Pigskin Addicts: College Coach (1933) and Easy Living (1949)

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Staring disconsolately at a blank wall as the Buffalo Bills are eliminated from playoff contention is one of my longest held traditions. It’s been fourteen years since that benighted franchise has played in the second season, and any damp flickerings of hope this go ’round were quashed after consecutive demolitions by league doormats (Falcons and Buccaneers). To avoid reflecting on these latest humiliations, I escape into pigskin fantasies of the silver screen. Luckily, TCM is airing a whole day of football flicks tomorrow, from 6:45 AM to 8PM. For heartsick fans of other downtrodden teams, may I suggest William Wellman’s College Coach (1933) and Jacques Tourneur’s Easy Living (1949)? The first is a speedy campus comedy with Pat O’Neil in short pants and a crooning Dick Powell, while the latter is a downbeat relationship drama with declining QB Victor Mature and his glory-hogging wife Lizbeth Scott. Neither will rescue your franchise from irrelevance, but they will pass the time until the indignities of next football Sunday.

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Pigskin Psychology: Semi-Tough (1977)

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The NFL regular season begins this Thursday night when the defending champion Baltimore Ravens face the Denver Broncos. It has been a tumultuous offseason for the National Football League, as they battled a lawsuit brought by 4,500 ex-players seeking liability payments for the long-term health effects of head trauma. Last week the league settled the suit, paying $765 million, a small price to pay for an organization that brings in $10 billion in yearly revenue. While that will temporarily quiet the calls for wider reform, the investigative PBS program Frontline will air “League of Denial” in October, which promises to show how the NFL “covered up how football inflicted long-term brain injuries on many players.” ESPN was originally a co-presenter, but backed out after receiving pressure from the NFL.

Hollywood has yet to catch up with these unsavory developments, still grinding out a cycle of post-Blind Side inspirational football dramas. It’s way past due for another dig in the dirt like North Dallas Forty (1979) or at least the amiable satire of Michael Ritchie’s Semi-Tough(1977), which is streaming on VUDU. North Dallas Forty was recently named the greatest football movie ever by NFL.com, although it was denied the league’s cooperation on its initial release. Now it’s pill-popping wide receiver is feted on the league’s website. Semi-Tough has not been so rehabilitated. Michael Ritchie’s follow-up to The Bad News Bears, it focuses less on the violence of the sport than its megalomaniacal personalities.

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Something Tough: Body And Soul and Force Of Evil

(L-R) Abraham Polonsky, George Barnes, Jack Warren (?) and John Garfield on the set of Force of Evil

“According to materials contained in the PCA [Production Code Administration] files in the AMPAS Library, PCA director Joseph I. Breen objected to ‘the completely anti-social basic theme of this story, which presents wrong as right and right as wrong, in violation of both the letter and spirit of the Production Code.’” -Force of Evil entry, American Film Institute Catalog

In 1946, John Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers expired. Instead of re-signing, or moving to another studio, Garfield signed on with the independent Enterprise Productions. Bringing together a group of artists who were communists, or communist sympathizers, Enterprise made an inflammatory group of nine films before folding, after which many of its members were blacklisted, including directors Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky. Two of their features, Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948), respectively, ended up in the Republic Pictures library, and are being released today on Blu-Ray from Olive Films, in strong transfers. Garfield was eager to make a statement with Enterprise, telling PM Magazine in this period that:

I want to make pictures with a point – I know I gotta continue to appear in pictures like Postman [The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946]. I know I gotta retain my position of value at the box office, but I also want to be available in between for the kind of picture that’s harder to do but may turn out to be more interesting. Maybe in the next few years I’ll make so many mistakes I’ll kill my career. I can afford the chance. There’s fear in Hollywood about tackling dangerous subjects, difficult subjects. I feel I owe it to myself to be available when some enterprising people want to try something tough.

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Winning Isn’t Everything: A Sports Movie Symposium


Robert Redford & Camilla Sparv in DOWNHILL RACER (1969)

This week millions of viewers will tune in to watch the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London so I thought it would be a good time to discuss sports movies here at the Movie Morlocks. To be frank, I’m not a big sports fan. I don’t watch or follow any sport but I can still appreciate a good sports film.

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How about a “big screen” tennis biography?

It was over 5 years ago that I wrote on these pages about my other passion and its relation to this one, and referred to an ‘essay’ that I’d written on the topic for my site. (The article is really just a compilation of movies that contain at least one scene – or even a glimpse – of my favorite sport “in action”). Since then, I’ve added dozens of additional “tennis-related” films – some foreign but mostly domestic – the most recent being the seventieth title added to the list: last year’s Academy Award winning Best Picture The Artist (2011), which has a brief scene featuring Bérénice Bejo on a tennis court, coming to the net to shake hands after a mixed doubles match.
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Fall Classics

Major League Baseball is in the midst of a preposterously entertaining postseason, with major upsets and wild finishes happening almost every night. As I typed that, Nelson Cruz hit a walk-off grand slam, the first in playoff history, to give the Rangers a victory over the Tigers in the ALCS. Even better for MLB’s image (if not the ratings) is the success of small market teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers, the latter of which has surged into the National League Championship Series, quieting the yearly calls for an NFL-style salary cap. With that and the cheap-team strategizing of Moneyball still in theaters, I thought I’d highlight two scrappy low-budget baseball movies which deserve more attention (read: a home video release): It Happened in Flatbush (1942) and Big Leaguer (1953).

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Polo, Anyone?

Quick! What could bring the talented, the powerful and the famous together in studio era Hollywood? Not a movie. Not a premiere. And not a high stakes poker game, though plenty of those went on regularly. What brought the likes of Jimmy Gleason, Walter Wanger, Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Walt DisneyPaul Kelly, Frank Borzage, Johnny Mack Brown, Hal Roach, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, George O’Brien, Darryl F. Zanuck and even Joan Crawford together in the same places week after week when their work was done?

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Sports Movies and the Oscar “shutout”

As noted earlier this month in the Personal Journal section of the WSJ, there haven’t been very many sports-related movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  While the sport of boxing has received the most attention from the Academy, only two other sports have had more than a single nominee among the year’s best over its 82 year history:  America’s former and current pastimes – baseball and football, respectively.  Last year’s dramatization of football’s Michael Oher story – The Blind Side (2009) – just received a nomination, but was likely aided by Sandra Bullock’s performance (and nomination for Best Actress) and the fact that AMPAS increased the number of nominees from 5 to 10 for the first time since 1943, when Casablanca (1942) won.

During the Academy’s tenure, only 14 of 479 (less than 3%) nominees for Best Picture – arguably its most vaunted, certainly its most remembered and discussed if not always most acclaimed category – have been sports-related movies despite the inherent drama in stories like that of Jim Braddock (Cinderella Man (2005)), which failed to earn a BP nomination.  One can only speculate whether The Champ (1931) – one of eight nominees for the top award that year, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and even The Pride of the Yankees (1942) would have been nominated if the Academy had limited the category to 5 nominees, as it did from 1944 through 2008.

 

But a more interesting question might be:  which sports movies “woulda, coulda, shoulda” been contenders if there had been 10 Best Picture nominees in their respective years?

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The Aesthetics of Football

Rob Carr/AP

A few weeks back I examined the directorial decisions that went into Fox’s World Series broadcast. Every play in baseball contains an inherent drama easy for a camera to pick out – the duel between pitcher and catcher. This offers an easy, lucid way for the production team to escalate tension, and the natural rhythm between pitches dictates the pace. Football, with its spread out action and endless commercial breaks, presents a more difficult challenge in creating and maintaining a rhythm and a narrative. There are almost too many shots for a director to choose from. There are 22 players on the field at all times, and any one of them can become the focal point.

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The Aesthetics of Baseball

Don Larsen 1956 World SeriesCliff Lee 2009 World Series

As I sit on my mysteriously stained couch watching Game 5 of the World Series, my mind wanders to the decision-making process of the game’s director, Bill Webb. He’s orchestrated 13 of these Fall Classics, with new technologies opening up more vistas of sweat and crotch grabs each time.  Webb, alongside producer Pete Macheska, makes decisions on shot selection and duration every second of the game, all of which subtly shape the viewing experience. Baseball is a game of lulling rhythms that occasionally spike into frenzied bouts of athleticism. How Webb handles the former, the batting-glove adjustments, talks at the mound, and endless foul balls, is the most fascinating aspect to his anonymous craft.

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