For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Biographical Films here’s a review of The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) by J-Dub of Dubsism
Thanks again to Nick Rehak of French Toast Sunday for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by Joe of The MN Movie Man and we will be reviewing our favorite Summer Camp Movies.
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Jun by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Try to think out of the box! Great choice Joe!
Let’s see what J-Dub thought of this movie:
- Today’s Movie: The Jackie Robinson Story
- Year of Release: 1950
- Stars: Jackie Robinson, Ruby Dee, Minor Watson
- Director: Alfred E. Green
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Movies Everybody Loves That I Hate is the movie equivalent of baseball’s “double-header” as it is being contributed to two equally awesome events. The opening act of this twin-bill is the American Experience Blog-a-Thon being hosted by Moon In Gemini.
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here:
But the back-end of the twin bill is a monthly event hosted by MovieRob called Genre Grandeur. The way it works is every month MovieRob chooses a film blogger to pick a topic and a movie to write about, then also picks a movie for MovieRob to review. At the end of the month, MovieRob posts the reviews of all the participants.
For May of 2021, the guest picker is Nick Rehak of French Toast Sunday, and the topic is “Biographic Movies.”
For purposes of full disclosure, I am a lifelong lover of baseball and fully-nerded student of it’s history. Given the subject of this film; it’s biographic nature drips with the American experience, making it a perfect subject for both the aforementioned events, That’s also why this should have been a great movie.
But it isn’t.
Every year in mid-April, Major League Baseball holds it’s annual celebration of Jackie Robinson. Having just passed that time, this is all incredibly fresh in my mind. As a black man in America, I have a great passion for this story…so much so that it led to another tale of a profane encounter between myself and the dear departed Alex Trebek. But that’s for another day.
Instead, this is an examination of why one of the great stories in all of the history of baseball made for one of the worst movies ever made about America’s Past-Time. In fact, We all know the story, but far too many of us don’t know the TRUE story.
The white-washed version of this story lives on because America has become a nation of people who don’t really embrace facts anymore; they tend to cherry-pick information to support whatever they want to believe. The problem is that means false narratives can easily take root, and can be even more easily accepted as fact. This is why we live in a world where people will cite Wikipedia when we all know it can be monstrously inaccurate.
Another problem is that when one questions a narrative that is rooted in an political ideology, the inquisitor becomes subject to dismissive smearing and/or labeling. That’s exactly what’s going to happen here. I can already see my inbox getting blown-up over some things I’m going to point out. Hence, here comes the proverbial “couch.” Like I said, we all know the commonly-accepted Robinson story; the man was one of the great baseball players of all-time and he’s a seriously important figure in American history, not just in the world of sport.
Having said that, it’s really time for a “there, I said it moment” inasmuch as pointing why this movie is awful means exposing many such “facts” too many people either misunderstand or flat-out don’t know the reality…but still want to believe
1) Jackie Robinson Was A Man Of Many Talents…Acting Wasn’t One of Them
Obviously, the man was one of the great baseball players of all time. He was a four-sport athlete in college; he was the first person to win a varsity letter in football, basketball, track, and obviously baseball. The irony is that Robinson often said that baseball was his worst sport. That would not have been true if acting has been a varsity sport at the University of California-Los Angeles.
It’s a complete “hack” joke to say the only thing more wooden that Robinson’s acting performance was the baseball bat in his hands. I usually wouldn’t go near a line like that, but it is so undeniably true it can’t be dismissed. The director of this film could have replaced Robinson with a cardboard cut-out and voiced-over his lines and not lost a single bit of the movie’s quality. Critics who simply didn’t want to be on the obviously wrong side of history ignored that and lauded this movie. But it was clear from the first scene that casting Robinson to play himself was a ghastly mistake.
2) The Mythology Of This Movie Ignores Some Important Facts, Part I: Robinson v. United States Army
After his days at UCLA, the outbreak of the Second World War saw Robinson drafted into the United States Army in 1942. He was assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. Having the requisite qualifications, Robinson and several other black soldiers applied for admission to an Officer Candidate School (OCS). Despite the fact the Army’s initial July 1941 guidelines for OCS had been drafted as race neutral, few black applicants were admitted. However, another important black figure was also stationed at Fort Riley; boxer Joe Louis.
Robinson was an unknown figure at this time, but Louis had already been widely used to dispel Hitler’s “master race” nonsense after he hammered the German-born Max Schmeling into unconsciousness to become boxing’s heavyweight champion. Together, Louis and Robinson appealed to the Secretary of War, which resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of black candidates admitted to OCS. Louis and Robinson remained personal friends after this experience and, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1943.
This was a important step in the formation of Robinson’s world view, which would become evident later. But the movie doesn’t give this event the weight it should have.
3) The Mythology Of This Movie Ignores Some Important Facts, Part II: Robinson Wasn’t Baseball’s First Black Player
The MLB Network is the only entity I’ve seen that gets this right. There’s a debate as to whether the “first black man in professional baseball” title belongs to John “Bud” Fowler, who was a second baseman for a professional team in New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1872. But there’s no questioning the first black man in major league baseball was a catcher named Moses Fleetwood Walker who played for Toledo of the American Association in the 1880’s.
This makes Robinson not the first black player in baseball, rather it makes him the first after a decades-long absence of them. This is an important distinction, because the use of the “modern era” qualifier gives cover to those who were really responsible for this exclusion.
4) The Mythology Of This Movie Ignores Some Important Facts, Part III: Most Leagues Never Had Written Rules Excluding Black Players
Before the establishment of the American and National Leagues, what we consider today to be the “major leagues,” baseball had a governing body known as the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). This organization only held sway over amateur baseball, and in 1867 it did issue a decree stating that only whites could uphold the “gentlemanly character” of amateur baseball and the only way to prevent a “rupture on political grounds” was to keep non-white players out of America’s national past-time.
However, this was largely ignored by professional baseball teams who valued winning games more than playing to racial attitudes; therefore baseball in the late 19th century had multitudes of non-white players.
But by the turn of the century this changed in the major leagues, thanks largely to Charles Comiskey and Cap Anson, the owner and the manager respectively of the Chicago White Sox. Anson, refused to let his team play an exhibition game against Newark of the International League because Newark planned to start George Stovey, a black pitcher. Later that year Anson prevented the New York Giants from signing a contract with Stovey. In reporting the Stovey story, a Newark newspaper printed “if anywhere in the world the social barriers are broken down, it is on the baseball field. There many men of low birth and poor breeding who are the idols of the rich and cultured; the best man is he who plays best.”
Pay attention to that line, because you’re going to see that theme again.
Meanwhile, Comiskey becomes the first guy in baseball to make serious money, and he’s also the first guy to realize that if baseball is going to grow in America, it’s going to be in the South. Major league and minor league baseball are well-established in the industrial North, but big-league baseball had yet to exist south or west of St. Louis. Comiskey then persuaded or coerced the other owners into believing that signing blacks to play baseball was ultimately not in the best interests of the game; hence the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” which kept baseball all-white until 1947.
5) The Mythology Of This Ignores Movie Some Important Facts, Part IV: Branch Rickey Gets Too Much Credit for Re-Integrating Baseball
As the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey is often given sole credit for bringing Jackie Robinson to baseball. While it is true that Rickey not only had the guts to do that, he also had the savvy to understand that he would either be creating an icon or an abject failure. This is why Rickey went through an exhaustive effort looking for not a “sure-thing” star player whose talents were undeniable, but a guy with a resolve to endure what promised to be an ugly ride. The narrative which gets lost here is it was the actions of another man which blazed a trail for Rickey; actions which made the end of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” not only possible, but inevitable.
Bill Veeck had been a fan of the Negro Leagues since his early teens. He had also admired Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, which was based in Chicago. Saperstein saved Veeck from financial disaster early on in Milwaukee by giving him the right to promote the Globetrotters in the upper Midwest in the winter of 1941–42.
Ironically, Veeck would end up being the owner of Comiskey’s Chicago White Sox. But before that, in the fall of 1942 the Philadelphia Phillies were bankrupt and in need of a new owner. Veeck quickly secured financing to buy the Phillies via his partnership with the uber-sports Saperstein. Veeck made it clear that he was not going to abide by any “Gentlemen’s Agreements,”and that under his ownership, the Phillies were going to become a de facto all-star team from the Negro Leagues.
Although he believed Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis was an ardent segregationist, Veeck did not think Landis would have the gall to say black players were unwelcome in baseball while blacks were fighting in World War II. However, Landis blocked the sale, assumed control of the team using it’s financial insolvency as the justification, and ultimately sold the team to lumber baron William D. Cox. Veeck may have failed in his attempt to buy the Phillies, but he succeeded in firing a shot across baseball’s bow; it’s no accident that Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract a few years later.
6) The Mythology Of This Movie Ignores Some Important Facts, Part V: Integration Was More About Winning on the Field Than Anything Else
This is why before you start waving some “social justice” banners saluting Veeck as a champion of “diversity,” understand that he didn’t give a damn about socio-political implications. He knew he could sign black players for a fraction of what white players with similar levels of talent would cost. Veeck was a business man who knew he was buying a bad organization with crippling financial liabilities. The “bottom line” is the bottom line trumps all.
The same can be said for Rickey. He saw that Veeck’s attempt to buy the Phillies meant black players would be in baseball sooner rather than later, and that by being smart about how they were brought into the game, it would ensure a steady supply of talented players for the Dodgers for years to come. As such, by the time the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn in 1957, they had other black players like Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella. You can quote me all the pro-civil rights stuff Rickey said later in his life, but you can’t tell me that Rickey’s primary motivation for reaching out to tap the vast amount of black baseball talent which existed in this country at the time was beating the other teams to it.
If you doubt that, consider the following. The teams on the top of the heap, like the White Sox at the turn of the 20th century were very much interested in keeping talent out of the hands of the competition because they wanted to stay on top. That’s why a guy like Veeck was so dangerous; don’t forget the Phillies were the Cubs long before the Cubs were…meaning they were the league’s monument to futility. They had nothing to lose. The Dodgers prior to Rickey’s arrival weren’t much better; they were another original National League team who went a long time before they won anything; Brooklyn’s sole World Series title didn’t come until 1955. The inverse is exactly why the Yankees were one of the last teams to integrate; they didn’t need another talent source as they were already loaded.
I could keep going about the things this movies either ignores or gets wrong. That’s largely a function of the fact this movie could have easily been written by the public relations office of the Dodgers as it shows that organization, owner Walter O’Malley, and Branch Rickey in the whitest of white-washes. That’s why this movie ignores the ignominious end to Robinson’s career, which would totally strip the veneer off this story.
The reality is that one does need to expand the story as told by this movie in order to have plenty of the flesh of mythology to strip from the bone of reality. The bottom line is that any true film fan knows that movies can often be very far from reality, and there’s no better example of that than “The Jackie Robinson Story.”