The Bottom Line
The heartwarming and tragic tale of the Iron Man Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) and his life's journey from Columbia University standout to Yankee star to premature victim of a rare and debilitating disease.
The Rest Of The Story
By and far, this was a movie pitch that couldn't fail. Only six months after Gehrig's death from an (at the time) still virtually unknown illness, producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights to Paul Gallico's bestselling biography The Pride of the Yankees to make into a motion picture.
The first step, of course, would be casting the role of the Columbia Clipper Gehrig himself. Luckily, RKO had the venerable Gary Cooper in its stable; not only did Cooper have a more than a passing resemblance to the late slugger, they seemed to share the same naive and heartfelt demeanor. With Cooper on board, Goldwyn got another major coup when he had Gehrig's best friend, fellow Yankee Babe Ruth, agree to play himself for the picture. Of course, the Babe had been retired nearly seven years when the picture came out, but he put on a showstopping larger than life performance that only he could bring. Fellow Yankees Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel, and Bill Dickey also played themselves onscreen, and major leaguers Babe Herman and Lefty O'Doul worked with Coop and the other actors on their baseball skills behind the camera.
If you don't already know the sad facts of Gehrig's tremendous life, here is a brief summary: (Warning: if you do not know this story, shame on you.)
Henry Louis Gehrig was the son of immigrant parents. His mother was very strict (but loving) and wanted her Lou to grow up to be a famous engineer, scrimping and saving every dollar to get him into Columbia University. However, Lou's life took a detour when he showed a prodigious talent for baseball and was signed to the Yankees farm team. He finally made the big club - much to his mother's chagrin - and when starting first baseman Wally Pipp suffered from double vision one day, Lou took his place in the field and never gave it up. Gehrig earned his "Iron Man" nickname, playing in 2,130 consecutive games, a record that stood for over 60 years. Unexpectedly, however, Lou contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) during the 1939 offseason and retired abruptly midseason. On Independence Day, Gehrig stood before 62,000 fans in Yankee Stadium to bid baseball farewell. His speech is legendary, capped by the famous line:
Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Gehrig passed away June 2, 1941, of complications from ALS, which became known as "Lou Gehrig's disease."
The movie closely follows the events that shaped Gehrig's too brief life. The delightful Teresa Wright shines as the brash flirt that catches Gehrig's eye; Babe Ruth is simply a wonder to behold onscreen; and Gary Cooper plays Gehrig to a sincere tee, a must in the wake of Gehrig's recent death. By the time Cooper delivers Gehrig's speech in the film (Cooper lip-synced to a tape of Gehrig played through the stadium PA), there isn't a dry eye left in the house. Even when it invents a baseball clichè - Gehrig hits a home run for a sick boy - it doesn't seem forced, but rather the simple inevitable conclusion of Gehrig's near-divine nature.
All in all the film is a delight beginning to end, full of cute and funny moments and a sincerity about both life and baseball that would probably be laughed out of the theater in these modern times of free agency and the quick buck. It's a must-see for diamond fans (even if you hate the Yankees) and highly recommended for anyone who believes in - or is desperately searching for - the brave American and all the dreams we were promised in this land.
Rating: 10 out of 10.
Herman J. Mankiewicz
Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig
Teresa Wright as Eleanor Twitchell Gehrig
Elsa Janssen as Mom Gehrig
Ludwig Stössel as Pop Gehrig
Walter Brennan as Sam Blake
Dan Duryea as Hank Hanneman
Babe Ruth as Himself
Bill Dickey as Himself
Bob Meusel as Himself
Mark Koenig as Himself
Bill Stern as Himself
- My several viewings.