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"The Jackie Robinson Story" & "42." WHICH ONE WINS

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They're quality movies, in different ways. Neither "wins." That's just a better headline.

In acting, you pretend to have emotions you don't. And both of these people are very good at it.
In acting, you pretend to have emotions you don't. And both of these people are very good at it.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

So let's look at some more old/new baseball movies.

"The Jackie Robinson Story" came out in 1950, and, as a selling point, starred the actual Robinson. It's dated now, largely because it was pretty low-budget, but you have to consider what the movie was for its time.

Naturally movies were made by and for African-Americans. Most were independently financed. The major movie studios didn't want anything to do with addressing racism (today, they give themselves awards for movies which do address it, only 100 years or so after those movies should have been bankrolled.)

There was Fritz Lang's 1936 "Fury," starring Spencer Tracy as a white guy attacked by lynch mobs. Lang was a German whose films impressed Hitler so much, the Fuehrer asked Lang to be his personal #1 filmmaker. Lang got the hell out of Germany. "Fury" was his first American movie, and while it's technically about a white guy getting lynched, there are so many African-American performers in background roles that audiences knew what was being discussed.

You had "The Ox-Bow Incident" in 1943, along the same lines (minus the African-American background performers. Hell, there were no blacks in the Old West! Except there were.) 1947 gave us "Gentleman's Agreement," about anti-Semitism. (You know the old Groucho Marx line "I'd never want to belong to a club that would have me for a member?" Groucho was talking about all-Jewish clubs, because even famous celebrities like him couldn't join the racist ones.) And "Broken Arrow," about mistreatment of Native Americans, the same year "Jackie Robinson" came out.

(The best of all old-Hollywood movies about racism, incidentally, is "Bad Day At Black Rock," from 1955. Spencer Tracy -- him again! -- is a one-armed war veteran who uproots some shitkicking desert railroad stop by asking questions about what happened to his Japanese-American war buddy. In a great scene, he's bullied at a lunch counter, and delivers one of my favorite-ever lines: "you're not only wrong, you're wrong at the top of your voice.")

So "The Jackie Robinson Story," in 1950, broke some real ground. It didn't only depict Robinson being abused by bigot fans and resented by bigot teammates. It mentioned how African-Americans, even those with college degrees (a big deal in those days!) couldn't get decent jobs. It showed segregation, which movies at the time Just. Didn't. Do.

Is Robinson an actor? No. He doesn't embarrass himself, either. He's a little wooden, but that's not unusual for low-budget movies (see below for a far worse example.) And his laconic delivery works well in context, since the player Robinson obviously had emotions he wasn't permitted to express.

(I looked for a YouTube clip of bad acting by athletes, and the best one I found was this, which actually has almost entirely good movie appearances by athletes.)

What dates the movie more than anything are, surprisingly, the baseball scenes. They're terrible. Due, I'm guessing, to budget constraints, most are shot from the same few angles, so you watch Robinson swing over and over and it becomes snooze-rific. Near the climax (which cheats time and space a little by inventing a pennant-clinching final game) there's a shot from behind the catcher, showing Brooklyn in the background, and it's jarringly exciting. More of that, and the baseball scenes would be great. Visuals matter. But, budget, so the baseball stuff is largely Los Angeles standing in for every ballpark in America. It almost ruins the film.

"Jackie Robinson" is public domain, now, so you can watch it for free. Here's one copy via the Internet Archive:

Bcuz "old," however, I thought I'd share the following time-coded YouTube links for specific scenes. For most of these, the interesting stuff happens within a few seconds and you can skip to the next one.

Here's the hilariously terrible acting I mentioned (by an actual guy from UCLA). "Colored boys are all right with me, as long as they're the right color . . . American." AKA, NOT A DIRTY COMMIE -- 5:03

A fun sequence featuring Robinson getting hazed by the "Black Panthers" Negro League team. Robinson actually played for the Kansas City Monarchs -- "Black Panthers" was the nickname of his unit in WWII -- 12:50

The "Panthers" trying to get served at a restaurant. So far as I know, this is the first scene in a major studio movie to address segregation -- 16:00

A lovely barehanded play by Robinson. Sure, it's staged, but you can see here how gracefully he moved for a very large, powerful upper body -- 36:15

Oh, boy. The N-bomb. Since I'd made it this far through the movie and hadn't heard it, I assumed maybe the word wasn't allowed in an 1950 film. Hell yes it is! This has some wild dialogue and you should watch it. Notice the secret hand signal for "our little club. We've got branches all over the country." That's the KKK, folks -- 49:50

At the movie's end, one of these bigots (a visiting truck driver from Brooklyn) is seen cheering wildly for Robinson in Brooklyn. The message is clear; Robinson converted racists. I'm sure in many cases this was true. (My father, a huge racist, was converted by a TV miniseries about MLK; sometimes, that's all it takes.) But I think everyone's met people who happily cheer on minorities playing for their favorite team yet still loathe them in real life. (When someone complains about "dumb guys who can jump high and run fast being paid millions for a game I'd play for free," they're usually of this ilk.)

Brief series of scenes showing more abuse, basic yet brutally effective -- 54:40

This is my favorite scene in the movie, Branch Rickey chewing out players who don't want Robinson on the team. It's pure fantasy where the screenwriters put their thoughts into Rickey's dialogue. And why not? -- 58:49

The shot of Ebbets Field, it's gorgeous, and clearly uses a double for Robinson -- 1:13:17

And the coda. Robinson wins, the Dodgers win, and Rickey tells Robinson he's been invited to share his inspiring life story on Capitol Hill. Robinson gives a noble speech, we cue up the the white gospel choir and Statue Of Liberty. America! Woo-hoo! -- 1:14:52

Just for kicks and giggles, Robinson was not invited to speak before Congress because of his inspiring life story. He was asked to testify before the HUAC on whether actor/performer Paul Robeson was a Communist.

For younguns reading thus far, HUAC -- the House UnAmerican Activities Committee -- was a 1950s series of sham trials instituted as political props for several fear-mongering politicians. Them Commies is gonna get us, see, so elect me. Head instigator of these was a Senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, so far gone on heroin addiction he needed the FBI to deliver his fixes.

Robinson gave testimony, and did not take a turd on Paul Robeson. Instead, he berated anti-Commie headhunters for demeaning the African-American experience of constant racism. You can read part of Robinson's speech here.

That same site has links to Robinson's FBI files. Back when, if you said or did anything which offended FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's idea of pure patriotic 100% not-gay Americanism, the FBI would start surveillance on you. To prove that these dark days are over (!), you can now see some creepy FBI files on the Bureau's website.

Best thing about Robinson's files: the FBI warning how "some material may not be suitable for children."

"Time for bed, Judy."

"Aw, but Dad! I'm reading old FBI files on the internet!"

"Now, Judy, you know those files aren't suitable for children. We talked about this."

"Gosh shucks, you and Mom never let me have any fun!"

Incidentally, both Robinson and Hoover died in 1972.

Something "42" does well -- and it does many things well, it's a terrific script -- is involve us in the lives of people around Robinson and seeing racism through their perspective; Robinson's gutsy wife Rachel and newspaper writer Wendell Smith (a trailblazer in his profession.)

It's a smart choice, because we already know Jackie Robinson succeeded. The scenes where he faces prejudice are emotionally jarring but not very tense, plot-wise; Robinson's going to overcome these things. Most of us don't know Rachel Robinson or Wendell Smith's stories, so watching them face potentially deadly terror is very scary. It makes what Jackie Robinson was going through more vivid. As good Americans all, we worship success, we laud achievements. We check "winner" in the box next to someone's name. Lives are more complex than that, and just because Robinson "won" doesn't diminish the pain he experienced.

And then we get the Ben Chapman scene.

Chapman was an accomplished base-stealer during his playing career and super-mega-bigot to boot. (I'd like to think he changed later on. Probably not, but who knows.) While Chapman was managing the Phillies, he hurled such vicious invective at Robinson it caused the national press to notice.

"42" presents this scene, in a way "The Jackie Robinson" story couldn't.

It's horrific.

In one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, I laughed.

Here's my apology. I'd recently finished watching the geekout sci-fi series "Firefly" with a friend. We both loved it. We both went to see "42." The actor playing Chapman, Alan Tudyk, played our favorite character in "Firefly." So when he showed up in "42," we started asking each other in whispers, "I know this guy! I know this guy! Where do I know this guy from?"

My friend whispered, "I got it! It's Wash from Firefly!" I howled. It was Wash, and the same actor who played such a delightful character on that TV series was vividly embodying the very nastiest kind of emotional abuse victims of racism suffer every day.

Right as I laughed in recognition of the actor, an African-American couple in front of us looked behind and gave me the saddest expression I've ever seen on human faces. Basically, "you find this funny? You are a very broken person." No words were spoken; they turned back to the screen.

I spent the rest of the film cowering in my seat full of shame. Oh, God -- I just made two people feel terrible. And there was no way to fix this, no way to un-do my laugh. (As much as I've wanted to type this silly little movie review, I've hesitated to revisit that moment. I stopped watching one movie and switched to the other because each was starting the super-abusive scene. No way around it, though.)

Hey hey hey, that's the racial divide in America today. It poisons all of us. Every bit of our hearts is ruined by it. But you knew that.

So . . . you've probably seen "42." If you didn't, you should (only thing really wrong with it is a treacly musical score which makes you want to punch the composer in the face. I get when I'm supposed to have emotions, thanks, asshole.) You may never have seen "The Jackie Robinson Story" and you can skim through it in ten minutes through the links provided above.

We all like to think that we're honest and authentic. Really, we're merely playing roles within confines of our social structures. Jackie Robinson played a role he had to play during his baseball career, the Not-Too-Angry-Black-Guy. He did other things and said other words outside his baseball life. Robinson was a complicated person. Who isn't? If there was a film biography (or two) about you, what would it show?

Mine, of course, would be (43 years redacted) "Super-Awesome Mega Badass Winner Cool Dude!"