Before there was Kevin Costner, there was Jimmy Stewart

March 21, 2013

I bring this up because I was reminded of one of my all-time favorite actor’s baseball-related oeuvres by Jonathan Coe’s new pictorial biography, Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life.

Stewart’s career is often discussed in two broad periods: pre-World War II, when he generally played lighter, more genial roles, and following the war (in which he served in combat with distinction), when he took on tougher, more deeply psychological parts.

In 1949, Stewart played the title role in the The Stratton Story. From the book:

It was the first of three¬† [post-war] biopics in which [Stewart] would portray great American heroes — in this case Monty Stratton, the big-league pitcher with the White Sox whose baseball career was halted when he lost part of his leg in a hunting accident. The film shows Stratton lapsing into depression and self-pity until he sees his baby son taking his first tentative steps: this inspires him to strap on an artificial limb and start walking again. Finally, he makes his comeback on the baseball field. Although this sort of stuff can hardly cut much ice with modern audiences, it’s not as bad as it sounds, and the combination of Stewart’s pained idealism with the toothy cheerfulness of June Allyson, who played his eternally supportive¬† wife (as she did in The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command) proved extremely popular: The Stratton Story was Variety‘s sixth-highest grossing movie of 1949. One again, however much you resist the thread of sentimentality that runs through the film, it’s hard not be be impressed by the thoroughness — almost DeNiro-like, one might say — with which star immerses himself in the part. He was cast at Stratton’s own request, and was “determined to get as much instruction as possible… so I’d look right pitching a ball. Two months before the picture started, Monty Stratton came up. Everyday, for three hours, back in the backlot of MGM, I just threw the ball. And Monty kept after me and after me. He’d say ‘You’re not using your wrist at the right time.’ It paid off. I got a lot of reaction. Instead of fan letters, I got baseball’s to sign.”

In fact, Stewart doesn’t look half-bad on the diamond, even if the “special effects” leave something to be desired. He’s certainly not as awkward as Gary Cooper portraying Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees.

In 1955, Stewart exchanged baseball flannel for air force wings in Strategic Air Command. According to the blurb on Fandango:

Inspired in part by the true story of baseball great Ted Williams, who after serving in World War II was drafted to serve in the Korean War just as his baseball career was taking off, Strategic Air Command stars James Stewart as “Dutch” Holland, a star third baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals. “Dutch” served with distinction as a fighter pilot during World War II, and as the Air Force adds new B-36 and B-47 jets to their arsenal, they need experienced men to fly these new weapons in our atomic deterrent force, and Holland is called back to duty. He’s not terribly happy about this development: he loves baseball, his team is doing well, and his wife Sally (June Allyson) is expecting a baby. But you can’t fight Uncle Sam, and Holland becomes a reluctant but proud member of the S.A.C., where he and his fellow pilots man the jets that will be our first line of defense should the cold war turn hot. While Strategic Air Command‘s story hasn’t dated well (and for a military drama, there’s surprisingly little action), …Stewart and …Allyson make the most of their material, and the aerial footage remains impressive. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

And from the biography:

Strategic Air Command stars Stewart as a baseball player who is resentful at the interruption of his career when the SAC calls him up for service; there’s a good deal of cold-war paranoia about how necessary it is for the armed forces to be kept at the ready, even in peacetime, but little in the way of plot, and the film is both dull and objectionable despite [director Anthony] Mann’s often inspired photography of the skyscapes.

I respectfully disagree with Coe’s characterization of the film, but then, as a native of Great Britain, he’s coming at if from a foreigner’s point of view.

It’s worth mentioning that Stewart was just about 40 when he made Stratton, and in his mid-40s for SAC. The real Stratton was 26 when he had his accident, so even more props to Stewart for shaving off 15 years for the role.

Both films get substantial writeups in The Baseball Film in Postwar America: A Critical Study, 1948-1962, by Ron Briley, and The Baseball Filmography, 1915 through 2001, 2d ed., by Hal Erickson


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