The studio was leaning toward James Cagney, its biggest male star and box office champion; Cagney thought the role would get him out of the gangster typecasting he'd fallen into in the 1930s. But the actor had also quite openly supported the anti-Franco (and by implication, anti-Catholic) Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, so Notre Dame and church officials nixed him as a choice. Warners also considered Spencer Tracy, but couldn't get him on loan from MGM. O'Brien's heavy lobbying finally paid off, although executives still had concerns about the 40-year-old actor pulling off the scenes where his character is a younger man. Giving in to O'Brien as the prime choice for the role, Associate Producer Bob Fellows nevertheless dropped a memo to Executive Producer Hal Wallis in January 1940 suggesting they get the actor into a trainer's hands: "If he would be willing to cooperate, I know we could get those double chins off and knock 10 or 15 years off his looks." Apparently, O'Brien went along with the idea, getting the role of his career and becoming indelibly connected with Rockne in the mind of the public. (Cagney, by the way, finally got his chance to break the gangster mold and counter the image concerns brought on by his political stances by playing the most American of all roles in Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942).
Several real-life sports figures appeared as themselves in the picture, including Glenn "Pop" Warner, for whom pee-wee football leagues are named. And the film contains actual newsreel footage of Notre Dame football games. It is also one of only two movies to be filmed on the university campus. The other was Rudy (1993).
In 1997, Knute Rockne All American was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board to be one of the movies preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Producers: Hal B. Wallis, Robert Fellows
Screenplay: Robert Buckner
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editing: Ralph Dawson
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Original Music: Heinz Roemheld (uncredited)
Cast: Pat O'Brien (Knute Rockne), Gale Page (Bonnie Skiles Rockne), Ronald Reagan (George Gipp), Donald Crisp (Father Callahan).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon