I walked into Suncoast Video and bought a $5 tape of The Jackie Robinson Story, a 1950 “B” movie starring Robinson as himself in an annoyingly fictionalized but broadly accurate version of how he made the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African-American player in major league baseball. (During the 10 seasons he played with the Dodgers, they won the pennant six times and the World Series once, and he was instrumental in their success, especially during his earlier years.) A young Ruby Dee played his wife, Louise Beavers was his mother and an actor named Minor Watson bore a near-perfect resemblance, physically and emotionally, to Branch Rickey — he came closest to stealing the show, though Robinson himself was an interesting screen presence. (I couldn’t help but wonder how he felt about acting scenes in which he had to play versions of the events in his life that were not at all like the way they really happened.) Badly written, and directed by-the-numbers by Alfred E. Green (just four years after he did The Jolson Story!), The Jackie Robinson Story was saved (even in this wretched video print, whose poor photographic quality made the movie look abut 40 years older than it was) by the novelty of the concept, the solidly professional quality of the acting and the essentially moving quality of the story, even told in so piss-poor a fashion (I found myself crying when Branch Rickey confronted the racist teammates who circulated the petition to keep Robinson off the team). — 9/29/94
I screened the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story for Charles — a movie I’d previously seen on VHS (pack rat that I am, I still have that tape!) and an odd sort of exploitation movie in that Jackie Robinson portrayed himself on screen, with Ruby Dee as his wife (very young, hauntingly attractive and showing the Billie Holiday-ish looks that would have made her ideal casting for the acting side of the role in Lady Sings the Blues, with Billie’s own records on the soundtrack when the character sang — I recently realized that where I’d got that idea was hearing a late-1960’s radio broadcast on KPFA in which Dee read excerpts from Billie’s autobiography interspersed with Billie’s records) and old-line character actor Minor Watson surprisingly effective as Branch Rickey. I had been interested in re-seeing this movie since Charles and I watched 42, last year’s properly mounted, sumptuous (as sumptuous as the story it told allowed it to be) major-studio biopic with Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, Nicole Beharie as his wife and Harrison Ford in a surprisingly effective old-salt turn as Rickey. What struck both Charles and I most about the comparison was how closely the script of 42 tracked that of The Jackie Robinson Story (directed by Alfred E. Green from a script by Arthur Mann, Lawrence Taylor and an uncredited Lewis Pollack), to the point where the new film is practically a remake of the old and not just a separate movie inspired by the same history. Jackie Robinson’s story is striking because it was at once a baseball tale, a civil-rights parable and a fable of a man triumphing over adversity and winning acceptance from his peers by virtue of his skills and performance. Unlike 42, The Jackie Robinson Story goes easy on his (and his wife Rachel’s) resistance to racism before he signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but that’s really the only major difference: both films begin with Robinson as a boy dreaming of playing baseball — not necessarily professionally, but at least having fun with the white kids (though the opening scenes of The Jackie Robinson Story show him as so much younger than the white boys on the team he’s trying to crash, they’d have had a legitimate, non-racist reason for rejecting him: he was simply too young and too small) — and working his way through college at UCLA, majoring in four sports (baseball, football, basketball and track and field — his older brother Mac Robinson had set a world’s high-jump record until Jackie topped it) but wondering whether it’s worth finishing school when after getting a degree Mac ended up as a street cleaner.
Like 42, The Jackie Robinson Story avoids the obvious racial soapbox and treats the racism Robinson faced mostly as a subtle, ongoing presence that only occasionally flared into out-and-out assaults or goading (in the film’s most intriguing sequence, a racist at a ballgame tries to scare Robinson by leading a black cat in front of him during a game — and Robinson, though initially afraid picks up the cat and pets it). When he takes a bus there’s a sign on the inside stating that colored passengers were supposed to ride only in the back, and later when he tours with an all-Black baseball team called “The Black Panthers” (the real Negro League team Robinson played for before he signed with the Dodgers was the Kansas City Monarchs, who so dominated African-American baseball in the 1940’s they were nicknamed “the Black Yankees,” but the writers of The Jackie Robinson Story gave their fictitious “Black Panthers” not only a name that would be resonant in the 1960’s when radical Black civil-rights groups first in Alabama and then in California adopted it, but a logo on their uniforms strikingly similar to the crouching black panther the later militant group used) he’s instructed to go to a white diner and ask if the team can eat there (no), if they can get sandwiches to go (the waiter says no but the cook, no doubt thinking of the money they’ll make from selling 16 sandwiches, says yes) and if they can use the restroom (definitely no). The most controversial aspect of Robinson’s career is that he yielded to Rickey’s demand that he keep quiet about racism and not fight back no matter how much he was taunted or bullied either by fans or other players (on the Dodgers or other teams). Both films feature the famous exchange in which Robinson asks Rickey if he wants a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back when he’s attacked, and Rickey replies, “No, I want someone with the guts not to fight back.”
According to trivia notes on The Jackie Robinson Story on imdb.com, Rickey’s ban on Robinson making public comments against racism was only for two years, and once they were up Robinson did get more public about civil rights and the prejudices Black people dealt with every day (to the point where he was denounced as “mouthy”), and by 1949 Robinson was named the most valuable player in baseball and the argument over whether Blacks could play big-league baseball at the same level as whites had been definitively settled. This film has Rickey saying, “A box score is really democratic, Jackie. It doesn’t say how big you are or how your father voted in the last election or what church you attend. It just tells you what kind of a ballplayer you were that day.” As I pointed out in my comments about 42, the Dodgers’ signing Robinson achieved the on-field results Rickey was hoping for — before he joined the team in 1947, the Dodgers had played in the World Series only once; during the 10 years he played for them (1947 to 1956) they made the World Series six times and won it once (in 1955). It also accomplished another of Rickey’s goals: other teams also started recruiting Black players, looking for a similar competitive advantage. No doubt because Robinson was playing himself, The Jackie Robinson Story was more accurate than 42 in depicting what sort of player he was — one who actually in some ways anticipated the “Moneyball” philosophy in that he wasn’t a big home-run hitter: his strengths were fielding and base running, and he was so fast on the bags he could beat out what for most players would be a single into a double or even a triple. As far as the acting is concerned, Jackie Robinson himself is a surprisingly effective screen presence; Charles was surprised at how high his voice was, but I thought it added to the overall sense of him as an almost Gandhi-like figure (in one exchange, asked by Rickey what he’ll do if another player belts him in the cheek, Robinson says, “I have two cheeks, sir”), as grimly determined not to react to the racist taunts and not to give white people any excuses to hate him as he is to do well on the diamond.
It’s certainly a much better movie than Spirit of Youth, the bizarre 1937 biopic with Black boxer Joe Louis playing himself (wretchedly) and Mantan Moreland, in a superb star turn as Louis’s manager, showing up the inadequacies of the rest of the cast. Here the rest of the cast — aside from Watson as Rickey and whoever played the Dodger player who insisted on being traded rather than play with a Black man on his team — is only O.K.; Louise Beavers appears as Robinson’s mother but is on screen too little to make much of an impression, and Ruby Dee is attractive and personable in another thankless role that calls on her to do little else than gaze at Robinson in wordless admiration and furrow her brow with concern over their well-being when three members of a racist organization (its name is carefully unspecified but it’s pretty obviously the Ku Klux Klan) approach him the night after a practice game in Sarasota, Florida and threaten him with bodily harm if he plays again the next day. Robinson himself is a fascinating screen presence, looking like the genuine athlete he was but also almost unbelievably self-effacing —one gets the impression from the script that this Jackie Robinson didn’t have to make those promises with Branch Rickey not to fight back against any racist assaults because it’s not in his nature to be confrontational and he’d rather just go out there and win his civil-rights victories on the ballfield. Robinson never again acted (though he appeared on TV doing sports commentaries and commercials), but if he’d pursued it as a second career he could probably have made at least a decent success — as things turned out, when Black athletes started pursuing acting careers in the 1960’s they were mostly football rather than baseball players (Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Rosie Grier) and they specialized mostly in ultra-butch action roles that would have been totally wrong for Robinson’s placid temperament.
Still, The Jackie Robinson Story is a surprisingly good movie, especially considering its auspices (made by Eagle-Lion studios, the company J. Arthur Rank formed when he bought the ultra-cheap PRC studio to have an American outlet through which to release his big British productions without having to pay U.S. companies distribution fees; it scored big the first year of its existence with The Red Shoes, but the ex-PRC’ers were still under contract and a number of them, including David Chudnow and Joseph Mullendore from PRC’s music department, are on the credit list for this), and an ironic credit for director Alfred E. Green. Four years after making The Jolson Story, about the legendary blackface performer whose act has become a badly dated artifact and been linked with racism (unfairly, in Jolson’s case; I think he was following in a theatrical tradition but also paying some sort of tribute to the genuine Black performers whom the minstrels were copying), here he is at a much lower budgetary level making a movie about an accomplished African-American athlete whose success advanced the cause of civil rights. And one imdb.com poster couldn’t escape the irony that at the very end of the movie, Jackie Robinson is invited to Washington, D.C. to make a speech about racial progress and boast that any Black person can now aspire to play professional baseball or even be President — the irony being that a Black man would indeed become President, but not until 58 years after this movie was released (and 36 years after Jackie Robinson’s death in 1972). — 12/13/14