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SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING GIPPER SCENES
One of Ronald Reagan's most memorable movie roles was his portrayal of George Gipp, the doomed Notre Dame halfback, in the 1940 Warner Brothers picture, Knute Rockne—All American. Mystifyingly, in 1956, when the pre-1948 Warner film library was sold for television distribution, 14 minutes of the 98-minute film, including some of the most famous sports-movie scenes ever shot, were cut from all circulating prints. In one deleted scene a dying Gipp importunes Rockne, played by Pat O'Brien, to ask some future Irish team to "win just one for the Gipper." In a following scene, also excised, the famed coach recounts Gipp's entreaty to "win just one for the Gipper" to a locker room full of choked-up Notre Dame players, one of whom shouts, "Well, what are we waiting for?"
Despite their disappearance, those two scenes have remained firmly embedded in the public consciousness. After all, moviegoers did see them during the 1940s and well into the '50s. Further, bootleg and collectors' prints of the uncut version of the film have survived; thus, the director of a 1971 documentary about Richard Nixon, Millhouse, was able to find footage of O'Brien's locker-room exhortation, which he juxtaposed with footage showing Nixon urging the 1968 G.O.P. convention to "win this one for Ike." The business about the Gipper has also been kept alive by O'Brien, who includes the locker-room plea in the Rockne impersonation he has performed endlessly on the banquet circuit and TV. Thanks in no small part to O'Brien and Knute Rockne—All American, winning one for the Gipper has become one of the hoariest of sporting clich�s.
Given all this, it's hardly surprising that a howl of protest ensues whenever the abridged version of Knute Rockne—All American runs on the TV late show. There has been much misguided speculation about the reasons for the deletions, including suggestions that the film was simply poorly edited for TV, or that it was cut because of legal objections raised by Rockne's heirs, a teammate of Gipp's or a sportswriter portrayed in the film. It has also been whispered that Reagan contrived to have the scenes excised for political reasons. But Reagan's political career didn't begin until the '60s, long after the cuts were made. In point of fact, Reagan eagerly sought the Gipp part, called it his favorite role and was said to be distressed when the edited version of Knute Rockne—All American appeared on TV in the late '50s without his big deathbed scene.
Another explanation offered for the cuts is that they were made because of legal action brought by Gipp's descendants. Gipp and his family were Protestants, and a brother, Alexander Gipp, did indeed threaten to sue in 1940 because of the presence of a priest in the newly released movie's deathbed scene, which he felt implied that Gipp had converted to Catholicism. But nothing came of the threat. And the cuts, remember, weren't made until 16 years later.
So why were they made? The answer can be found in the Warner Brothers archives. Papers relating to the film confirm other evidence that while the real-life Rockne did implore his players to win a game for the Gipper, he did so on his own and not because of any deathbed instructions from Gipp. Warner Brothers, in fact, lifted part of the deathbed scene and other material from a radio drama about Rockne that was broadcast on Dec. 5, 1938 on the DuPont-sponsored The Cavalcade of America. The studio paid $300 to the radio author, a young ad agency writer named John H. Driscoll, but mistakenly used material from his script not covered by the purchase. After the movie's release, Driscoll complained and was paid an additional $5,000. In striking this deal, Driscoll's lawyer apparently reserved certain radio rights for his client. Warner Brothers must have felt Driscoll also retained television rights because before it sold the film for TV in 1956, its lawyers ordered the now famous cuts "to eliminate any possible infringement of the Driscoll script."
The company that bought Knute Rockne—All American in 1956, Associated Artists Productions, was absorbed in 1958 by United Artists, which has never given any public indication that it knows exactly why the scenes were omitted, much less that it might care to restore them. However, with the man who played the Gipper about to be sworn in as President, the potential commercial value of the intact film may now, at last, make restoration worthwhile. Besides locating the missing footage, this would involve determining whether Driscoll still has any claim to TV rights. Driscoll is now 67 and works as story editor at RKO Pictures in New York. Reached last week by SI, he said, astonishingly, that he'd always assumed the movie scenes had been deleted because of legal trouble with Gipp's heirs. Told they had actually been removed out of respect for his own long-ago arrangement with Warner Brothers, he seemed amenable to removing whatever legal roadblocks remain, saying, "I'd love to see those scenes back in." Mawkish and not wholly accurate though the scenes may be, movie buffs, sports trivia-ists and the President-elect would all surely agree.
THE CASE FOR ANARCHY
Georgia's 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl pretty much settles things as far as this season's national championship in college football is concerned. But what of the controversy that so often has attended the question in other seasons? This magazine recently ran a polemic by Arnold Schechter in favor of a postseason playoff system for determining the champ (VIEWPOINT, Dec. 22-29), a call echoed last week by New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, who warned that until a playoff system is adopted, the scramble for the top spot in the sport will continue to produce "conjecture and confusion."
Well, it so happens that in addition to the bowls, which have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, some people actually prefer conjecture and confusion. One such anarchist is Washington State Coach Jim Walden, whose views are presented here in the interest of equal time: "There's always going to be an argument for a national playoff, but I think the healthiest thing we have going for us in college football is that there is no conclusive winner. I think it's beautiful that folks in the Pac-10 scream that Southern Cal is best, and other people scream that Alabama is best, that Ohio State is best or that nobody is better than Texas. We go through the winter arguing among ourselves. Look at college basketball. After the NCAA final, O.K., so everybody says, 'Ho-hum, Michigan State won,' or, last year, ' Louisville won.' It's cut and dried, and then there's no more interest in college basketball until December of the next season. And I say, 'God, why do we want to do that to ourselves?' I hope we never solve the argument."