Monday, July 17, 2017

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic
by Richard Sandomir
Hachette Books
304 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9780316355056
June 2017

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The Pride of the Yankees (1942) is considered one of the greatest sports films of all time. It served as the template for how movies about inspirational athletes would be made. It cemented Lou Gehrig as not only a legend of baseball but an important figure in American history. And Gehrig's final speech, one that demonstrated gratefulness in spite of his dire circumstances, would inspire generations to come. 75 years after it's initial release the film still has the power to move audiences to tears.

“Its greatest achievement was to establish a formidable, continuing physical legacy for Gehrig, almost like an annuity that renews itself with each showing.” - Richard Sandomir

Lou Gehrig had a fantastic career throughout the 1920s and 1930s as the Yankee's first baseman. His records for home runs and consecutive games played are still impressive many years later. Gehrig's life was cut short at the tender age of 37 when he died from ALS. His name would become synonymous with ALS and up until recently it was generally referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. It wasn't long after he died when Hollywood realized that Gehrig's story would make for a great movie. But it took Gehrig's widow Eleanor to lead the charge.

Richard Sandomir's new book The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic profiles the making of the movie in great detail. Gehrig died in June 1941 and the movie was released in July 1942. He was still in the public consciousness and with the start of WWII, audiences were ripe for a good story about a homegrown hero. Eleanor Gehrig was instrumental in getting Gehrig's story in front of Hollywood moguls. She was driven both by a desire to support herself and to honor her husband's legacy.

Producer Sam Goldwyn saw more potential in the love story between Gehrig and Eleanor than he did in Gehrig’s baseball career. The problem was Goldwyn knew nothing about baseball. In fact most of the people who worked on the film knew little to nothing about America’s greatest pastime. But what they did know is that Gehrig's story was special and if they played their cards right it would make for a blockbuster film.

The first step in making the film was to find the man who would play Gehrig. An open audition was conducted but it became clear early on that Gary Cooper would be a great fit. There were problems at first. Cooper was older, not very familiar with baseball and was a righty to Gehrig's lefty. But, as Sandomir points out, Cooper playing Gehrig was "a near-perfect marriage of modest, heroic subject and an actor who specialized in modest, heroic characters." The role of Eleanor was important too. Actress Teresa Wright was new to Hollywood but her career was already skyrocketing. She had an Academy Award nomination under her belt and this film would be her first opportunity to shine as a leading lady. With the real-life Eleanor full involved in overseeing the making of the film, there was a lot of pressure on Wright to capture the spirit of Eleanor and to do the film justice.

Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Photo source: Doctor Macro

As is the case with many biopics of the golden age of Hollywood, The Pride of the Yankees plays fast and loose with the facts. However, Eleanor Gehrig made sure that her husband and his sport were portrayed as accurately as possible. Author Sandomir goes into detail about all of the preparation for both the fictional and biographical aspects of the film. There was both the care and neglect to accurately portray baseball. There was an effort to make Cooper look like a real left-handed baseball player (the author adeptly debunks the myth that the scenes were flipped for the camera). I was particularly fascinated with the scenes that didn't make it into the final film. For example, after Gehrig's baseball career ended he had a short stint as a parole commissioner, a part of his life I'm very eager to read more about. A scene in which he is checking in on a parolee dying of cancer was written for the film. However, the film ends with the rousing final speech which suited the movie and made for a more dramatic ending.

I loved reading about Gehrig’s famous “The luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. According to Sandomir, it doesn’t exist in its entirety. There are only snippets from news clips and a bunch of transcriptions that vary greatly. It was never fully transcribed and its very possible that Gehrig had written some of it down but also spoke some lines that just came to him. The film alters the speech and includes the famous line at the very end. "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." is #38 on the AFI's top 100 list of the greatest movie quotes of all time.

Babe Ruth and Gary Cooper - The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

There's so much more in this book too. We learn about Babe Ruth's involvement in the movie and his connections to Hollywood. Then there was Lou Gehrig's own, brief and failed attempt at an acting career. There is a wealth of information about the actors, the shooting, the editing, the screenwriting, the film's reception and what happened to the key players years after the movie was released. At the heart of the book is the story of a fallen man who lived the American dream and who's story was shared in a way that ensured his legacy for the rest of the century and beyond.

If you enjoyed The Pride of the Yankees (1942) I implore you to read this book. It's a fantastic deep dive into the making of a classic. My only small complaint about the book is that it does lapse into repetition as well some unnecessary plot description. In some circumstances including the plot makes sense in context but at other points it felt like filler. However, if it's been a while since you've seen the movie the plot points included might serve as a refresher. Sandomir's book is well-rounded and well-researched. It's the story of a movie but it's also so much more than that. It makes for great summer reading. I took this book to the beach with me and lounged with it on my front porch.


This is my second review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Thank you to the good folks at Hachette books for the opportunity to review this book. As a treat for my readers they are generously offering 10 copies of the book for giveaway! The contest runs from now until Sunday. Good luck!


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