Classic Film Talk: ‘The Pride of the Yankees’ (1942)

Teresa Wright Centennial

Today we reminisce about

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Directed by Sam Wood

Starring: Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Babe Ruth, Walter Brennan

 

Prologue

This is the story of a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life. It is the story of a gentle young man who, in full flower of his great fame, was a lesson in simplicity and modesty to the youth of America. He faced death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on far-flung fields of battle. He left behind him a memory of courage and devotion that will ever be an inspiration to all men. This is the story of Lou Gehrig. – Damon Runyon

Premise

Like so many other young boys in the early twentieth century, little Lou Gehrig loved playing baseball. A relatively small-framed kid, it was not always easy for him to join the other neighbourhood children although when he did, he hit the ball long and hard. He got into trouble more than once for breaking windows!

“In this country, you can be anything you want to be.”

Lou’s parents were German immigrants who worked diligently to give their son a good life. His mother was a cook at Columbia University and planned for a very long time for him to do his undergraduate studies there, preferably in engineering. With her help, he manages to be admitted to Columbia, also getting inducted into a fraternity all the while helping his mother with serving meals. In his spare time, he plays on the Columbia baseball team and it is there that he is picked out by a talent scout for the New York Yankees. He does not sign with them right away but changes his mind when his mother becomes direly ill, necessitating expensive medical treatment. Before he is taken on by the Yankees, Lou is sent to the minor leagues in Hartford, Connecticut, to gain valuable playing experience. His presence there is successful and he comes back to New York to start as a Yankee.

Quite a bit of time passes before Lou gets to see regular play in the major league. The first time he ever gets called to bat, he trips on the row of baseball bats near the dugout and earns the nickname “Tanglefoot”. In that same moment, he meets the woman who will become his wife. Eleanor “Ellie” Twitchell, a native of Chicago, gradually falls under Lou’s spell and the two are married. Things are not always easy for her in the face of his sometimes overbearing, controlling mother however a peaceful and loving relationship sets itself in place. Lou and Ellie live a peaceful life until one day their hopes and dreams are shattered when Lou discovers that he has an incurable disease which is responsible for the sharp decline in his overall health.

 

Fact vs. Fiction

As with the majority of biopics, many liberties were taken with certain details and aspects of Lou Gehrig’s life. These differences are generally related to sequences of events and dates while others were only alluded to or completely omitted altogether. The overall effect was that Gehrig’s life appeared to be more harmonious than likely was in reality.

Gehrig’s home life was portrayed as being stable with two loving parents despite having limited financial means. By all accounts, the Gehrig family was tight-knit although this was much more the case between mother and son than as a trio. Mr. Gehrig had severe issues with alcoholism and spent a great deal of time unemployed. The unemployment issue is referred to in the film but in more of a droll fashion whereas the alcohol issue is not mentioned at all. As for mother/son, their relationship was very close most likely due to the fact that Lou was her only surviving child. (Two daughters died of whooping cough and measles, respectively, and one son died of undisclosed causes in infancy.) It is no wonder that Mrs. Gehrig was fiercely protective of Lou and when she was not working, catered to his every need. Her significant role became somewhat of a running joke amongst his fraternity brothers and later on his Yankee teammates, as he was a “mama’s boy” throughout the entirety of his 20’s. This only changed when he married Ellie but even so, it was not easy to thwart Ma Gehrig’s meddling and possessiveness.

Ma Gehrig & Lou

Some modern historians have labelled the mother/son relationship as being unnaturally close, reflecting an “Oedipus complex” as conceptualised by Sigmund Freud. It is unfortunate to speculate upon such a matter though Gehrig’s social tendencies and reactions were, at times, a little “off”. He warmly embraced and kissed his mother on the mouth (not a wholly uncommon practise) to some, almost like lovers. Gehrig was extremely attractive yet had limited experience with girls, almost desperately jumping on the opportunity to marry Ellie when she responded to his attentions. In the reference book The RKO story, authors Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin mention Gehrig’s “…awkward – but ultimately lovely – romance with his wife Eleanor…” (pg. 168), though their union did not raise eyebrows further than that. (It was never suggested to be a marriage of convenience in any way.) Perhaps people were taken aback that Gehrig was not a usual macho, muscle-flexing, overly masculine athlete who tended to womanise.

No timeline is alluded to in the film so one does not really get an idea of how much time has actually passed. In truth, he studied for two years at Columbia and gained admittance on an American football scholarship. Gehrig’s mother did work for the university as a maid but it is likely that her lowly position had no effect on him getting accepted. Right out of high school, Gehrig played for the Hartford Senators in the minor league during the summer. He went a second time after signing with the Yankees then played an additional two seasons. Neither the fact that he had already played for Hartford nor the fact that he was on a football scholarship were mentioned in the film.

There is a moment in the film when a sports reporter mentions a negative remark from Babe Ruth that is geared towards Gehrig. The two men were good friends both on and off the field but their friendship waned for a period of seven years due to a misunderstanding. Apparently, Gehrig’s mother made what was taken as an off-colour remark about Ruth’s stepdaughter, Julia, which was taken poorly by Ruth. Gehrig found Ruth’s reaction to be slanderous and so they stopped speaking to each other. Only after Gehrig retired did they reconcile. Pictures from 1 July 1939 show a strong, amicable link between the two men.

Gehrig’s professional baseball career with the Yankees lasted for 17 seasons. He was Captain of the Yankees from 1936 to 1939, assuming the post after Babe Ruth’s retirement. In 1938, during his 2000th game, he first started noticing problems with his shoulders as if they had been sprained. His performance noticeably and steadily declined from that point on until he decided to retire mid-game on 2 May 1939. Henry Louis Gehrig died in June 1941 a little more than two weeks before his 38th birthday, succumbing to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Lou Gehrig Trivia

  • Lou Gehrig wore a number 4 on jersey according to his line-up position on the roster which had him batting right behind number 3, Babe Ruth.
  • Both Gehrig and Ruth were children of German immigrants and grew-up hearing and speaking German.
  • Gehrig signed with the Yankees in 1923 for $1500, which equates to approximately $22,500 in today’s money.
  • Gehrig earned the nickname “The Iron Horse” and played a record 2130 consecutive games over a 14-year period. The record has since been broken.

 

Thoughts

I found The Pride of the Yankees to be a very nice film that thoughtfully portrayed the life of Lou Gehrig. It is not overly sweet though it can be a slight bit corny in spots. The instance when Ellie cheers up Lou by dressing as a clown is a little much but so is the idea of Lou not telling his wife that he had a terminal illness. (I have never understood how not knowing that kind of truth would spare someone of hurt and despair.) Gary Cooper did a fine job in the role and did not really appear to be too old. Much credit is given to the make-up department for making a man in his early 40’s appear to be in his late teens.

Not being a baseball fan myself, I am glad to have gotten to know more about Lou Gehrig as well as some of his teammates. When the film ended, I did feel unsatisfied in the sense that the more personal side of Lou went largely unexplored. Is it because he spent most of his adulthood playing ball and being on the road? There is no question that he was a superb athlete and an awful nice guy who dedicated his time to playing baseball with underprivileged youth. I wanted to know more about his home life with Ellie, what kind of food he liked to eat, what made him laugh, how he managed to be so courageous… things of that nature. In any case, I would recommend the movie without hesitation.

 

Teresa Wright

Mrs. Miniver and The Pride of the Yankees were Teresa’s second and third feature films. They were released within a month of one another and Teresa was nominated for an Academy Award for both pictures. She would end up winning for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Mrs. Miniver, losing out in the Best Actress category to her on-screen Miniver mother-in-law, Greer Garson. Her role in The Pride of the Yankees was important and she garnered mention above the film’s title for the first time in her career but her screen time was limited in comparison to Gary Cooper. Ironically, Cooper would lose out on a Best Actor statute to another Yankee – James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Teresa and Gary surely made a lovely couple and again, the age difference between them (17 years) was not very noticeable. It was obvious that the two of them had a really good time filming certain scenes and it was enjoyable to see them to get to joke around. The role of Ellie Twitchell was a different turn for her because she was playing someone who was very bold in regards to her actions and her language. She did not hold her tongue and spoke her mind though did so without being offensive. You definitely get the impression of how important an influence she was in Lou Gehrig’s life. On a side note, I have rarely seen Teresa look more glamorous than she did in this film. Her hair and make-up were gorgeously achieved as well as was her wardrobe. It was an absolute pleasure to see her in this film.

 

Movie Trivia

  • Gary Cooper was 41 at the time of filming. He was born in 1901, two years before Lou Gehrig’s birth in 1903.
  • Cooper was not a baseball fan and had to learn everything about the game for the film. As a result of this, there are relatively limited scenes of him actually playing.
  • The film was a major box office hit for Samuel Goldwyn Productions though was distributed by RKO at a loss.
  • A live radio show of The Pride of the Yankees aired in 1943. Produced by Cecil DeMille, it starred: Cooper, Virginia Bruce and Edgar Buchanan.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn (left) speaks with the real Ellie Twitchell-Gehrig and Gary Cooper.