Midway through an early baseball movie Billy Bevan, playing an ace pitcher, is discovered by an irate husband hiding in his wife's bathtub. Bevan's presence there is innocent. To avoid any impression of wrongdoing, he submerges, breathing through a shower tube—the sort of thing that might happen to anyone. But the husband is the pitcher for the rival team, and mixed up with crooked gamblers, too. He holds Bevan's head under the water until Bevan gladly agrees not to pitch, which means throwing the game.
So we see Bevan disconsolately in the outfield, the wrong team winning. The husband hits a long fly in Bevan's direction. Bevan is so inept an outfielder that he cannot even find the ball, which bounces into a tar barrel. It looks like a clear case of injustice triumphant. But wait. All is not lost. The villain jumps exultantly on first base and the base sticks to the spikes in his shoes. He races for second like a man trying to run on one snowshoe. The third-base coach waves him on because Bevan cannot throw the ball. It sticks to his fingers. Finally Bevan gets off a throw to the plate just as the villain, great clouds of dust rising from bases affixed to both feet, slides for home. What happens next is obscure. We see the catcher and the umpire searching everywhere for the ball, which they finally locate stuck in the hair of the villain's head. It all ends happily: Bevan wins. And that's the way it used to be with sport and the movies. Then it got worse. But not for lack of trying. There have been 75 hilarious years of trying.
Bevan's out-of-the-bathtub-and-into-the-tar-barrel scene was a brief sequence in a forgotten two-reel Keystone comedy, but it was representative of a light-hearted view of sport that flourished in the early days of the movies. The Keystone company was the property of a pair of enterprising gentlemen from Brooklyn, Adam Kessel and Charley Bauman, who really did know something about sport. They were bookmakers. In fact, most of the early moviemakers were mixed up in sport in one way or another. Bronco Billy Anderson, the original Western hero, was a baseball enthusiast: he signed movie rights in 1908 with the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers for the first World Series ever filmed. In his early days in Hollywood Charlie Chaplin never missed a Tuesday night fight at the old Vernon Arena, and one of the first and funniest of his masterpieces was The Champion, made in 1915, with its classic portrayal of an alarmed fighter in the ring with a stony-faced giant who obviously possessed no sense of humor. Harold Lloyd's first comedy roles included Lonesome Luke and the Bangtails, filmed at the racetrack in Tijuana, with Lloyd playing a stableboy so astoundingly lazy he would not even lift a bale of hay that had fallen on a recumbent horse owner. He let the horse eat it. Buster Keaton worked a rundown between bases into a scene in College and climaxed the film with a pole vault into the window of a second-story room where the villain had imprisoned his girl. In A Night at the Opera the Marx brothers craftily inserted the music for Take Me Out to the Ball Game for the score of Il Trovatore and sold peanuts to the operagoers. They also won the big race in A Day at the Races by rerouting the track and scored a touchdown in Horse Feathers in an improvised chariot made from a garbage cart.
Plainly, it did not matter in the movies whether you won or lost and certainly did not matter how you played the game. In The Freshman Harold Lloyd became unforgettably entangled with a tackling dummy. W. C. Fields reached into his golf bag for a club and drew out a garden hoe, or played pool with a wavy cue. Consider Giddap, another Keystone comedy. Andy Clyde, Billy Bevan and other unlikely horsemen are playing polo. The ball is knocked over the fence and the horses follow. The game is suddenly a steeplechase, the horses leaping fences and galloping neck and neck down a road, pursuing a bewildered bicyclist. The ball had landed in a basket on his handlebars. Moments later the ball is lost among some cantaloupes in a fruit stand. The players recover it and pound on, and we catch a glimpse of a fruit-stand owner sitting amid appalling wreckage. Whacking the ball ahead of them, the players race into a quiet residential section, where a well-groomed family is sitting down to dinner. The ball rolls through the open door, and in an instant the house is filled with horses and flailing mallets. A lucky shot propels the ball outdoors again, leaving the dazed residents staring wonderingly about them. "The townspeople didn't think very highly of actors as a class," Hedda Hopper wrote in her nostalgic recollections of Hollywood's early days. "When a picture company secured the use of a private home as a location it was left in such a mess." That was something of an understatement.
Sports remained standard movie material for nearly 40 years. Thomas Edison put the first baseball game on film as early as 1898 and made the first comedy, Casey at the Bat, the following year. David Wark Griffith filmed In Old Kentucky in 1909, a melodrama in which the heroine replaces a crooked jockey at the last moment and wins the big race. Home Run Baker became the first famous athlete to turn movie actor when he starred in The Short Stop's Double in 1913. In The Pinch Hitter (1917) Charles Ray, who was a good baseball player in private life, is a country boy mercilessly hazed in college until remarkable coincidences leave him the only player available to bat with two out in the ninth inning.
As the years went on there were hundreds of others. But somewhere along the way sport movies became a special category of filmmaking, not quite as stylized as Westerns or serials, but nearly so. And they also began to form their own record in Hollywood annals—one of fiscal catastrophe. So many bad sport movies were made that they virtually died out as a popular art form. The culmination of it all was probably The Babe Ruth Story. It was so awful—and such a staggering box-office failure—that most of the big movie companies shuddered at the very sight of ball and bat. All told, there were only two baseball movies made in 14 years. When Ted Williams retired, Producer Spyros Skouras was approached with the idea of a film on Williams' career. "No, no," he said. "People wouldn't even go to see a baseball picture with Babe Ruth in it." In 1968 Films in Review analyzed almost a hundred old baseball pictures and commented editorially: "Baseball has been so indifferently dramatized it has practically been sabotaged." During the 1920s and 1930s there were, on the average, films about one sport or another released every other week, many of them with big-name stars and top directors. And almost always they were poison at the box office. Now sport films appear at the rate of one or two a year.
The familiar sport-movie product—the one about the star quarterback kidnapped on the eve of the big game, the boxer who is ordered to throw the championship fight by gangsters who have made off with his girl, the rookie pitcher who gets the big head—has disappeared. The bad repute of sports films is even seen in television reruns. In Los Angeles about 200 old movies are now projected each week on local TV stations. No more than a dozen are sports films. You can sometimes see them if you have insomnia—things like Clifford Odets' insufferably highbrow prizefighter in Golden Boy or Ronald Reagan making a comeback from drink as Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team, with Doris Day and the St. Louis Cardinals standing around looking embarrassed, or Pat O'Brien in Knute Rockne—All-American, with Reagan as the dying George Gipp.
If you prefer to sleep between 3 and 5 a.m. and are willing to pay $20 an hour for a projectionist, the film companies will sometimes dig into their archives and produce one of these turkeys for a private screening. If we had a decent economic system they would pay you $20 to watch them. In any case, after a few hours, no matter how camp your tastes, you are going to conclude that there is some better use for your money. All of which leaves unanswered the engaging, if somewhat esoteric, question: How did Hollywood and sport come to such an unpretty pass?
The first sports film ever made was shown in New York City in August 1894, four months after the first movie house opened. Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing, two lightweights, were filmed in a 10-round fight. It was a real fight—that is, there was no scenario—except that the ring was only 10 feet square so the camera could catch all the action. Leonard caught Cushing with a right to the jaw, Cushing dropped, and that was the end of the picture.
There happened to be an unusual theatrical interest in boxing that year. On the night of Sept. 3, 1894 three plays opened in New York starring fighters and ex-fighters. At Jacobs Theater, ex-champion John L. Sullivan opened in A True American. At the American Theater, James J. Corbett, then the champion, stepped forth in a revival of Gentleman Jack. Down on 14th Street, Steve Brodie, an ex-fighter not then famous for his real or imagined leap off Brooklyn Bridge, made his bow in On the Bowery. All on the same night. And all three were successful, at least at first. "Mr. Sullivan was manly," said a review, "and spoke his lines distinctly."
During those days boxing matches were stag affairs, so the simulated fights on the stage attracted audiences that had no opportunity to experience the real thing. But fight films ended the vogue for prizefights in the legitimate theater. Late in 1894 Corbett left the stage and traveled to Thomas Edison's new studio in New Jersey—built at a cost of $637—and made a fight film of his own, the second sports film ever made. Corbett, who was a good actor, took no chances. He picked an unknown Trenton heavyweight, Pete Courtney, for his opponent, and he prepared a script calling for him to knock out Courtney in the sixth round.
The shadowy background, the tense figures at ringside, the awkwardness of Courtney and the poise and stage presence of the champion made the occasion historic. And two influential developments in filmmaking were started by the picture: huge profits from a small investment and the practice of dubbing films after they were made.
The third fight film was shown six months after the Corbett-Courtney fight. It starred Young Griffo, an Australian featherweight, renowned as the fastest fighter of his time. "He was a marvel," said Corbett, who was very fast himself. Griffo was also an eccentric, even in that age of spectacularly individualistic fighters. He never trained, drank to excess and sometimes refused to sit in his corner between rounds, standing by the ropes and making speeches instead. His opponent was Charles Barnett, the setting was Madison Square Garden and Griffo quickly put Barnett away. The fight and the film lasted only four minutes.
There was another sports film made in 1895. It was essentially a newsreel—the 116th running of the Derby at Epsom Downs, a thriller won by Lord Rosebery's Sir Visto. This marked horse racing's debut on the screen. Twelve sports events were filmed in 1896. By 1898 Edison was able to persuade a Newark amateur baseball team to play before the camera in the backyard of his home.
One of the many paradoxes in movie history is that these early films are better preserved than those made after the movies became big business. Film cost a lot, so the pioneer moviemakers deposited paper prints of their reels with The Library of Congress for copyright purposes, and these lasted long after the old nitrate films disintegrated. Now the paper prints have been remade into movies and The Library of Congress has a superb collection of films dating up to 1912. But after that there are almost none until 1939.
By 1904, or 10 years after the first was shown, there were about a hundred sports movies on view. They amounted to an early version of ABC television's Wide World of Sport. Moviegoers could see a cockfight, a hurdle race, a harness race, a game of jai alai, a caber toss, a crew race, a practice session of the unbeaten Yale football team and various oddities, including something entitled A Unique Race Between Elephant, Bicycle, Camel, Horse and Automobile. Most of these are of interest only as social history, like Casey at the Bat, the comedy that Edison made in 1899. Whatever Edison's genius, it did not include a sense of comedy, but his film of the old poem was inadvertently funny. The pitcher lofts the ball very slowly, so the camera can follow it. Casey swings at everything, missing so badly that his reputation as a great slugger can only be accounted a mass delusion. After he strikes out, Casey argues with the umpire, stealthily crooking his leg behind the umpire's knee. When the official trips backward players rush in swinging, two well-dressed men wearing derbies appear mysteriously and join the fight and the movie ends in a confused pileup of struggling figures. As a dramatic effort, it could hardly have brought joy to Mudville.
The big financial successes were fight pictures, and the moviemakers began backing these and other sports events—much as television does today. The first movie-financed fight of substance was Bob Fitzsimmons against Peter Maher in Mexico on Feb. 21,1896. The producers put up $10,000, and movie history lists it as a fiasco because Fitzsimmons knocked out Maher with the first punch. There was no fight to film. Sports history records the event somewhat differently. Maher was a tough Irish heavyweight; Fitzsimmons was lucky to have won their first fight by a knockout in the 12th round. For various legal reasons the 1896 fight was held in Mexico, across the Rio Grande from the town of Langtry, Texas (pop. 75). A special train carried 182 fight fans on a 16-hour trip from El Paso. They stumbled across a stretch of desert, descended a steep trail to the riverbed, waded and splashed to a heaving pontoon bridge across the flooded river and paid $20 for their tickets. They saw Maher rush out and land a left on Fitzsimmons' mouth. Fitzsimmons came back with a left and a right, but Maher smashed a left to Fitzsimmons' head. Fitzsimmons clinched. His nose and mouth were bleeding and he seemed badly shaken. He backed away when they broke, Maher following. Maher led with a left that missed. Fitzsimmons sidestepped and swung a right that caught Maher on the chin. Maher hit the canvas, going over backward. The moviemakers had wanted a real fight—no Corbett-Courtney scenario—and they certainly got one. But they wished they had used a script after all.
In addition to the sudden ending the sky was so stormy that nothing showed on the film except gray spectral shapes. So for the first time the weather had become a major factor in heavyweight fights. When Corbett defended his championship against Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nev. in 1897, the New York Herald's account of the fight began: "The day was clear and beautiful and just right for the kinetoscope." Corbett was knocked out in the 14th round, and, the paper reported, "The films alone should net a hundred thousand dollars to each pugilist." But sentiment soon turned against the moviemakers as fight promoters. When Terry McGovern fought Pedlar Palmer for the world bantamweight title in Tuckahoe, Sept. 12, 1899, the headlines went like this: MCGOVERN KNOCKS OUT PALMER FOR THE BENEFIT OF PICTURE MEN.
The movies were now being patronized by sports fans who questioned official decisions. For example, the decision in the 25-round fight of Jim Jeffries and Tom Sharkey at Coney Island in 1899—awarded to Jeffries—was so bitterly resented that the opening of the film on Broadway, the first time a movie was presented as a complete theatrical performance, was packed with Sharkey partisans who threatened to riot over visual evidence that their man had won.
The great barroom argument of the time was whether Domino or Henry of Navarre won their match race. This was the race that immortalized George E. Smith, later known as Pittsburgh Phil. He stood impassively munching figs at the rail as the horses crossed the line in what the judges ruled was a dead heat. Smith had bet $100,000 on Domino and, by keeping his cool, became the prototype of innumerable steely-eyed movie gamblers who risked fortunes with less agitation than the average citizen feels when ordering a steak. A melodrama, The Suburban (written by the same Charles Dazey who wrote In Old Kentucky), was a hit. It was made into a movie with King Baggott, the first of the male movie stars, and retitled The Kentucky Derby. With this the gambler as a Pittsburgh Phil type became a movie fixture: he appeared in The Thoroughbred, in Princess O'Hara, in Sporting Blood (with Clark Gable) and right down to Saratoga, the classic of the type, the movie Jean Harlow was making when she died.
Addie Kessel and Charley Bauman were two gambling contemporaries of Pittsburgh Phil. A recent movie history disparages them as "a pair of credit bookies," but in fact they were well-known operators, though not plungers. Adam Kessel was born in 1866 and grew up in Brooklyn, where he and his brothers had a small printing business. As a sideline they turned out a sheet of baseball scores and race results called the Sporting Gazette, which they distributed in pool halls and barbershops throughout New York City. "This brought us into a sporting crowd," Kessel said, "and what with one thing and another we began making book."
Kessel was tall, slim, wiry and wore a small mustache, the classic gambler's get-up. Bauman was short, dark, and heavy-set, a Brooklyn boy who claimed to have gotten his start as a streetcar conductor pocketing coins handed him for fares. Among their customers at the track was Charlie Streimer, who, in 1907, operated a small film exchange and who owed them $2,500. Unable to pay, Streimer made them partners in his firm. Soon Kessel was head of the New York Motion Picture Corp., with an office on 14th Street near Tom Sharkey's saloon. Prospering, he opened another office near the theatrical district. Two of his brothers did the office work, and Kessel himself lived in considerable style at the Hotel Savoy.
By now the movies were becoming a sizable business. A survey of fire hazards in New York in 1908 revealed the astonishing fact that there were 180 movie houses in the city. But there were only half a dozen movie producers. One of them, a Chicago-based firm owned by Colonel William Selig, had profits of $5,000 a week. Yet the whole movie business was hampered by uncertainty over patents and copyrights. An exhibitor could rent or buy a film and then make as many copies of the film as he wanted.
By the time Kessel and Bauman became moviemakers it was impossible to film a subject of immediate interest, such as a fight picture, and not have it duplicated within 24 hours. Adding to the confusion was the practice of some pioneer movie men, notably Sigmund Lubin, a Philadelphia optician, of reenacting fights. He hired actors who went through the motions of the fighters as the round-by-round newspaper accounts described them. He reenacted the 42-round fight of Joe Gans and Battling Nelson in Goldfield, Nev. that was Tex Rickard's first promotion, the fight of Jimmy Britt and Nelson for the lightweight championship, the George Dixon-Terry McGovern fight that ended when Dixon's manager threw in the towel so Dixon could keep his record of never having been knocked down, the Corbett-Kid McCoy fight that was rumored to have been fixed until the punishment that McCoy took made it plain he was really trying. When Harry Thaw shot Stanford White in Madison Square Garden, Lubin even reenacted that, giving unsuspecting customers the impression he had a camera on hand as the murder took place.
In December 1908 the major film companies organized a trust, the Motion Picture Patents Company. They agreed to pay Edison royalties and were in effect licensed by him. More than 10,000 exhibitors in the U.S. paid $2 a week for the right to use projectors and to rent films. To further control output, the trust bought up the entire film output of the Eastman Kodak Company, the only U.S. producer of motion picture film. Edison got a royalty of one-half cent per foot for all the film used, amounting to about $500,000 a year. In 1912 antitrust laws dissolved the organization, but in the intervening period all filmmakers outside the trust worked at a decided disadvantage.
Meanwhile, sports was, in a way, getting a New York vaudeville performer, Mack Sennett, into the movie business. Sennett owed Kessel and Bauman so much money from his racetrack bets that they could see no way to get the money except to put Sennett to work making movies out West. With Sennett when he reluctantly headed for California was Mabel Fortescue, known as Mabel Normand, a winning little 17-year-old girl who had been working as a model in New York. Also in the company was Fred Mace, later well-known as the villain who used to drop safes and other heavy objects on Charlie Chaplin. He was then famous as the leading man in The Umpire, a musical comedy that had a record-breaking run of 350 performances in Chicago.
A little later Kessel sent Charlie Chaplin himself to join Sennett. Chaplin's film career had an exceptional beginning. He did not owe Kessel any money. Kessel's brother Charles happened to catch Chaplin's vaudeville act and asked Kessel to hire him, which he did for $150 a week, or $85 more a week than Chaplin was getting. Soon Keystone included Charles Murray, Louise Fazenda, Fatty Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson, Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin, Mack Swain, Hank Mann, Marie Dressler, Ford Sterling and Henry Lehrman, an Austrian army officer known as Pathé Lehrman because he claimed to be able to operate a French-made (and hence patent-free) Pathé movie camera. (He couldn't.) So the Keystone comedies began, founded by a pair of New York bookies who were to make as important a contribution to popular art as anyone in their time. For this reason alone it is possible to argue that the movies took far more out of sport than they ever gave back.
I estimate that I went through about a hundred old sports movies in the course of this study, and I came away with one strong impression: the shows were by and large entertaining when they were comedies—or melodramas—and disasters when they were tragic or sentimental. The movie colony was simply too knowing about sports to shed an honest tear over a horse race or a football game. On the stage it was different. In the durable stage plays, such as Paul Armstrong's Blue Grass, or Cecil Raleigh's Sporting Life or Rida Johnson Young's Brown of Harvard, the sports events took place offstage, with only a portion of the crowd shown responding to victory or defeat. But in the movies the audience was right in the ring or the backfield, and the transition from violent action to profound emotion was never pulled off convincingly. The moviemakers, wrapped up in sports themselves, couldn't fake it.
This Los Angeles fascination with sport even predated the arrival of the movie men. In 1910 Los Angeles had a population of 319,000—there's a statistic that can stop a man. Los Angeles fight crowds soon became bigger than those in New York or Chicago. (By 1925 the two fight arenas in Los Angeles were drawing a total of 610,000, compared to 120,000 for Madison Square Garden and 104,000 for Chicago Stadium.) The movie people simply picked up the sport tempo. Jim Jeffries' saloon became the most popular bar in town. Jack Root, the former light heavyweight champion who ran the Olympic arena, had been filmed in one of the earliest of fight pictures. Tom McCarey—"the greatest fight promoter in the world," according to Bill Henry, the sports editor of the Los Angeles Times—was a distinguished, silver-haired diplomat whose two sons, Leo and Ray, went on in time to direct some of the few good sports films that were made. Fred Newmeyer, who became a director and scriptwriter for Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, was a southpaw pitcher with Denver in the American Association who spent the winters as an extra on the Universal lot. Ted Wilde, another baseball enthusiast, became a gag writer for Lloyd. Wilde eventually became a director and made a pleasant comedy, Babe Comes Home, starring Babe Ruth. It was the slugger's only untroubled and profitable connection with the movies.
Some of the people who eventually made sport movies were already living in Los Angeles when the filmmakers arrived. Sam Wood, who became the best known of this group, was a high school dropout from Philadelphia who drifted to Los Angeles in 1901, became a real-estate dealer and got into movies in 1914 as an aide to Cecil B. DeMille. Wood had played football and baseball in Philadelphia and won a rowing championship. He also boxed at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and played baseball on the club team. As a moviemaker he directed Wallace Reid in his pioneer auto-racing picture, Double Speed. This established him as a specialist in sports films, a reputation that lasted throughout his long career. He even directed Ramon Novarro, a rival of Valentino, in a football picture, For Glory and the Girl, and helped Robert Montgomery, another actor unlikely to be cast as a football player, through So This Is College. It was Wood who directed the Marx brothers in A Day at the Races.
Actually, Wood had no fondness for sport films, but one just seemed to lead to another. When he wanted Gary Cooper to star in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Goldwyn told him he would not lend Cooper unless Wood agreed to first direct Cooper in Pride of the Yankees for Goldwyn. That film, based on the life and death of Lou Gehrig, did manage to blend baseball and sentiment with a certain degree of success.
Tom McCarey's son Leo first worked as a Los Angeles sportswriter. He started his directing career with a college football comedy, The Sophomore, became celebrated for Ruggles of Red Gap and went on to direct the Marx brothers and Laurel and Hardy. The latter, in one of their best comedies, Should Married Men Go Home?, had Laurel as an elegantly attired golfer with an uncanny resemblance to Fred Astaire get involved in an epic mud-throwing scene on a golf course. The brawl started when Laurel tried to replace a toupee that had fallen off Edgar Kennedy's head. He inadvertently picked up a toupee-like area of turf, a glorious sort of divot that had daisies growing from the closecropped grass, and placed it on Kennedy's head, causing Kennedy to go into his famous slow burn. Ray McCarey also mixed sport and comedy successfully, especially in a funny film about the Dodgers, It Happened in Flat bush, that stood out in the dismal record of movies about baseball.
Nor did the British actors in Los Angeles residence ignore the sporting scene. There was the Hollywood Cricket Club set, led by C. Aubrey Smith, who usually played the role of an English lord with a drooping mustache. Smith had once competed for England in international matches. The spectators at the cricket club's games included the likes of P. G. Wodehouse, Basil Rathbone, David Niven, Errol Flynn and Victor McLaglen, who had been a boxer and once fought an exhibition match with Jack Johnson before Johnson became world champion.
The history of the movies might well have been different had it not been for handball. Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach were handball players, and the 1936 national handball championships were held on Lloyd's private court. The locker-room crowd at the Los Angeles Athletic Club included such diverse types as comedian Snub Pollard, director Charles Ruggles and David Butler, a onetime theater manager and local handball champion who became another prime director of sports films.
It was Butler who gave sports movies a sudden boost in 1936—after they were thought to be hopelessly outdated—when he put together Pigskin Parade, a musical about a small Texas college that received, by mistake, an invitation to play Yale and hastily assembled a football team built around a cantaloupe tosser from the farmlands. The movie was quickly and inexpensively made, with Stuart Erwin and Betty Grable starring, and was an enormous financial success, in part because of the singing of a 14-year-old girl, Judy Garland, and in part because it expertly ridiculed the innumerable tedious college football movies of the past.
To this rather closely knit fraternity of sports-minded movie talent there came from outside a continual infusion of sports celebrity nontalent, and part of Hollywood's problem was its tendency to have stars in its own eyes when it dealt with the athletically famous. Among the early athlete-actors were Jim Corbett, who starred in a serial, The Midnight Man, in 1919 and Jess Willard, who had a brief film career in Heart Punch. Jack Dempsey was once cast as a football player, surrounded by the University of Southern California team, but survived this dreadful artistic moment to make an adequate serial, Daredevil Jack. Johnny Mack Brown made such an impression on Hollywood with his last-minute touchdown passes when Alabama beat Washington 20-19 in the 1926 Rose Bowl that the movie colony never let him go; he jumped to stardom as Marion Davies' leading man in The Fair Coed and then faded into Westerns and serials. Babe Ruth struck out in a Hollywood venture that ended with him suing the movie company for $250,000 and the company suing him for $50,000. Lou Gehrig made one film, a weird mixture of tropical isles, cowboys and baseball, called Hawaiian Buckaroo.
But the high point came when Red Grange, riding a tidal wave of publicity, made One Minute to Play. The film was hastily shot at Pomona College and cost less than $100,000. It grossed $750,000, and Grange was immediately cast in a big auto-racing feature, with Jobyna Ralston as his leading lady. Famous race drivers were added to the cast. As one historian noted, "It looked like a perfect setup for success, but the fates decreed otherwise." One instrument of the fates was Joseph P. Kennedy. He was reorganizing Film Booking Offices, the company making the movie, and became involved in a quarrel with Grange's manager, who wanted a percentage of the take for Grange. Kennedy ordered that Grange be dropped to a minor role in the billing and, except for a slight return when Glenn Davis almost married Elizabeth Taylor, running backs were benched by Hollywood until Jim Brown kissed Raquel Welch.
Were the critics right in condemning the sports movies as bombs? Was the public correct in avoiding Hollywood's best sporting efforts as stinkers? Was Variety speaking for the entire sports movie genre when it dismissed Saturday's Heroes with "Pic is crammed with hoke"? Face up to it. The answer to all three questions is yes. Hoke is nothing new for Hollywood, but Hollywood was never able to fuse hoke and sports in the way it fused hoke and every other human endeavor. The proof? Close your eyes, pretend your TV is tuned in on the Very, Very, Very Late Show, and imagine the scene as:
Jimmy Stewart, beginning his otherwise distinguished career, is a football player in Navy Blue and Gold. And what is it that the old Captain (Lionel Barrymore) is saying to him? "As long as you wear the Navy uniform nobody cares whether you win or lose. But Navy cares greatly how you play the game!"
The trainer, leaning on the fence next to Wendy Barrie in Breezing Home, observes that the Thoroughbred is nature's noblest creation. And what's that Wendy is saying? "Don't ever change, Steve; don't ever stop thinking that."
Nelson Eddy, that toothy musical-comedy baritone, is cast as a West Point football hero in Rosalie. He hurries to Vassar after winning the big game, posts himself beneath Eleanor Powell's window and sings:
I'm your dream soldier
Reporting for duty....
It is The Babe Ruth Story. William Bendix, playing Ruth, leans forward to speak to a boy who has been hopelessly crippled all his life. "Hiya, kid," says the Babe. The words so inspire the youngster that he rises from his wheelchair and walks.
Oh, yes, he does, sports-movie fans. Yes, he does.
Bases nailed to his feet, a Keystone comic launched sport-movie humor.
Boxing saw a new defense when, in 1915, Chaplin made "The Champion."
Bert Lytell acted and then some in the oh-so-serious "Sporting Life."
What Chaplin could do, Keaton could too, and down went boxing again.
In 1925 a tackling dummy was a leg up on shocked Harold Lloyd.
A master of the comic cue, fields tried his sport in "Six of a Kind."
Sport and sentiment rarely mixed well, but Cooper as Gehrig was teary.
"Navy Blue and Gold" could have sunk young Jimmy Stewart.
"Breezing Home" starred Wendy Barrie-and the odor blew in off the barn.
Nelson Eddy was dreamy with Eleanor Powell.