Before superheroes headlined any Marvel or DC blockbuster, it was real life heroes that audiences wanted to see. No pastime was quite as popular as baseball and in that era Lou Gehrig was one of the titans along with Babe Ruth and the rest of the Yankees. You see this film is less of a biography (It certainly is not completely accurate), and more of a visual eulogy to a contemporary hero. The prologue explains as much:
“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 the 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 the 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
As a modern viewer, I am just happy I can recognize baseball names like Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, and of course, Babe Ruth. When audiences went out to see this film starring Gary Cooper
and Teresa Wright
back in the day, they were practically living it. World War II had already heated up and one of the great American heroes had died the previous year. Lou Gehrig was all those things in the prologue and more making it hard to get it all into a film.
Like any other superhero, he has an origin story beginning with his childhood in Manhattan, living with his poor German immigrant parents. His domineering mother convinces him to go to Columbia for engineering, but he soon ends up in the big leagues because of his tremendous skill with a bat. He is often a shy and even awkward young man, but he loves his parents and he can sure play ball. It’s that last point that gains him a lot of respect after a less than graceful start as “Tanglefoot.”
He soon becomes a lethal one-two punch with Babe Ruth, after initially being dismissed as the rookie and a boob. Journalist Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) has a major influence in Gehrig’s life and never loses faith in the young man’s abilities. He also does Lou a favor by introducing him to an attractive young Chicago socialite named Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), who finds Gehrig quite ridiculous at first. Soon, however, a budding romance begins with the often reserved Gehrig falling for the vibrant and vivacious young Eleanor. He gets engaged, married, hits two home runs for a little boy, and wins a world series. A lot of his other exploits are laid out for us too and the trophies and accolades start stacking up. All of this happens during the happy times when Gehrig is on top of the world, first with Murder Row and then The Bronx Bombers.
But all fairy tales must come to an end, and Lou Gehrig’s is especially tragic. He plays an, at that time, unheard of 2,000 consecutive games, but he also falls into a rapid decline. Eleanor looks on helplessly as her husband begins to deteriorate in front of her eyes, and the fans know something is not right. Gehrig gets examined and learns he has ALS, but very little is known about it. Much less can be done to treat it.
His final appearance at Yankee Stadium came on Lou Gehrig Day in 1939. That day he gave his “Luckiest Man Speech,” and he walked off the field for good. Gary Cooper delivers the partially revised dialogue with a calm and clear delivery that seems to truly epitomize Gehrig. Although he is playing the man, it is almost as if he is giving a eulogy.
That’s a fitting ending because we do not need to see the suffering or the death. What we remember is the wonderfully full life he led. Perhaps this film had more cultural relevance back in 1942, but I would argue that it is still a stirring, heart-wrenching film. You have a small heart if you cannot find a place in it for this one.
Although he was not too good at baseball, in the other sequences Cooper seems like the perfect man to embody Gehrig. He is distinctly American, strong, quiet and he also has a pleasant charm with a comical streak in him. The look on his face when he realizes his weakness tears the heart. Teresa Wright had many fine performances early on in her career, but I will step out on a limb and say that this is probably the best one. She has so much spirit and at the same time, she is funny with a noticeable tenderness. She is the perfect wife and a wonderful actress to embody Eleanor Gehrig.
In a society that places so much interest in make-believe superheroes, I don’t mind taking some time to acknowledge a real one. We were the lucky ones Lou, thanks. Let anyone and everyone who does the Ice Bucket Challenge know who you are. You deserve to be remembered. Always.