This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008.
The Pride of the Yankees is the sports biopic by which all others are measured. Made in 1942, it stars Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, the legendary Yankees first baseman who played in over 2,000 consecutive games across a decade and a half before being forced to retire due to ALS, a deadly illness that is now more commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's disease."
The formula should be pretty familiar to all movie buffs by now: a boy grows up in the Bronx dreaming of playing baseball, his dream comes true, he learns the ropes and becomes a star, finds love, and then the final act. It's a set-up that has stood the test of time because its universality ensures that it will always work. In the case of Gehrig, he was enough of a unique character that the now cliché style (which this movie arguably invented) is barely noticeable. A straight shooter who was ready to chuck dreams of sports stardom to pursue a practical career, he only took the Yankees' offer for a contract so he he could pay for his sick mother's hospital bills. He continued to conduct himself in the same moral manner for his entire run as a Yankee, breaking records and inspiring millions. There are some famous anecdotes portrayed, such as hitting two homeruns for a boy in the hospital, and the romance between Lou and his wife Eleanor (Teresa Wright) is given center stage in the second act. The third act is taken up with Gehrig's illness, a climax with enormous pathos. When the disease starts to wreck havoc on Lou's body, you're going to realize how much you've come to care for the big lug.
Some elements of Pride of the Yankees haven't aged as well as others. The concoction of two warring reporters (Walter Brennan and Dan Duryea) who spend the years arguing about Lou's potential is kind of corny, and there are times when I found Cooper's "aw shucks" demeanor a little forced. These are minor bumps in the road, however, and easy to get past.
Pride of the Yankees really starts to get going when Teresa Wright enters the scene. The actress was to have her finest hour a year later in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, but she's an alluring presence in this film, bringing oodles of charm to the screen. The courtship of Lou and Eleanor is sweetened with a smartly pitched comic streak, and the relationship only becomes more delightful as the years progress and they become partners in the truest sense.
Director Sam Wood (Kitty Foyle) also knows when to dole out a good baseball scene or two. The best is the aforementioned World Series game where both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had to come through for the sick child. Also quite good are the games where Lou is starting to realize something is wrong. In fact, it's a little backwards that the director is more adept at the struggle than he is the victory. Authenticity is added by the fact that Babe Ruth and many of Gehrig's other teammates played themselves in the picture.
Of course, Pride of the Yankees would be nothing without the last scene, the recreation of Gehrig's farewell speech to a stadium full of fans. Here is where Cooper's common-man restraint really pays off. He doesn't oversell it, doesn't try to stray outside of the humble parameters Gehrig set for him at the real event. It's a stirring moment, and one of the most memorable in movie history. The final shots of the player walking off the field are poignant and beautiful. There was nowhere to go from there, best to just fade to black.