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Typically, sports films, especially those from the Golden Age, are inspirational tales of motivation, ambition, and self-sacrifice for the team. Saturday's Hero (1951) makes for a notable exception, because it exposes the unethical practices of college football, much like Body and Soul (1947) and Champion (1949) revealed the dark side of boxing.
The drama stars handsome John Derek as rising football talent Steve Novak, who is the son of a Polish factory worker. Steve's skills at playing the game afford him the opportunity to escape the New Jersey mill town of his youth to attend Jackson University in the South. Steve selected Jackson because of its academic reputation, but few at the school are interested in insuring that the highly touted athlete gets a good education. Steve quickly catches on to the cushy set-up for athletes at Jackson: They are not expected to pass their courses; they are given jobs that amount to little more than showing up so they can earn extra money; and, overzealous alumni foot the bill for the tuition and expenses of the players from working class families. Alumnus T.C. McCabe, played by Sidney Blackmer, pays for many of Steve's expenses in exchange for the athlete making personal appearances at the rich man's business functions to lure investors and important people. The personal appearances interfere with Steve's studies and with returning home to visit his family. A nicely composed shot of Steve in his practice gear reveals the reality of his situation: His jersey reads "Property of Jackson U." Two events change the course of Steve's life and end his career at Jackson. He falls in love with McCabe's niece, Melissa, played by Donna Reed, and he is permanently injured when a player for the opposing team is paid by outside interests to hit him extra hard.
Though Saturday's Hero falls short of being a great film, or even a consistently good one, it does contain many strengths, and the back story behind the movie's critical reception is a window into the McCarthy era, giving the film an added interest. Strong costars, including Donna Reed, Aldo Ray, and Sidney Blackmer, add color and depth to their characters, even if their screen time is minimal. Blackmer is suitably oily as the powerful businessman T.C. McCabe, giving his scenes with Reed a disturbing edge not intended in the original script. E.G. Dougherty of the Production Code Administration picked up on the strange vibe between the two, calling it an "abnormal attraction." Producer Sidney Buchman trimmed some of their scenes, reducing Reed's screen time in the process. Yet, an undetermined tension remains in the scenes between Reed and Blackmer that adds to their characters' stiff relationship.
Saturday's Hero was Reed's first film at Columbia after signing with Harry Cohn's studio in 1950, and the role of Melissa is a step away from her star image as the wholesome girl next door. MGM had cultivated this sweet-faced image for Reed for almost ten years without casting her in many career-boosting roles, save for It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and They Were Expendable (1945). Reed managed to attract the attention of the critics in both films, but neither of them did well at the box office at the time of release. Discouraged, Reed was hoping for better roles at Columbia. In Saturday's Hero, Melissa is a socialite who is spoiled, unmotivated, and cynical, but her hardened shell is cracked by the straightforward sincerity of Steve Novak. Reed played Melissa as a tightly controlled woman who is smooth and measured on the surface but wound tight on the inside. Her natural warmth prevented the character from becoming brittle or unsympathetic. Though a successful deviation from her familiar star image, Reed's role and her performance were unfortunately lost in the criticism of the film's socio-political themes.
Aldo Ray was singled out in reviews more often than Reed for his turn as a less-than-bright jock who eats up the perks and advantages of being a star athlete at Jackson University. Saturday's Hero was the first film for Ray, who was still going by Aldo DaRe, but it was released after his second acting job in My True Story (1951). Ray's undisguised masculinity, husky voice, and boundless energy make his character, a hick from West Virginia named Gene Hausler, stand out among the crowd of lackluster, look-alike actors playing the other athletes.
Director David Miller and cinematographer Lee Garmes, a master at black and white photography, choreographed some exciting maneuvers on the playing field during the football sequences. Football movies from the past often relied on a stationary camera planted in the stands high above the action, but Garmes managed to get his cameramen among the players on the field during the maneuvers. In one scene, the camera follows closely behind a player as he sprints toward the goal line. It has the immediacy of a hand-held shot, though hand-held work would have been extremely difficult in 1951. The camerawork adds a you-are-there quality that would not be typical of sports films until years later with the advancement of lightweight camera equipment. Adding to the sense of realism was the use of college and professional football players instead of actors or stunt players during the game sequences.
Inadvertently adding to the sense of realism was the timing of the film's release. Just as Saturday's Hero was hitting the theaters, news of a basketball scandal involving West Point players was making headlines. Apparently, players were accused of participating in game-fixing, and most members of the varsity team were expelled. Several reviewers could not help but make the connection between the film and the scandal.
Despite the timeliness of the movie's release, and the support of a few reviewers, Saturday's Hero was not a box-office success, and it incurred the wrath of sportswriters and newspaper editors. Producer Buchman chose to make an expos of an all-American sport during the McCarthy era. His intent to expose what he called "the great American hypocrisy of football" was not well received by cultural pundits and editorial writers who were already defensive about all things American. A minor theme involving the class differences between Steve Novak and his fellow players from the wealthy, Southern families was seized upon as evidence of a communist influence. E.G. Dougherty of the Production Code Administration was the first to take note of this theme, complaining to Columbia's studio head, Harry Cohn, that the story "is one of shame-faced class distinction-one that milks and exploits that theme to its fullest extent. The story is thoroughly un-American-in fact, anti-American." Though Buchman made some changes based on Dougherty's remarks, he did not delete the references to class.
Further damaging the film was the fate of Sidney Buchman, who was called to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In a 1951 hearing, the producer admitted that he had once been a communist. When the film was released in Los Angeles, several loosely based anti-communist groups picketed theaters showing Saturday's Hero, calling Buchman, writer Millard Lampell, and actor Alexander Knox communists. Knox had never been a communist, but in the film, he delivers several lines regarding the unfairness of the class system in America. Apparently, that was enough to brand him a fellow traveler. To Harry Cohn's credit, he threatened legal action against some of the picketers on Knox's behalf. Two years later, Buchman was found guilty of contempt in another hearing before HUAC when he refused to list the names of other communists, and he was fined. At that time, both Buchman and Lampell were blacklisted by the film industry.
Aside from Knox, the principal actors in Saturday's Hero escaped the shadow of HUAC and the blacklist, though the film itself fell victim to the bad publicity.
Producers: Sidney Buchman and Buddy AdlerDirector: David MillerScreenplay: Sidney Buchman and Millard Lampell based on Lampell's novel The HeroCinematography: Lee GarmesEditor: William LyonArt Director: Robert PetersonMusic direction: Morris StoloffMusic composer: Elmer Bernstein, Saul Chaplin, and StoloffCostume Designer: Jean LouisCast: Steve Novak (John Derek), Melissa (Donna Reed), T.C. McCabe (Sidney Blackmer), Professor Megroth (Alexander Knox), Eddie Abrams (Elliott Lewis), Coach Tennant (Otto Hulett), Gene Hausler (Aldo DaRe).
by Susan Doll