The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Directed by Sam Wood

This movie presents itself as the story of baseball great Lou Gehrig (played by Gary Cooper). But as with the much later film The Natural, it is about mythology. The difference is that The Natural is both conscience of, and deliberate with its myth-making. The Pride of the Yankees wants us to accept its story as true. This is both its strength and weakness.

The movie begins with a young Lou Gehrig living an idealized American childhood. The son of immigrants, the family has dreams of Lou’s future in an America where he can become a respected engineer living a good life. But Lou’s baseball skills are apparent and it seems inevitable his future lies there.

And it does. Spotted by a sportswriter, word of the talented Gehrig spreads and, though now at college studying engineering, he gets the call to try out for the Yankees. The story unfolds with Lou’s growing success and fame in the sport. The family eventually accepts his route in life and are fully behind him. He meets his future wife (Teresa Wright), they finally marry and Lou’s triumphs build with no seeming end.

Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees.

But the end does come when he is finally stricken by the disease that would come to be known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). He must take his bows and leave the sport he loves, and it is here that the film fades to black – with Gehrig’s goodbye to baseball.

The movie inevitably presents Gehrig’s life episodically. There are a number of touch points along the way – getting called up to the Yankees, his first game, meeting his future wife and so on. There is very little character development, however. The movie takes an idealized approach to Gehrig. He’s an almost perfect American man. He loves his family, he behaves honourably and respects everyone. He’s pretty much flawless.

This lack of character dimension makes Cooper the perfect choice to play Gehrig with his “Aw shucks …,” demeanor. But it also prevents the film from becoming great. There is a certain dramatic element missing. In fact, the drama exists only in the knowledge of where the movie must end — with Gehrig’s illness.

The movie takes a Frank Capra approach; it’s an homage to American values of the forties and inspirational for a World War II audience. Capra, however, knew better than to make his heroes perfect.

This is why films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are as much comedies as anything else. The very values the hero represents get him into trouble and create comic situations in a world more cynical than the him/her. The stories grow out of the gap between the hero and his society and the variance in the values each lives by.

Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth as himself.

In The Pride of the Yankees there is no such gap, or at least it isn’t used much in the film. Thus, the characters surrounding Cooper’s Gehrig are simply in awe of this marvelous man who represents everything they all aspire to. And this, unfortunately, makes for a less than interesting film.

While not a bad movie, The Pride of the Yankees is far from great. It falls short because it wants to idealize Lou Gehrig. And this is fine, especially given the historical context, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying story.

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