Cast & Crew
On a Saturday afternoon in autumn in a small mill town in New Jersey, halfback Steve Novak leads his high school football team to a 21-0 victory. Following the game, Steve, his father Jan, a Polish immigrant, and his older brother Joey, a wounded, unemployed war veteran, sing together in Polish outside the neighborhood bar. Steve wants to go to college at Jackson in Virginia, considered one of the best schools in the world, but local newspaperman Eddie Abrams discourages him, saying that the school does not pay its players and that his chances for becoming an All-American there would be slim because Jackson is not a top football school. After graduation, a representative from Jackson, which is trying to build a good team, invites Steve to enroll, saying that occasionally certain alumni benefactors will "adopt" a boy and pay for his tuition. While Eddie accuses Steve of desiring to become "Joe College," a rich snob in his eyes, Jan proudly sends Steve off with a saying in Polish. Joey, drunk and feeling sorry for himself, snidely suggests that Steve may want to change his name from "Novak" to "Nelson." Steve becomes the top scorer in the freshman circuit as Jackson wins its games by large margins. His teammates include a number of working-class youths, who contrast greatly with the rest of the student body. Gene Hausler, from a mining town, brags to Steve that he is getting money under the table for playing and encourages him to do the same. When Hausler calls the school a "racket," Bob Whittier, a local rich boy, is insulted, as his father is an alumnus. Steve soon encounters Melissa, the niece and ward of his benefactor, millionaire entrepreneur T. C. McCabe, when she flirts with him at a fraternity party. In his sophomore year, at a party following the varsity's eighth straight victory, Melissa taunts Steve, calling him "T. C.'s latest toy," but before he leaves to go home for Christmas, she kisses his cheek and says he is very sweet. At home, Steve finds that Joey has a new job. During the family's Christmas celebration, Melissa phones and says she is nearby. Steve meets her and they kiss passionately, but she slaps him when he tries to go further. She then relates that after her own mother, who was poor, died, she went to live with T. C. and his wife. She warns that she is now the only thing left in T. C.'s life and that he will try to hold onto her. At Jackson, Steve's adviser, Professor Megroth, a stuffy but devoted academic, instructs Steve that the ability to examine oneself honestly is a sign of growing up. When another school offers Steve a lot of money to switch schools, Steve refuses to listen. Hausler, whose recent injury has increased his cynicism, is about to accept until Eddie, now the head of public relations for athletics at Jackson, convinces T. C. to increase the amount paid to the top players. Melissa, whom T. C. sent to Mexico to get her away from Steve, returns against his orders and tells Steve she realizes that this is the first time anyone has ever mattered to her. Steve's school work suffers, as a publicity campaign instigated by T. C. keeps him on the road, but his professors give him passing grades. As Steve's junior year begins, he and Melissa declare their love for each other, and Steve learns in a letter from Joey that their father has been ill. During a tough game, Steve's arm is injured from a number of hard tackles. At halftime, the coach has the doctor inject him with novocaine, and Steve remains in the game. In the second half, he does not get up following a hard tackle by three opponents, one of whom later apologizes, saying that $150 was offered if he put Steve out of the game. Later, Steve is disheartened when Whittier refuses to intercede to help a fellow teammate, Francis Clayhorne, also from a working-class family, who is about to be expelled. The doctor diagnoses a shoulder separation and warns Steve he will risk having a bad shoulder for the rest of his life if he continues to play. T. C. tells Steve that he will have a chance to become All-American in his senior year if he plays. Knowing that now he cannot compete academically, Steve continues to play despite suffering hard tackles, until he becomes dazed. He is taken to a hospital, where he confides to Professor Megroth that he now has really looked at himself, and that rather than stay at Jackson and be a "charity case," he wants to leave. As Steve packs, Eddie brings a telegram from Joey saying that Jan died of a heart attack. Melissa wants to go back with Steve and marry him, and he admits that until now he has been ashamed to tell her about his home in the mill town, or his immigrant father. When Melissa tells T. C. that she is going to marry Steve, T. C., who says Steve has nothing to offer her, threatens him with his cane. Melissa separates them and tells Steve to go, but promises to follow the next day. At home, after Joey berates Steve for never making time for their father, Steve knocks his trophies off their shelf and admits to his brother that he quit school and took a beating. He asks Joey for help to get a job so that he can go to night school. Joey puts his hand on Steve's shoulder and proudly calls his brother an "educated man." The phone then rings with news from Melissa that she plans to arrive in the morning.
Howard St. John
Charles Mercer Barnes
John W. Baer
Robert "bob" Delauer
John "jack" Zilly
William W. Armstrong
Don R. Clark
Leon C. Mclaughlin
Rod Scott Craig
Boyd Red Morgan
Albert R. Carmichael
Fred F. Sears
Oscar Dutch Hendrian
Thomas Brown Henry
Harry S. Anderson
Nubar Arthur Astor
Frank "kit" Carson
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 exposé 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 Adler Director: David Miller Screenplay: Sidney Buchman and Millard Lampell based on Lampell's novel The Hero Cinematography: Lee Garmes Editor: William Lyon Art Director: Robert Peterson Music direction: Morris Stoloff Music composer: Elmer Bernstein, Saul Chaplin, and Stoloff Costume Designer: Jean Louis Cast: 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
The working title of this film was The Hero. The title was changed, according to Variety, so that patrons would not think they were going to see a war film. According to news items, Columbia bought the film rights to the novel, Millard Lampell's first, in November 1948 before publication for budding star John Derek, who had recently appeared in Knock on Any Door. Plans were set for production to begin in the spring of 1949; however, in August 1949, writer-producer Sidney Buchman, who had been the executive assistant to Columbia studio's chief, Harry Cohn, acquired the rights to produce the film for Columbia. A New York Times news item stated that the film was to be Buchman's first directorial effort. Buchman, in a June 1950 New York Times article, stated that his purpose in making the film was to expose "the great American hypocrisy of football" in a manner similar to the way the recent films Champion, Body and Soul and The Set-Up treated boxing. Buchman hired as technical advisors former University of Southern California star players Mickey McCardle and Paul Cleary, who sympathized with his aims.
According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, when PCA officials read a draft of the proposed film dated February 21, 1950, they viewed the film as subversive. One official, E. G. Dougherty, wrote to Cohn on March 3, 1950 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. This is a vicious kind of story, particularly because it is very well written." Dougherty backed up the charge by quoting dialogue from the script spoken by the character of "Professor Megroth" in which he calls the U.S. "a country that makes it a humiliation to be Polish or poor or Italian or Jewish-to have a father who speaks with an accent, a mother who came over from the old country." Dougherty also criticized the script for the numerous times that the word "Polack" was used "in an insulting manner" and for suggestions that the relationship between "McCabe" and "Melissa" might involve an "abnormal attraction." According to a memo of February 19, 1951, after the film was shot, Buchman agreed to cut out elements that the PCA still felt might be suggestive of an incestuous relationship. Dougherty wrote at that time, "There is, still... a very peculiar quality not generally found in normal family relationships, but we believe this can be interpreted merely as the attitude of an overly possessive man who has shown an attitude similar to this towards other characters in the story."
Football sequences were shot at Pomona College, the Pasadena Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles Coliseum with over 100 college and professional football players, according to an article in Christian Science Monitor. Twenty players were from the USC and UCLA teams, according to Daily Variety. Those schools reached an agreement with Columbia that the studio would issue no publicity concerning the players' names because of the fear that fans might think their appearance in the film would compromise their amateur status. Although Saturday's Hero was the first film made by Aldo Ray, who at the time used his real surname, DaRe, My True Story was Ray's first released film. Variety noted that previous to acting, he had been an elected constable in Crockett, CA. Time called Ray the "film's most natural performer."
The film was shot a few months before a West Point athletics "cribbing scandal" was uncovered. According to New York Times, Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, author of a Congressional resolution to overhaul the educational system at West Point, appeared in a trailer endorsing the film, which also was made before the scandal at West Point made the news. Fulbright, in the trailer, says, "many who see this picture May not believe that such things exist. Unfortunately, there is too much evidence to the contrary." Controversy concerning the film occurred when pickets in Los Angeles charged that Buchman, Lampell and actor Alexander Knox were Communists. According to news stories, Buchman admitted in a 1951 hearing of the House Committee on Un-American Activities that he once had been a Communist. Columbia issued a statement that at the time the film was made, none of those mentioned were members of the Communist Party, and Harry Cohn threatened legal action against the group picketing after Knox stated that he had never been a member. Buchman was found guilty of contempt of Congress in 1953 when he refused to name Communists or former Communists. He received a suspended sentence and was fined $150, according to New York Times. Both Buchman and Lampell were blacklisted by the industry.
Saturday's Hero marked the first score for composer Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004), who became one of the most popular and influential film composers of the last half of the twentieth century. His broad range included scores as diverse as those for The Man with the Golden Arm, The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven and To Kill a Mockingbird (see entries above and below).