Monday, June 22, 2009

Reeling Backward: The Stratton Story

Jimmy Stewart was not missing a leg, and he could not throw a big-league fastball. Despite this, he makes a fairly convincing portrayal of a real-life right-hander in "The Stratton Story."

This 1949 movie tells the real-life story of Monty Stratton, a promising young pitcher for the Chicago White Sox who had his right leg amputated following a hunting accident. Its shaky veracity pushes it more into the "based on a true story" category, as much of the facts have been changed around.

The film portrays Stratton as making a big comeback in the All-Star game a few months after his 1938 accident. In fact, Stratton never played major league ball again. The Sox took him on as a pitching coach for a few years, and then he tried to make a comeback throughout the 1940s, pitching on a variety of minor league and semi-pro teams.

Don't get me wrong: It's still very impressive that he was able to compete at a high level with a prosthetic leg -- and the crude wooden versions from 60 years ago, not the high-tech jobs they have now. But if you're going to make a movie about a one-legged guy who keeps playing in the big leagues, it would kind of help if he actually did.

It's like making a movie about someone with no arms who climbed Mount Everest, except he never made it closer than 500 feet from the summit.

But that aside, it's a pretty entertaining flick in that familiar vein of "humble country boy makes it big." The tone is very close to "Pride of the Yankees."

Stratton's wife is played by June Allyson, who also was married to Stewart in "Strategic Air Command," which I wrote about a few months ago and also had a baseball connection.

Not to rag on Jimmy Stewart, but his pitching motion is rather weak in the movie. I realize that an actor's goal is not to throw a 90 mph fastball, but to make the audience believe that he could. Well, in that regard they fail.

Director Sam Wood makes the bold choice of actually having his leading man throw the pitches himself, and shows the ball's progress all the way from mound to catcher's mitt in a single take. Stewart's throwing style is awkward -- he has a strange wind-up and virtually no follow-through. If this picture were being made today, you'd see the star in close-up winding up, then a bunch of fast edits to make it seem like the ball was screaming across the plate.

I liked the supporting performance by Frank Morgan as Barney Wile, a washed-up ex-ball player who discovers Stratton while he's hitching around the country as a train hobo. Stratton's meteoric rise also allows Barney to return to the game as a pitching coach. Morgan's crusty but warm-hearted presence lights up every scene he's in.

The redoubtable Agnes Moorehead plays Stratton's mother. Moorehead had a wonderful run as a supporting actress on film and TV, getting her first movie as the mother in "Citizen Kane."

I'd like to point out that Moorehead was only eight years older than Stewart, who was 41 when this movie was made -- 15 years older than Stratton was when he lost his leg.

3 stars

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