There are two ways a disease winds up named after you. There’s the good way: you’re a doctor, scientist, or researcher. Then, there’s the other way: your vocation is literally anything else. Lou Gehrig was a baseball player.
He’s one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, and yet his name is best known as the common parlance for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Needless to say, Gehrig’s story was of the tragic variety.
The Pride of the Yankees is the 1942 Gary Cooper-led homage to Gehrig’s story. Ostensibly a biopic, but with artistic license somewhere in the 75% range.
Some parts of the film really work. Gehrig’s relationship with his wife Eleanor late in the film is moving. He’s pretending he’s not dying, she’s pretending she doesn’t know, and it’s emotionally resonant — albeit in a melodramatic 1940s sort of way. And the final shot, following Gehrig as he slowly walks off the field, through the dugout, and disappears through a dark doorway is beautiful.
But for me — and this is probably sacrilege in my family — the majority of the film oscillates between silly and aggravating.
For one, Cooper joins Robert Redford in the annals of men over 40 who some-crazy-how played an 18-year-old unironically. And let me tell you, folks, the de-aging software in 1942 was not as good as what filmmakers are working with today. Even crazier is that not only was a 41-year-old Cooper too old to play a young Lou Gehrig in early scenes, he was also four years older than Gehrig was when he died. And while actors today often look 10, or even 20, years younger than their actual age, Cooper was an old 41.
The film is also an exception to the rule that the Hollywood star playing an actual person is more attractive than their real life counterpart. Gehrig is definitely more attractive than Cooper. Don’t @ me, it’s just true. And seriously, tell me the man on the right looks 41 to you. You can’t, because he looks like he’s Lou Gehrig’s dad.
Then, there was the artistic license in the film. I’m fine with artistic license in many cases, especially in sports films based on real events. We expect thrilling, inspiring moments at the end of a sports movie. That usually means playing a little fast and loose with the facts. The stakes at the end of Rudy are far higher than they were in Daniel Ruettiger’s final game irl. The year TC Williams High School integrated, their final game was a blowout. Yet, in Remember the Titans, the game was a dramatic affair that included Coach Boone walking onto the field to force corrupt referees to start calling a fair game.
What confuses me about the artistic license in The Pride of the Yankees is that it diminishes the power of the story. The writers didn’t merely polish up Gehrig’s life up for public consumption, or add drama, they undercut it significantly.
It happens plenty throughout the course of the film, but I won’t detail all the changes. I will simply point out the single most egregious example: Gehrig’s final speech at Yankee Stadium.
The most famous line is the same. Gehrig stands before 61,000 fans, all of them there to celebrate the man and his career. Everyone in attendance is aware of why Gehrig must retire; his body is betraying him and he’s physically incapable of continuing to play the game. With that hanging in the air, he earnestly says to the crowd, “Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
That part is uttered word for word in The Pride of the Yankees, but it’s at an entirely different part of the speech. In the movie, he says it at the end of the speech, and in most films I’d understand the change. They moved the line to the end so it would be the climax of a powerful moment. However, in this case, it was a bad call. In Gehrig’s actual speech the ‘luckiest man’ bit is how he opens his emotional remarks to the crowd. As the first line in the speech, it carries much more power.
And it wasn’t just that, all of the changes to the speech were bad calls. One example was their change of Gehrig’s comments about his wife. In real life he said he had “a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know.” In the film he simply called her “a companion for life.” Gross.
Gehrig’s conclusion was more powerful as well. With ‘the luckiest man’ line as the opener, he goes on to list reasons he’s grateful in spite of the heartbreaking development in his life. Then he closes with, “I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.” He died two years later, at 37 years old.
It’s a powerful speech in context, which is why the changes are so frustrating. It’s not because it got the Hollywood treatment that rounded off the edges and polished it up. It wasn’t because they needed professional writers to make Gehrig’s comments more articulate. Gehrig’s was a better speech. The film version is the bad writing in this case. They ruined a speech that was already well formed and accessible, which didn’t need any edits to begin with. Maybe a few sentences could have been omitted altogether, but none of the portions you kept needed to be punched up or revised. It sucks.
Okay, rant over. On to more baseball movies.
Next Up: For the Love of the Game, the first (and least) of three Kevin Costner appearances.