Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Athletes in Film Blogathon: "The Stratton Story" (1949)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Sam Wood, The Stratton Story (1949) begins in the early 1930s when former major leaguer Barney Wile (Frank Morgan) spots young Texas farmer Monty Stratton (James Stewart) pitching for $3 a game with a baseball team called the Wagner Wildcats. Impressed by Monty's raw skill, Barney trains the boy throughout the winter and then takes him to California for a try-out with the Chicago White Sox. Manager Jimmy Dykes (as himself) is convinced to take Monty on, with Barney retained as pitching coach. Meanwhile, Monty marries a sophisticated young woman named Ethel Milberger (June Allyson), whom he met on a blind date arranged by teammate Eddie Dibson (Bill Williams).

After sitting on the bench for most of the first season, Monty is finally asked to pitch against the New York Yankees, proving himself vital in the Sox's winning the game. When the season ends, he brings Ethel, who is expecting the couple's first child, to his family farm to meet his mother (Agnes Moorehead) and his cousin Earnie (Robert Gist) and stay for the winter. The following spring, Monty wins every game he plays and quickly becomes part of the All-Stars team. Months later, while on an off-season hunting trip, Monty accidentally shoots himself in the right leg. Ethel finds him, but not soon enough to save his infected leg, which has to be amputated. Following the operation, Monty becomes depressed and refuses to try to recover. It is only when he sees his son, Monty Jr., take his first steps that he decides to learn to walk on his false leg. Within months, he is tossing a baseball with Ethel, who reveals that she is expecting another baby. When Barney visits that spring, they all attend a Texas League all-star game and are shocked to discover that Monty has convinced the coach to let him pitch. Although he is frightened and has trouble running and catching bunts, Monty overcomes all obstacles and wins the game for the Southern League. Mostly importantly, he wins his own personal battle with adversity.

Ethel Stratton: You told me once, "A man has to know where he's goin'!" Where are you goin', Monty? 

Until World War II, baseball had long enjoyed nationwide popularity in the United States and deserved its title of the "national pastime." Annual attendance at major league games for 1940 stood at almost 10 million spectators, the highest since 1931. The sport, however, faced extreme hardships during the subsequent war years as the draft and enlistments stripped many teams of eligible players. The number of people present at games dropped slightly, reaching its lowest point at about 7.5 million for the 1943 season. When hostilities ended in September 1945, the nation witnessed the return of thousands of veterans eager to recover lost time and enjoy themselves with their families and friends. As a result, baseball like many other aspects of life in America experienced a post-war boom. By 1949, a little over 20 million fans, twice as many as in 1940, cheered their favorite teams.

As evidence of its continuing popularity, songwriters throughout the 20th century penned several hundred tunes praising the game in one away or another. The 1940s definitely had its share of baseball-oriented music, with at least 40 melodies available to fans. The film industry likewise used baseball as thematic material in a number of productions. Sam Wood's The Pride of the Yankees (1942) starred Gary Cooper in an Academy Award-nominated performance as Lou Gehrig, a first baseman for the New York Yankees who had died in 1941 of a disease that would bear his name. In Roy Del Ruth's The Babe Ruth Story (1948), William Bendix portrayed the famed New York Yankees slugging outfielder who would die of cancer just a month after the film's release. The following year, MGM offered Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), a turn-of-the-century musical comedy featuring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as baseball players who moonlight as vaudevillians. Lesser-known pictures such as 20th Century Fox's It Happened in Flatbush (1942) and It Happens Every Spring (1949) also deal with baseball themes.

James Stewart and Monty Stratton
In 1948, MGM producer Jack Cummings approached former pitcher Monty Stratton and his wife Ethel with a movie deal. The son of two Texan farmers, Stratton began his baseball career with the local team, before a Chicago White Sox scout discovered him at the age of 22 in 1934. He made his major league debut later that year, playing at home in an unsuccessful game against the Detroit Tigers. Following his brief outing, first-time manager Jimmy Dykes decided to send Stratton to the Galveston of the Texas League for more seasoning. The next summer, Stratton split time between the Sox and St. Paul of the American Association, where he scored 17 victories to 9 defeats, finally proving himself ready for major league competition. Much was expected from Stratton in 1936, but his first full year in the majors was plagued by bouts of both tonsillitis and appendicitis; as a result, he made only 16 appearances, finishing the season with a record of 5 games won and 7 lost. Nevertheless, the team ended the year in third place, their highest finish since the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919, in which several members of the White Sox were accused of conspiring with gamblers to fix games.

After turning in 15 victories against only 5 defeats in 1937, Stratton was named to the American League all-star squad, although a twisted ankle kept him out of the game. Despite missing the first month of the 1938 season due to an arm injury, Stratton came back to post a 15-9 won-lost record, registering the junior circuit's fourth-best winning percentage. Confident that his physical problems were finally behind him, Stratton was eagerly looking forward to the next season, but tragedy struck on November 28, 1938. While hunting rabbits on his mother's farm in Greenville, Texas, he stumbled and accidentally discharged his .22 calibre pistol into his right leg. The bullet pierced the femoral artery between the hip and knee, cutting off circulation to his lower leg. Gangrene quickly set in and the leg had to be amputated the following day. Bitterly demoralized by his misfortune, Stratton went through an extended period of self-pity and depression. With the cheerful encouragement of his wife Ethel, he regained his spirit and returned to baseball as a pitching coach for the White Sox from 1939 to 1941. Thereafter, he mastered the tricky art of balancing and pivoting on an artificial leg and went on to have a successful career as a minor league pitcher in Texas, until his retirement in 1953.

James Stewart and Agnes Moorehead
Stratton initially showed some resistance to having a film made about his seasons as a White Sox pitcher, the accident and his comeback, but he eventually allowed Cummings to move forward with the project. Although The Sporting News acknowledged that baseball pictures were usually considered "box-office poison" by Hollywood, Cummings believed that the true story of an amputee who beats the odds and thereafter lives a happy and fulfilled existence had just the right ingredients for a post-war hit. This kind of material had been subject of fascination to audiences since the Academy Award-winning performance by genuine double amputee Harold Russell in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). As Hal Erickson observes, "The fact that Monty Stratton's accident occured not in the service of his country but in a recreational pursuit was unimportant; like Harold Russell, Stratton served as an inspiration not only to those filmgoers who'd been similarly maimed but to their families and friends who found it simpler to adapt to the misfortunes of their loved ones after seeing those misfortunes mirrored and conquered on the big screen."

Hoping to recreate the box-office appeal of The Pride of the Yankees, Cummings assigned The Stratton Story to veteran director Sam Wood, who would die of a heart attack just five months after the film's release. Beginning his career as an actor, Wood became Cecil B. DeMille's assistant in 1915, before making the full transition to directing four years later. In 1927, he joined Metro, where he would spend most of his career. Between the late 1930s and mid-1940s, Wood helmed a series of Academy Award-nominated films, included Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), Kings Row (1942) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). To write the script, Wood hired Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper, who four years later penned another baseball picture, The Pride of St. Louis (1952), starring Dan Dailey as pitcher Dizzy Dean.

Frank Morgan, Jimmy Dykes and James Stewart
Wood lobbied for his good friend Gary Cooper to play Monty Stratton, but nothing came of that. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer believed that despite the success of The Pride of the Yankees, baseball features almost never made money (he is alleged to have cited the millions of "pregnant women" who would regard the saga of a one-legged ballplayer as "disgusting") and at first agreed to green-light the project only if Van Johnson played the part. As far as Mayer was concern, Johnson one of his favorites epitomized the "perfect all-American youth" and would bring the film the kind of warmth it needed to offset the grim tale of Stratton's shooting his own leg. However, Johnson, who had been severely injured in a car accident in 1943, was reportedly forced to withdrew from the production after being advised by his physician that the role would be too strenuous for him. According to Ethel Stratton, it was Monty himself who rejected Johnson; following a brief workout session with the actor, Stratton concluded that Johnson was "gunshy athletically, and would never be convincing as a pitcher."

Sportscaster-turned-actor Ronald Reagan, who had previously played college football player George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), begged his studio boss Jack Warner to loan him out to MGM for The Stratton Story, but was ultimately refused; Warner believed that "there are two things movie audiences aren't interested in baseball and cripples." Gregory Peck was briefly considered for the role, until everyone agreed that James Stewart was the right person for the job. A graduate of Princeton University, Stewart made his screen debut opposite Spencer Tracy in The Murder Man (1935). He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in The Philadelphia Story (1940), before enlisting in the United States Army Air Force during World War II, where he flew combat missions as a B-24 Liberator bomber pilot. When his first film after his military hiatus, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), failed at the box-office, Stewart experienced a period of self-doubt and struggled to find a suitable vehicle with which to regain his pre-war momentum. The Stratton Story was the first picture Stewart had done for MGM since the musical Ziegfeld Girl (1941), with Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner.

June Allyson and James Stewart
Wood initially wanted Donna Reed to play Ethel Stratton, but Stewart vetoed her, as he had not enjoyed working with her on It's a Wonderful Life. "I had to have a hit," he later said, "and as much as I liked Donna Reed [...] and as good an actress as she is [...] the sad fact is that on It's a Wonderful Life we just didn't have any chemistry [...] on screen or off. [...] I felt just so bad about Donna not being in the film [...] but I needed someone who was going to play a woman who was going to be a hundred and ten percent supportive of her husband [...] and I wasn't convinced Donna could pull that off, because we just didn't hit it off. Things like that show up on the screen." Apparently, Reed never forgave Stewart for turning her down as his leading lady in The Stratton Story. "I didn't work for MGM again," she recalled. "The pictures I made got worse, expect for From Here to Eternity [1953], and my career never did recover. So I'm mad at Jimmy for wrecking my career."

Stewart then asked for June Allyson to play Ethel, aware that she had made a success at playing the girl-next-door in a string of films, including Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) and Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945). She also had a reputation of being an easy-to-work-with, sweet-natured girl. As Stewart put it, "What you saw of June on the screen was what you saw off the screen. She was the sweetest actress and we made a good screen team." Stewart and Allyson had known each other before either of them was married to their respective spouses he to former model Gloria Hatrick McLean, she to actor Dick Powell. Reportedly, they had dated and at one point even considered marriage. "I knew Jimmy before he married Gloria," Allyson recollected. "With my cooking, it's a good thing he didn't marry me. The poor dear weighed only 154 pounds before he was married and he was all of 6 feet 2 or 3 inches tall. Jimmy hated being photographed when he was out with a girl and he seldom took his dates to nightclubs. Instead, he fed them steak that he grilled himself in his own backyard. If they didn't like that and wanted the limelight, they were not for him."

Monty Stratton, James Stewart and Bill Dickey
To increase authenticity, several baseball players were cast as themselves in the film. These included Gene Bearden, a World War II veteran and pitcher for the Cleveland Indians who would actually finish his career in the major league with the Chicago White Sox in 1953; Bill Dickey, a catcher for the New York Yankees for 19 seasons from 1928 through 1943; and Mervyn "Merv" Shea, who had been Stratton's catcher during this time with the White Sox. Jimmy Dykes was also hired to play himself in a return appearance in a White Sox uniform after being dismissed as team manager three years earlier. In addition, 72 real-life professional ballplayers were featured in The Stratton Story, representing both major and minor league teams.

Stewart dedicated himself completed to his role in The Stratton Story. Disdaining the use of a double unlike Cooper for The Pride of the Yankees he trained five hours a day for three months with a contigent of major leaguers, including Stratton himself, who remained on the set as technical adviser. Furthermore, beyond reseaching with physical therapists and orthopedists, Stewart wore a steal harness that forced a limp. "These things are important," he said. "You don't have to actually know how to pitch a ball, but you have to look like you know. The better you can actually pitch a ball, the more convincing you'll be. And Stratton was a genius with the ball, so I had to look like I was a genius with the ball too. Or the picture wouldn't have worked."

James Stewart, June Allyson and Sam
Wood on the set
Filming took place between late October and late December 1948, proceeding smoothly throughout. The baseball scenes were shot at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Gilmore Field in Hollywood and at American League fields in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Washington, D.C. The world premiere of The Stratton Story was held in Cleveland, Ohio on April 21, 1949, in honor of the Indians' opening home game of the season. The film subsequently opened at Radio City Musical Hall in New York on May 12, before MGM arranged a Silver Anniversary gala screening at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on June 1.

The Stratton Story went on to become MGM's biggest hit of the year and the sixth highest grossing film of 1949, earning an impressive $4 million in its initial domestic run. Critical reviews were equally as favorable, praising the film for its restraint and sense of triumph that went beyond the world of sports. Philip Hartung of Commenweal called it "the success story supreme," stating that "whether you like baseball or not, you will like The Stratton Story because it is a well-made movie and is as honest as its theme of courage." Thomas M. Pryor of The New York Times described it as "a touching, human story of triumph over crushing odds with a warmth and sensitive appreciation for sentiment that is all too seldom encountered on the screen."

James Stewart was singled out for praise for his performance in the film. Pryor wrote, "The Stratton Story was the best thing that has yet happened to Mr. Stewart in his post-war film career [...] he gives such a winning performance that it is almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part." The New York Herald Tribune agreed: "The redoutable James Stewart has turned baseball player in The Stratton Story. Thanks to his engaging and artful performance, a sentimental and inspirational screen biography has more than a little power." After the film's release, Stratton himself commented that "[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." In February 1950, The Stratton Story was named the "most enjoyed motion picture of 1949" by Photoplay and received six of  the magazine's Gold Medal awards. In addition, the film was named Picture of the Year by the Protestant Motion Picture Council and the Christian Herald. At the 22nd Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in March 1950, Douglas Morrow won the Academy Award for Best Story.

The Stratton Story became the first unqualified hit of Stewart's post-war film career, the movie that finally restore him to the front ranks of Hollywood's A-level stars. It was also the first of three successful films in which he and Allyson played husband and wife; the others were The Glenn Miller Story (1953), about the eponymous American bandleader, and Strategic Air Command (1955), wherein he portrayed a professional baseball player who is also a bomber pilot in the United States Air Force Reserve. Stewart and Allyson's on-screen chemistry was so convincing that many moviegoers came to believe that their were really married. Monty Stratton reportedly earned more than $250,000 from the film, which allowed him to retire to his farm in comfort. After the sucess of The Stratton Story, he was asked if he thought of returning to the game as manager. He replied, "Pardner [...] it's my leg that's wooden, not my head." 


This post is my contribution to The Athletes in Film Blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Rich of Wide Screen World. To view all entries to the blogathon, click the links below.

  

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SOURCES:
Baseball's Comeback Players: Forty Majors Leaguers Who Fell and Rose Again by Rick Swaine (2014) | History in the Media: Film and Television by Robert Niemi (2006) | Jimmy Stewart: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2006) | Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn (2013) | Lost in the Sun: The Comebacks and Comedowns of Major League Ballplayers by G. Richard McKelvey (2008) | The Baseball Film in Postwar America: A Critical Study, 1948-1962 by Ron Briley (2011) | The Baseball Filmography, 1915 Through 2001, Second Edition by Hal Erickson (2002) | The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies by Martin F. Norden (1994) | World War II and the Postwar Years in America: A Historical and Cultural Encyclopedia, Volume I: A-I by William H. Young and Nancy K. Young (2010) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for including all the fascinating background for this film. Was impressed to learn about Stewart training 5 hours per day for three months for the role. I also didn't realize it was MGM's biggest money-maker of the year.

    Time to see this again!

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  2. Really, how wrong can some executives be! "The Stratton Story" is a movie that has something for just about everybody; inspiring and interesting. I think it contains some of June Allyson's best work, especially the scene where she has to tell the doctors to go ahead with the amputation.

    I will admit that as a kid I would get all of the Jimmy & June movies mixed up - ballplayer, musician, pilot.

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