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Actually, Wood had no fondness for sport films, but one just seemed to lead to another. When he wanted Gary Cooper to star in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Goldwyn told him he would not lend Cooper unless Wood agreed to first direct Cooper in Pride of the Yankees for Goldwyn. That film, based on the life and death of Lou Gehrig, did manage to blend baseball and sentiment with a certain degree of success.
Tom McCarey's son Leo first worked as a Los Angeles sportswriter. He started his directing career with a college football comedy, The Sophomore, became celebrated for Ruggles of Red Gap and went on to direct the Marx brothers and Laurel and Hardy. The latter, in one of their best comedies, Should Married Men Go Home?, had Laurel as an elegantly attired golfer with an uncanny resemblance to Fred Astaire get involved in an epic mud-throwing scene on a golf course. The brawl started when Laurel tried to replace a toupee that had fallen off Edgar Kennedy's head. He inadvertently picked up a toupee-like area of turf, a glorious sort of divot that had daisies growing from the closecropped grass, and placed it on Kennedy's head, causing Kennedy to go into his famous slow burn. Ray McCarey also mixed sport and comedy successfully, especially in a funny film about the Dodgers, It Happened in Flat bush, that stood out in the dismal record of movies about baseball.
Nor did the British actors in Los Angeles residence ignore the sporting scene. There was the Hollywood Cricket Club set, led by C. Aubrey Smith, who usually played the role of an English lord with a drooping mustache. Smith had once competed for England in international matches. The spectators at the cricket club's games included the likes of P. G. Wodehouse, Basil Rathbone, David Niven, Errol Flynn and Victor McLaglen, who had been a boxer and once fought an exhibition match with Jack Johnson before Johnson became world champion.
The history of the movies might well have been different had it not been for handball. Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach were handball players, and the 1936 national handball championships were held on Lloyd's private court. The locker-room crowd at the Los Angeles Athletic Club included such diverse types as comedian Snub Pollard, director Charles Ruggles and David Butler, a onetime theater manager and local handball champion who became another prime director of sports films.
It was Butler who gave sports movies a sudden boost in 1936—after they were thought to be hopelessly outdated—when he put together Pigskin Parade, a musical about a small Texas college that received, by mistake, an invitation to play Yale and hastily assembled a football team built around a cantaloupe tosser from the farmlands. The movie was quickly and inexpensively made, with Stuart Erwin and Betty Grable starring, and was an enormous financial success, in part because of the singing of a 14-year-old girl, Judy Garland, and in part because it expertly ridiculed the innumerable tedious college football movies of the past.
To this rather closely knit fraternity of sports-minded movie talent there came from outside a continual infusion of sports celebrity nontalent, and part of Hollywood's problem was its tendency to have stars in its own eyes when it dealt with the athletically famous. Among the early athlete-actors were Jim Corbett, who starred in a serial, The Midnight Man, in 1919 and Jess Willard, who had a brief film career in Heart Punch. Jack Dempsey was once cast as a football player, surrounded by the University of Southern California team, but survived this dreadful artistic moment to make an adequate serial, Daredevil Jack. Johnny Mack Brown made such an impression on Hollywood with his last-minute touchdown passes when Alabama beat Washington 20-19 in the 1926 Rose Bowl that the movie colony never let him go; he jumped to stardom as Marion Davies' leading man in The Fair Coed and then faded into Westerns and serials. Babe Ruth struck out in a Hollywood venture that ended with him suing the movie company for $250,000 and the company suing him for $50,000. Lou Gehrig made one film, a weird mixture of tropical isles, cowboys and baseball, called Hawaiian Buckaroo.
But the high point came when Red Grange, riding a tidal wave of publicity, made One Minute to Play. The film was hastily shot at Pomona College and cost less than $100,000. It grossed $750,000, and Grange was immediately cast in a big auto-racing feature, with Jobyna Ralston as his leading lady. Famous race drivers were added to the cast. As one historian noted, "It looked like a perfect setup for success, but the fates decreed otherwise." One instrument of the fates was Joseph P. Kennedy. He was reorganizing Film Booking Offices, the company making the movie, and became involved in a quarrel with Grange's manager, who wanted a percentage of the take for Grange. Kennedy ordered that Grange be dropped to a minor role in the billing and, except for a slight return when Glenn Davis almost married Elizabeth Taylor, running backs were benched by Hollywood until Jim Brown kissed Raquel Welch.
Were the critics right in condemning the sports movies as bombs? Was the public correct in avoiding Hollywood's best sporting efforts as stinkers? Was Variety speaking for the entire sports movie genre when it dismissed Saturday's Heroes with "Pic is crammed with hoke"? Face up to it. The answer to all three questions is yes. Hoke is nothing new for Hollywood, but Hollywood was never able to fuse hoke and sports in the way it fused hoke and every other human endeavor. The proof? Close your eyes, pretend your TV is tuned in on the Very, Very, Very Late Show, and imagine the scene as:
Jimmy Stewart, beginning his otherwise distinguished career, is a football player in Navy Blue and Gold. And what is it that the old Captain (Lionel Barrymore) is saying to him? "As long as you wear the Navy uniform nobody cares whether you win or lose. But Navy cares greatly how you play the game!"
The trainer, leaning on the fence next to Wendy Barrie in Breezing Home, observes that the Thoroughbred is nature's noblest creation. And what's that Wendy is saying? "Don't ever change, Steve; don't ever stop thinking that."