Saturday, August 10, 2019

Stubs - The Stratton Story

The Stratton Story (1949) Starring James Stewart, June Allyson, Frank Morgan, Agnes Moorehead, Bill Williams. Directed by Sam Wood. Screenplay by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper. Produced by Jack Cummings. Run Time: 106 minutes. USA Black and White Drama, Biography

I will be the first to admit that I am not a big baseball fan. I didn’t grow up around a Major League team, nor did I ever have the desire to play the sport as a child. For me, the game is too slow and low scoring. I will watch the occasional game, but I am not a diehard fan. That said, I do find I like baseball films. There is just enough history in them to keep me interested. Baseball seems to have a very storied history with many stories that can be made into interesting films.

Monty Stratton was a Major League pitcher from Texas that played for the Chicago White Sox from 1934 to 1938. During his career, he amassed a record of 36-23 with an ERA of 3.71. While those may not seem like great numbers and a short career, there is a lot more to Stratton’s story. He had a promising career that was cut short by a hunting accident. Out hunting rabbits on his family farm, he fell and accidentally shot himself in the leg. A main artery was damaged to the point that in order to save his life, his leg had to be amputated. The following two seasons, Stratton worked as a batting practice pitcher and coach.

He attempted to pitch at a charity game at Comiskey Park in his honor in 1939, but was unable to transfer the weight effectively to his artificial wooden leg. He would keep trying though and would eventually pitch again for the Sherman Twins of the East Texas League (Class C) and amass a record of 18-8. In 1947, he pitched for the Waco Dons of the Big State League (Class B) with a record of 7-7.

His comeback was too much for Hollywood to ignore. However, When MGM approached him to option his story, Stratton was not initially interested, but reconsidered when the studio talked about the inspiration it would grant disabled veterans of World War II who were struggling to deal with their circumstances. In post-WWII America, there were scores of veterans who returned from the war missing limbs.

While Jimmy Stewart ended up playing the role, he wasn’t the first choice of the studio. MGM wanted Van Johnson to play the role, however, a car accident in 1943 left Johnson unable to physically handle the role. Ronald Reagan also wanted to play the role, but he was under contract to Warner Bros. and that studio would not let him out of his contract for a film they expected to be a failure. Donna Reed was also considered for the role that would go to June Allyson.

The film went into production in late October and wrapped on December 28, 1948. The film features scenes shot on location at Comiskey Park, Gilmore Field in Hollywood, and at American League fields in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Washington, D.C. It Released in the summer of 1949, after playing in selected cities with American League teams before its general release. Made on a budget of $1,771,000, it would earn $4,488,000 at the box office and win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story.

The film opens with a young Monty Stratton (James Stewart) walking ten miles to pitch for the Wagner Wild Cats baseball team. After the game, he walks home and works on his farm for the rest of the day. He does catch the eye of ex-catcher Barney Wile (Frank Morgan), who recognizes his talent and convinces him that he could be major league material. Barney moves in with Monty and trains him throughout the winter. Barney promises him a tryout with the Chicago White Sox, who are having spring training in California, but before they go they have to convince Ma Stratton (Agnes Moorehead) to let him go. Monty arranges for their cousin Earnie (Robert Gist) to come and take care of the farm. Reluctantly, Ma gives him $5 and wishes him luck.

Barney and Monty then hitchhike across the southwest to get to California. When they arrive, it turns out that a tryout is not a guarantee. Chicago White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes (playing himself) does know Barney, but is initially reluctant. Monty's speed and accuracy impress him and he lets the boy stay with the Sox. Because he can’t have Barney just hang around, he hires him as a pitching coach. Monty is sent to get a haircut, but gambles the money. Proving just how lucky he is, Monty wins big.

As Monty tries to learn his way around the big city, he is overjoyed when fellow teammate Eddie Dibson (Bill Williams) invites him on a double date. Monty realizes Eddie is a cad, however, when he tries to steal Monty's date, Ethel (June Allyson), who is visiting from Omaha, and leaves Monty with the whole tab for the evening. Monty grabs Ethel and leaves, quickly winning her over with his sincerity and sweetness.

Monty (Stewart) meets Ethel (June Allyson) and they fall in love.

Monty makes the team, and after sitting on the bench for most of the first season, he is finally allowed to pitch, but only against the powerhouse Yankees. But he gets beaten so badly that he is sent back to the White Sox minor league in Omaha. There, he calls Ethel to tell her that he loves her, but wants a chance to prove himself professionally before they marry.

After finding success in Omaha, Monty is asked to join the majors again, at which point he and Ethel marry. For his first outing, he is asked to pitch against the Yankees again, but this time he masters his fear and wins the game.

Monty gets his chance and becomes a well-respected pitcher for the White Sox.

After the season ends, Monty brings Ethel back to his family farm to meet his mother and stay for the winter. The next spring, he wins every game he plays, and, during one game, learns while on the mound that Ethel has given birth to a boy, Monty, Jr.

His success continues and within months, he is part of the All-Stars team and breaking league records, but Ethel worries that he is spending too much time out of the house. He tells her that he has meetings and interviews which make him late most nights. Even Barney suspects something is wrong. However, when they get back to Texas, he takes her to a nightclub and reveals that he has spent his extra time learning how to dance in order to please her.

Months later, while Monty is out hunting rabbits, he stumbles and his rifle discharges into his leg. His dog brings Ethel back to find him. The doctor informs her that his leg is infected and has to be amputated to save his life. Ethel doesn’t want to, but has no choice.

Monty loses a leg and his Ma (Agnes Moorehead) is concerned about him.

After the operation, Monty sits, motionless and bitter, as Ethel waits patiently for him to re-gather his resolve. Finally, however, Monty witnesses Junior taking his first steps, and realizes that he has been indulging in self-pity. He puts on his artificial leg and takes his son outside to play.

Monty starts to pitch again with Ethel playing catcher.

Soon, Monty decides to learn to walk on his false leg, and within months he is tossing a baseball with Ethel, who reveals that she is expecting another baby.

Barney (Frank Morgan) takes Ethel and Ma to the All-Star game to watch Monty pitch.

Barney comes to visit them that spring. He’s on his way to an All-Stars game in Houston and Monty, Ethel and Ma decide to go with him. Monty excuses himself to say hello to some of the players and Barney goes with him. It is then that he learns Monty has convinced the coach to let him pitch. Ethel goes down to see him before he goes out to the mound. He’s suddenly frightened, but goes out. He has trouble running and catching bunts, but he overcomes those obstacles and wins the game for the Southern League.

Ethel talks to Monty before he pitches in an All-Star game.

I’m not a baseball fan so I don’t really know the ins and outs of Monty Stratton’s career, so I imagine that he was built up a bit in the movie to make the fall even deeper. I’m sure that Stratton was depressed about losing his leg and his livelihood, but in real life he got back on his feet, so to speak, faster than James Stewart does in the film. He was back to working for the White Sox the next year while movie Stratton sat around the house moping.

And, as Stratton got back to pitching in the minor leagues, movie Stratton does so in a major league setting. This sort of deviation from reality is nothing new; movies have been doing it ever since they’ve been making them. The idea is not to replicate real life but to make a compelling film.

This is not to say Monty was not happy about his onscreen depiction. He did serve as a consultant on the film, and as recounted in Jhan Robbins' Everybody's Man: A Biography of Jimmy Stewart, the athlete knew his instincts were correct when he first screened the film: "When I saw Jimmy on the screen, I wept. He was more me than I am!"

Monty Stratton (l) and James Stewart as Monty Stratton (r).

Jimmy Stewart’s performance has a lot to do with the success of the film. He is an everyman and seems at ease in almost any film role he’s playing. Whether it’s working with Hitchcock, Frank Capra or playing a baseball player, Stewart is usually always watchable.

Adding to the film’s success has to be June Allyson, the girl next door type. She and Stewart make a winning on-screen couple. They seem to play off each other. So good in fact that they would be paired again in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and Strategic Air Command (1955).

Somewhat underutilized is Agnes Moorehead, perhaps best known to the Baby Boomer generation as Endora in the TV Series Bewitched, but she has also given notable performances in films like Citizen Kane (1941), Mrs. Parkington (1944) and Dark Passage (1947). It is interesting to note that she was also working with her future husband, Robert Gist (Earnie), whom she would marry in 1954.

In real life, Robert Gist, who plays Cousin Earnie (r), would marry Agnes Moorehead.

Frank Morgan is perhaps best known as the Wizard in TheWizard of Oz (1939), but he had also appeared opposite Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a perennial Christmas classic. He would twice be nominated for an Academy Award, one for Best Actor in The Affairs of Cellini (1934) and one for Best Supporting Actor in Tortilla Flat (1942). Here, he has a smaller but well-played role as Barney Wile, the vagabond former catcher who is the first to realize Stratton’s talents.

Even if you’re not a baseball fan, like me, there is a lot to like with The Stratton Story. If not 100% accurate, it is still an inspiring story that teaches that you should never quit no matter the odds.

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