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Baseball legend Babe Ruth made his last screen appearance in The Pride of the Yankees (1942), an immensely popular biopic of his longtime New York Yankees' teammate Lou Gehrig. Ruth made ten films before this, mostly shorts, essentially playing himself (with varying degrees of fictionalization). His one prior foray into feature-length film was in one of Harold Lloyd's most acclaimed comedies, Speedy (1928). Ruth, along with several other Yankees who had played with Gehrig, jumped at the chance to appear in this story about his teammate's rise to baseball stardom and his quiet, solid heroism in facing a fatal neuromuscular illness, ALS, now commonly known as Lou Gehrig Disease.
Ruth was dealing with his own health issues during the movie's production. At the time he was asked to be in the picture, he had just recovered from a heart attack and was nearly 270 pounds. He dieted strenuously to get down to presentable weight before shooting began, which made him edgy and irritable, a condition exacerbated by a car accident just weeks before production began. Then a cold and nervous exhaustion landed him in the hospital, and he recovered just in time to arrive on the set fresh and ready to work. But the tough shooting schedule, combined with his own tendency to keep late hours, weakened him and he caught pneumonia, landing in the hospital once again, this time reportedly near death for a couple of days.
In casting the lead, producer Samuel Goldwyn and director Sam Wood wanted an actor who projected quiet strength and masculine appeal, someone who would command the same heroic respect that Ruth and other ballplayers enjoyed. Despite a press campaign announcing a major talent hunt for Gehrig's portrayer, Wood and Goldwyn never intended to cast anyone but Cooper in the title role. But the actor was not eager to play the part; for one thing, he was looking forward to appearing in Cecil B. DeMille's Reap the Wild Wind (1942), which would have been a historic one-time-only pairing with John Wayne. But Goldwyn threatened legal action, and Cooper agreed to make this one last picture in his contract with the producer. It was up to Wood to deal with the other reason for Cooper's reluctance: Not only did he know or care little about baseball, he was very ill-suited to the physical demands of the sport, due to lack of experience and limitations imposed on him by years of on-set injuries. Furthermore, Cooper was right-handed and Gehrig threw with his left, a detail diehard baseball fans were not likely to overlook. To solve the problem, Cooper was given a Yankees uniform with all the lettering printed backwards; shots of the actor throwing the ball were then reversed. But even with this trick, Cooper, according to a retired ballplayer hired to coach him, threw "like an old woman tossing a hot biscuit." But after extensive coaching, the actor was able to pull off a reasonable facsimile of Gehrig's first-baseman skills.
Another problem with the casting involved Cooper's age at 41; he was a little too craggy and mature for the scenes of the young Gehrig. The problem was adeptly handled by cinematographer Rudolph Mate (who became a director later in his career). In the early scenes, he lighted Cooper from below to remove lines and wrinkles. As time passed in Gehrig's life story, Mate gradually reduced and finally eliminated the lighting effect.
Cooper wasn't the only one who didn't want to make The Pride of the Yankees at first. Goldwyn knew and cared even less about baseball than his star. Besides, sports pictures were considered box-office poison because women, who made up more than half the audience, didn't like them. Also, among most couples, women usually made the choice of what movie to see. Nevertheless, when Wood showed Goldwyn newsreel footage of Gehrig's famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, the producer, with tears in his eyes, gave the biopic the green light.
Cooper's rendering of that speech earned him a third Academy Award nomination and his performance earned him even more respect for his unassuming, deceptively simple acting style. Co-star Teresa Wright, only two years out of high school when she was cast as Gehrig's wife, later related how Cooper kept to himself on the set, going off quietly to whittle or ride his bike, preferring not to discuss his character or rehearse his scenes too much. Wood said the first time he directed the star he thought he was seeing some of the worst acting in the history of motion pictures. "I was amazed at the result on the screen," Wood said. "What I thought was underplaying turned out to be just the right approach. On the screen, he's perfect."
In addition to Cooper's nomination, The Pride of the Yankees garnered an additional ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Wright, Mate's cinematography, sportswriter Paul Gallico's original story, the screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz and Jo Swerling, and Daniel Mandell's editing (which took home the film's only Oscar). Today it still stands as one of the best and most popular screen biographies as well as the quintessential baseball movie.
Director: Sam Wood
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Herman Mankiewicz, Jo Swerling, story by Paul Gallico
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Editing: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Gary Cooper (Lou Gehrig), Teresa Wright (Eleanor Gehrig), Babe Ruth (Himself), Walter Brennan (Sam Blake), Dan Duryea (Hank Hanneman), Elsa Janssen (Mom Gehrig), Ludwig Stossel (Pop Gehrig), Virginia Gilmore (Myra Tinsley), and professional ball players Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, Mark Koenig, and Bill Stern.
BW-124m. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon