Posted by highhurdler on June 10, 2007
The sweet spot for my classic film expertise would have to be movies that feature the game of tennis, my favorite sport. I’ve been compiling a list of movies which contain court action for over three years now and if you google "tennis films" you’ll find it listed at the top of the page. Every time I see a movie on TCM that features at least one tennis scene (not just someone with a racquet in their hand or the mere mention of the game) I make a note of it and add it to my list. I was pleasantly surprised to see and add Quartet (1948), which was one of Bob’s picks on May 30th, and Flight Command (1940), which I’d taped in February and will air again in July, to this "essay" within the past couple of weeks. With the exception of Come to the Stable (1949), I’ve included only those movies which I’ve actually seen and, since I’ll probably never be desperate enough to watch it, Cheaper By the Dozen 2 (2005) remains absent from the list.
If you’re a tennis fan, then you probably know that there are scant few movies which are actually about the sport or its athletes. I find this curious because tennis compares metaphorically on many levels with boxing, another mano-a-mano sport about which there are countless films … and most people can actually play tennis! One might think that it’s this familiarity with the game that makes it less mysterious (and therefore less appealing?) to moviegoers. But movies about boxing are so common that almost anyone can list their cliches, yet somehow (like Westerns) plenty of paying customers never seem to tire of them.
Ironically, because Ida Lupino is TCM’s Star of the Month, one of the only true tennis movies – Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), a film which she directed – will air on June 26th. It stars Claire Trevor as a stereotypical stage mom who's driven by ambition, greed and her daughter Sally Forrest's tennis ability. Carleton Young plays a promoter-coach who seduces Trevor's character with his knowledge of how to surreptitiously profit from the game in the days when a player needed to maintain their amateur status to compete at the National Championships, now known as the U.S. Open, at Forest Hills. Lupino and actor Robert Ryan appear as spectators in the crowd at one tournament. One of the main characters in director Alfred Hitchcock's highly regarded thriller Strangers on a Train (1951), released later that same year, is a tennis pro that meets an odd person while traveling who proposes that the two exchange murders since each has someone in the way of their goals. Hitch combined a tennis match and a deadline for Farley Granger's character to build tension towards his story's typically suspenseful conclusion. The Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy Pat and Mike (1952) utilized the actress's athletic ability to tell its Ruth Gordon-Garson Kanin Oscar nominated story about a manager promoter and his multi-sport protege, who can't perform under the watchful eye of her fiancé. The hilarious tennis match sequence features footage of Hepburn playing while the net grows higher and her racquet gets smaller. But then it was decades before a tennis driven plot was found in theaters again.
Unfortunately Players (1979) was such an awful turgid soap opera – about a woman (Ali McGraw) that derails a promising player's (Dean Martin's ill-fated son Dean-Paul) career – that it took 25 years before a studio executive was willing to take a chance on a tennis again. When the best thing about a movie is its cameo appearances by actual pro players, who can blame them? Fortunately, Wimbledon (2004) revisited the sport. It features plenty of court action and a thrilling climactic match with England’s Paul Bettany playing an unlikely Brit who competes for the men's title. The love story between Bettany’s character and an American player (Kirsten Dunst) that holds the movie together isn't any better or worse than other dramas, like Titanic (1997), in which its action sequences are the best part. Unfortunately, it didn’t do well at the box office, which may have contributed to its snub – no Special Effects or Editing Oscar nomination – by the Academy. Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005) has some tennis action in it (at the beginning), though it's mostly an instructor hitting to a student. Otherwise, it's a thriller which uses the sport’s element of luck (when a tennis ball hits the tape and can fall on either side of the net) to foreshadow a significant occurrence. Still, the mere presence of tennis in these more recent movies is a good sign for fans of the sport.
Perhaps Gary the Tennis Coach (2007) will appeal to a wider audience, but I doubt it.
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