Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Stratton Story

With no baseball to watch during the All-Star Game break, and with the White Sox happily, if tenuously, in first place, it seemed like a good time to watch “The Stratton Story” (1949), the bio pic starring James Stewart as White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton who waged a valiant comeback after having a leg amputated.

The strong message of overcoming a physical handicap struck a huge chord with post-WWII veterans who lost limbs during the war. “The Stratton Story” was one of 1949’s most successful films and earned an Academy Award for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story.

This is an absolutely wonderful movie, featuring one of Stewart’s best performances (which is saying something). It was, to date, Stewart’s biggest post-war hit. Don’t forget, “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946) was not a success when it was first released.

Stratton himself served as technical advisor and was at Stewart’s side throughout filming, helping him with his pitching technique. Stratton said of the film, “Stewart did a great job of playing me, in a picture which I figure was about as true to life as they could make it.” Which I think is about the most you can expect from a Hollywood biography.

Monty Stratton is found pitching in a Texas league game by former catcher Barney Wile (Frank Morgan). An early scene between the two made me reverse the DVD several times to make sure I heard what I heard.

Wile asks Stratton if he’s ever thought about pitching in the majors. Stratton tells him it’s all he ever thinks about. Wile then says, “Hell, what are you wasting your time here for?”

I was pretty surprised to hear this (admittedly mild) expletive and reversed the DVD to make sure I heard it correctly. It sure sounds like that’s what Wile says. Wonder how that got past the Hays Office? Maybe they thought Wile said, “Well, what are your wasting your time here for?” Anyway, it sure sounds like “Hell” to me.

No matter, because Barney and Monty convince Ma Stratton (Agnes Moorehead, in a wonderful performance) to let Monty leave the Texas farm and travel to California to try out with the Chicago White Sox during spring training. She grudgingly agrees and the two set off.
White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes, playing himself (Dykes was the White Sox’s manager from 1934-1946), isn’t pleased to see Barney Wile, but grudgingly agrees to see the new prospect. There’s raw talent in Monty Stratton’s throwing arm, but it needs to be nurtured. He’s sent to the minor leagues in Omaha, where he meets future wife Ethel (June Allyson) on a blind date.

Stratton soon makes it to the Big Leagues, where he becomes the leading pitcher in the American League. In 1938 while hunting, Stratton accidentally shoots himself in the right leg. The leg requires amputation below the knee.

Stratton is bitter and angry, despite the devotion of his wife and mother. He finally comes around when he sees his infant son attempt to walk. The scene of the infant and Stratton learning to walk together is beautifully done, as is the later reconciliation scene between the formerly embittered Monty and Ethel. Stewart and Allyson were a popular screen team, also appearing together in “The Glenn Miller Story” (1954) and “Strategic Air Command” (1955), two of Stewart’s most popular pictures of the 1950s.
Walking again with an artificial leg, Stratton attempts a comeback in the minor leagues. This entire game sequence is riveting, as Stratton slowly gets his game back after a couple of bad pitches. With the game on the line, the opposing team really plays dirty and start bunting, knowing the crippled Stratton will be unable to get off the pitcher’s mound in time to throw out the batter at first base.

Director of “The Stratton Story” was Sam Wood, and this was his penultimate film. Wood gets a bad rap among serious film critics. I’m not sure how this started but I suspect there are a variety of reasons. He was the butt of a lot of Groucho’s jokes during the making of “A Night at the Opera” (1935). Groucho famously said, “You can’t make a director out of Wood.” I’ve read where many attribute the success of the marvelous “King’s Row” (1941) to production designer William Cameron Menzies and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold and not to Wood. He was also an arch conservative, which doesn’t go over well with the liberal critical establishment.

But his name graces the credits of many great films, including “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (1939), “Kitty Foyle” (1940) (he and Ginger Rogers both won Oscars for that one) and the wonderful “The Devil and Miss Jones” (1941), among many others. In addition to “A Night at the Opera” he also directed “A Day at the Races” (1937). I know I’m suppose to prefer the Paramount Marx Bros. flicks, but I absolutely adore these two M-G-M films, and think they represent some of the Brothers’ best work.

It’s likely that Wood was assigned “The Stratton Story” since he also directed the other great baseball tearjerker, “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942) with Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. Like that film, the sentiment in “The Stratton Story” is honestly earned, its strong emotions are rooted in reality, and the situations are never overplayed to maudlin excess. I think Wood is an underrated director, and “The Stratton Story” is one of his best.

Today, it remains a film that can be enjoyed by all. If it has any flaws, it’s that the exterior scenes on the farm are easily identifiable as being filmed on a soundstage, and some of the pitching scenes look like Stewart standing in front of a process screen. But when the performances are this good, the emotions so strong and that comeback game as breathless as a suspense sequence in a Hitchcock movie, I can easily forgive the flaws. This is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time.

And by the way, Go White Sox!

1 comment:

Classicfilmboy said...

Yet another one to put on my list. It keeps growing!