22 May 2005 | schappe1
The Babe and Lou
I know of no two human lives that are more clearly "stories" than that of the two great Yankee teammates, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Most lives a litany of events, some of which are part of "stories" that cut diagonally across the life rather than encompassing it and driving it forward. Those stories do not emanate from or thus reveal the character of the person portrayed.
Ruth was an undisciplined man-child with a prodigious talent that enabled him to reinvent and save his sport and made him the symbol of his era, a time when America was emerging as a world power and breaking the bonds of its own traditions to create a more modern and exciting way of living. But he offended not only the traditionalists but the businessmen who controlled his sport- or used to until he came along. When age and his lifestyle began to catch to him, they disposed of him for all but ceremonial purposes. Meanwhile his age passed and the world grew more serious. He wound up lonely and depressed and became a cancer victim at the early age of 53.
Gehrig was a serious, dutiful momma's boy, also blessed with a prodigious talent that thrust him into where he most hated to be- the limelight. It's interesting that the worst year of his prime was the one year he didn't have either Ruth or DiMaggio as a teammate, 1935. He fared much better in their shadow. He was noted, by those who noted him, as a strong, reliable workhorse of a man and a player, someone you could count on. He was amazingly beset by a disease which robbed him of his strength, the very quality in him people most admired. And that in turn, thrust him directly into the lime light. People didn't think he could respond but he looked into his heart and said what was there and nobody ever forgot it.
How could you miss telling stories like that? But amazingly, Hollywood has always seemed to get Lou's story right and the Babe's wrong. Even though there were casting problems in all the movies made about them, the quality of "Pride of the Yankees" and of "A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story" is superb on both counts. Meanwhile "The Babe Ruth Story" is one of the worst movies ever made and both the TV movie "Babe Ruth" and the film "The Babe" are deeply flawed.
"Pride of the Yankees" is old fashioned Hollywood sentiment but done by experts. I find Teresa Wright's alternate clowning and crying to be a little too much and I've heard all the stories about Gary Cooper's attempts to learn how to play baseball, (he was a cowboy and an artist but no ball-player). But he was a great actor and he got to the essence of the character beautifully. His delivery of the final speech is perfect, for which reason he was asked to repeat it to the troops over and over during his travels during WWII. I'll be loving it- always.
"The Babe Ruth Story" casts a stumpy, potato-faced introvert, William Bendix, as the big, moon-faced extrovert, Babe Ruth. It's a competent "B" movie version of his life for the first half. It might have just been a disappointing follow-up to "Pride of the Yankees" if they'd left it at that but about halfway through the script suddenly delves into science fiction and turns Ruth into a maker of medical miracles, with one ridiculous scene after another. He is, however, unable to save himself in the end, or even the film.
All I saw of "Babe Ruth" was a few scenes but once I saw Stephen Lang wearing what appeared to be a plastic mask, which tried but failed to make him resemble Ruth, I wanted no part of it.
"The Babe" is the "Gone With the Wind" of Babe Ruth movies, which isn't saying much. But is a good retelling of his life and Goodman enacts the part superbly. It ends at the right moment, with Ruth hitting his last three home runs in one game in Pittsburgh to stick it to those who were jeering him. But Goodman is twice the size Ruth ever was. The Babe, as old photos show, was about 200 pounds when his career started and worked his way up to perhaps 250 pounds when he quit. Goodman must have been a minimum of 350 pounds when he filmed this movie and sent the wrong message: that you can be a blimp and still be the greatest player in the sport, an image that baseball people really resent.
While casting is not the only problem, it could have been improved and that might have helped. Physically, someone like Dick Foran or Wayne Morris would have been a better match for Gehrig than Cooper but they wouldn't have given as good a performance. Kurt Russell, (who played some minor league ball), or Jeff Bridges would have been a much better choice for "A Love Story", than Hermann. That other "Reilly", Jackie Gleason, would have been a much better choice than Bendix for "The Babe Ruth Story", (especially if he had eaten the script). Maybe the best time to do a Ruth movie and do it right would have been after Roger Maris broke his record. Either Claude Akins, (my favorite choice of all), or Simon Oakland would have made excellent Ruths. Ramon Bieri was a good Ruth in "A Love Story". I'm not sure who would play him these days.
Of course the best performance as Babe Ruth was by the guy who played him in "Pride of the Yankees".