Wednesday, August 3, 2016

American Experience: The Boys of ’36 (WGBH/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday I watched three PBS specials about the Olympics — all telling historical stories about Olympics past and obviously programmed now to take advantage of the upcoming Olympics present: The Nazi Games: Berlin 1936 (described above), The Boys of ’36 and a vest-pocket half-hour documentary from a local PBS station in Sacramento, Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story. It seemed odd that after The Nazi Games PBS would show an episode of American Experience portraying the Berlin Olympics as the goal in a quite commonplace up-from-nowhere inspirational sports story, but that’s what they did, focusing on the University of Washington and the unlikely eight-man rowing crew they put together in the mid-1930’s, mostly from the sons of loggers and industrial workers who were literally working their way through college and were looked down upon by the kids of the 1-percenters at the big Eastern universities that had dominated American participation in the sport. The Boys of ’36 was a true story, but as Charles once said to me about the film Shine, it’s a true story they made a movie about because it fits so neatly into the clichés of fiction film. Among the characters in the story were Joe Rantz, a logger’s son from Spokane (also the home town of Bing Crosby) who was literally abandoned by his family and forced to live on his own in the wild, feeding himself by shooting game and doing odd jobs for what little spending money he had. (He was essentially a real-life male version of Cinderella; his mom died when he was little and the woman his dad married after that hated him and favored her own kids by her previous husband.) Also there was Don Hume, the crew’s “stroke” — the lead rower who sets the pace for the others — who was key to their come-from-behind victories but was laid up with a high fever in Berlin; the team’s imperious coach, Al Ulbrickson, was about to replace him for the big race but the other crew members refused to row without him; and Bobby Moch (pronounced “Mock”), the coxswain (the little guy at the end of the boat with a megaphone calling out to the others to stroke), who had come from one of the other University of Washington teams and had made fun of the more déclassé rowers until he was assigned to their boat. There are a few wrinkles in the story that weren’t mentioned on the show, like the way the Washington boys were nearly aced out of the Olympics because they couldn’t raise the money to get there; according to an online article by Michael Socolow I read about the team at :

Immediately following the Huskies’ victory in the Olympic trials, the team was informed by the U.S. Olympic Committee that it needed to come up with $5,000 to pay its way to Berlin. Seeing an opening, Henry Penn Burke—chairman of the Olympic Rowing Committee and a University of Pennsylvania alum—offered to send his beloved Quakers in place of the Huskies. The sports editors of Seattle’s top two newspapers, outraged on behalf of the local heroes, enlisted newsboys to solicit donations while hawking papers. With American Legion posts and Chambers of Commerce throughout the state chipping in, enough money was collected in three days to send the team to Berlin. As a consequence of the funding drive, remembered Gordon Adam, who rowed in the three-seat, “people in the city felt that they were stockholders in the operation.”

The team members, most of whom had never been out of Washington state until they started rowing in U.S. competitions (including the Olympics trials meet in Poughkeepsie, New York — during which they decided to use their free day to see if they could crash the home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and see him — and in these days of hyper-security it’s amazing that they not only got onto the grounds of FDR’s home but knocked on his front door; the President wasn’t there but one of his sons answered and they spent hours with the younger Roosevelt, who bonded with them because he was a rower himself), ended up in Berlin and their race was the last on the day’s program. All the previous rowing events had been swept by the Germans, who (like the Soviets after World War II) were “amateurs” only in name; they were professionally trained and, though they ostensibly had private-sector jobs or were in the German military, they were essentially work-furloughed to train for and participate in the Olympics. The U.S. and British crews were “mysteriously” assigned the worst positions on the lake — on the outside lanes with the most interference from the wind — even though they had turned in the best qualifying times. Nonetheless, using the same come-from-behind strategy they had perfected in their U.S. victories — they would pace themselves, hang back in the earlier part of the race and then go full-bore to the finish, passing the other boats they’d let slip past them earlier (which itself puts them squarely in the standard template used by Hollywood in sports stories, on the ground that a come-from-behind victory is always more dramatically moving and exciting than one in which the team we’re supposed to be rooting for gets out in front early and stays there) — the U.S. won the eight-man crew event and scored a triumph sportscaster Grantland Rice called the “high spot” of the U.S. participation in the Berlin Games.