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Double Header: “42” and “The Jackie Robinson Story”

Aug 31, 2013

Recently I went to a terrific double header: “42,” the 2013 biopic of Jackie Robinson now on pay per view and DVD, and the 1950 “The Jackie Robinson Story,” free on YouTube and available on DVD. Both are worth watching for different reasons.

You would not call me a sports fan, but growing up in New York in the 1950s I, as everyone else I knew, avidly followed the rivalry among three New York teams: the unbeatable Yankees, the spirited Brooklyn Dodgers, lovingly known as “dem Bums,” and the less glamorous Giants. We lived in a two story duplex with my uncle’s family and almost nightly my father and uncle would argue the merits of their respective teams, the Yankees and the Dodgers. In the fall the unwelcomed beginning of the school year had its compensations of the pennant races and then the World Series, often between the Yanks and the Dodgers. Those were called subway series because Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and Ebbets Field in Brooklyn were only a subway ride apart. So intense were our interests that during the World Series games, the beginning innings were broadcast on the school’s PA system before we rushed home to watch the end of the games. (I also had several complete sets of baseball cards, which my mother eventually threw out. Oy!)

It was a different time and the two films reflect that — although they tell the same story. They each focus on essentially the same characters, Jackie, the first black major league player, his wife Rachael (Rae), and Branch Rickey, President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and take place in about the same time period, 1945 through 1947. “The Jackie Robinson Story” is noteworthy because Robinson plays himself. Robinson’s stoic portrayal is compensated by his authenticity. As each film emphasizes, Jackie had to win acceptance by on-field deeds and not reacting to the taunts, threats and even physical attacks, which formed the basis of his public persona that is highlighted in the 1950 film.

The dramatic impact lacking in the first film is made up by Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Jackie in the second. By comparison, the performance of the actors of the other two major characters in the 1950 and 2013 films, respectively, Ruby Dee and Nicole Beharie as Rae and Minor Watson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, pretty much track, but the latter more so. It is hard for Harrison “Indy” Ford to fit into tamer roles as he ages, and while his role here is overplayed and becomes a caricature rather than a character, he is fun to watch, especially when trying to justify to his colleagues his sincere humanistic purpose in financial terms: “Every dollar is green.”

In the first film other characters are innocuous, not wanting to name names in that seemingly simpler era.

The 1950 film tells of Robinson’s childhood, his loving mother, a typical role for Louise Bevers, and supportive brother, also a typical role for Joel Fluellen, his years as a four-letter (football, basketball, track and baseball) UCLA athlete, a bit about his service as an army second lieutenant in WWII and his experiences in the Black baseball league. Aside from being hit in the head by a pitch and spiked as he defends first base, Jackie had to endure terrible verbal taunts, and not just in the south.          The movie is straightforward and bland, but apparently accurate and especially enjoyable for those of us who grew up through those times. A pointless element is the inclusion of a not funny bit about a made-up Montreal player, Shorty, played by goofy comedian Ben Lessy, who is so short he swings under the ball. That is annoying, but the film also contains a typical 1950ish subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle for those who remember) nod to McCarthy’s anti-communist activity as the film ends with Robinson testifying before Congress about American values and the American way of life and how they have to be vigorously defended. Strange, considering the racial discrimination documented in the film, albeit cautiously.

The 2013 film has a number of colorful characters from real life, notably the womanizing tough manager Leo Durocher, played by Christopher Meloni, and the ultimately openly supportive southern-born famous short stop Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black. There are several other real-life Brooklyn players and even legendary sports announcer Red Barber, but for many of these you have to read the cast of characters to identify them.

“42” also adds Wendell Smith, played by Andre Holland, the real-life black sports reporter, who was hired by Branch Rickey to travel with and assist the Robinsons in the segregated south. Things might be changing on the field but not elsewhere — Smith is not allowed to sit with the white reporters and he sits in the stands typing on a typewriter balanced on his knees.

The 2013 film ends, like the 1950 film, with the winning of the 1947 pennant, but the film also informs us of what happens to various characters. Jackie was voted the 1947 Rookie of the Year and, as fans are probably well aware, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, as were other teammates from that era and Branch Rickey. We are told that Jackie opened the gates for Roy Campanella who joined the Dodgers in 1948 and Don Newcombe who joined in 1949. Also told are the amusingly satisfying developments for those who opposed Robinson’s acceptance. Finally, there is the emotional story about the number 42.

We are so accustomed to integrated sports that we need reminding that it wasn’t always so, and both films do that. The first is in a way more heroic, as it was made when racial prejudice was still so openly and widely rampant and accepted. The second tells the story much more dramatically and is the more enjoyable for it. However, both are worth watching, closely in time if you can.

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