USA, 1942. The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Original Story by Paul Gallico, Screenplay by Jo Swerling, Herman J. Mankiewicz, prologue by Damon Runyon. Cinematography by Rudolph Mate. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Music by Leigh Harline. Production Design by William Cameron Menzies. Costume Design by Rene Hubert. Film Editing by Daniel Mandell. Academy Awards 1942.
Barely a year after the death of the “Iron Horse”, the story of Lou Gehrig’s rise to baseball fame is turned into a sentimental biopic starring Gary Cooper in the lead. Cooper, who was older when he filmed this movie (and it shows) than Gehrig was when he died (of ALS, which for many years was primarily known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”, how’s that for making it in the world), somewhat overplays the awshucks charm of the sincere and remarkably talented ballplayer who was raised by German immigrant parents in a New York City slum and attended university with the hopes of making his mother proud by getting an engineering degree. Eventually growing tired of the old boys club attitude of his richer classmates and needing to pay for private care when his mother falls ill, Gehrig takes the New York Yankees up on their offer to hire him after sports writer Walter Brennan spies Gehrig hitting non-stop home runs with his friends. From there he rises straight to the top, becoming an athletic hero for the next decade, falling in love with a woman as hardy and committed as him (Teresa Wright) and trying to enjoy his success humbly before disaster strikes. When it does, he earns the admiration of the entire country with the manner in which he deals with the bad news that he is suffering from a debilitating disease, including the famous “I’m The Luckiest Guy In The World” speech that Cooper recreates in a very touching scene. Director Sam Wood always did better with harsher drama than this, the kind of sensitivity that this one requires was more Clarence Brown’s territory and Wood pushes too many giant tears out of crying women and too many goofy smiles (in awkward close-ups) from his protagonist. It’s still a satisfying experience, however, and, as is pointed out by Damon Runyan’s somewhat unnecessary but still accurate opening written statement, would have been particularly poignant for 1942 audiences who were seeing their loved ones coming home in body bags from the war overseas.