The true-life story of Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ great star who initially made baseball history as the first Negro in the major leagues, is one which might have been written by the creator of Frank Merriwell, assuming that author had been conscious of the foul play of race prejudice. For, as everyone faintly acquainted with the details of modern sports knows, it’s a story that fits the pattern snugly, with prejudice in the villian role. And so it is not surprising to find “The Jackie Robinson Story” on the screen a frank and familiar pursual of the old pluck-and-luck routine, with the hero smacking a grand-slam off Jim Crow in the ninth.
What is surprising, however, in this new film which came to the Astor last night, is the sincerity of the dramatization and the integrity of Mr. Robinson playing himself. Too often, in films of this nature about sports figures, fanciful or real, the sentiments are inflated and the heroics glorified. Here the simple story of Mr. Robinson’s trail-blazing career is re-enacted with manifest fidelity and conspicuous dramatic restraint. And Mr. Robinson, doing that rare thing of playing himself in the picture’s leading role, displays a calm assurance and composure that might be envied by many a Hollywood star.
The trick of arranging this achievement must chiefly be credited to the writers and director of the picture and to Mort Briskin, who produced for Eagle-Lion. In the first place, the notable distinction of Lawrence Taylor’s and Arthur Mann’s script is that it calls for a minimum of acting on Mr. Robinson’s part. It is cleverly constructed in a series of biographical episodes which require nothing more than the simplest illumination by the title character—modest displays of his behavior under circumstances of familiar stress. And it carefully places the burden of carrying the ascending action on other hands.
It is really Minor Watson in the highly critical role of Branch Rickey, president of the Dodgers, who articulates and resolves the basic theme of the picture, which is that a man who can play ball should not be kept out of the profession because of his color or race. And it is really Mr. Watson who dignifies this theme with a solid, aggressive performance, under the crisp direction of Alfred E. Green.
The strongest scene in the picture is that in which Rickey explains to the newly recruited Robinson, brought up from a Negro barnstorm team, that his success in white league competition will depend on his ability to play ball and to take the abuse of other players and of hecklers without fighting back. Cleanly and credibly presented by Mr. Watson both in this and other scenes, this theme assumes frank and full proportions in the subsequent action episodes.
There is the memorable scene in which Jackie, playing with Montreal, is jeered by a crowd of razzers who toss a black cat on the field. There is the tingling recollection of his first time at bat in the major leagues and a simple dramatization of the famous anti-Robinson petition episode. There is also a thrilling re-enactment of Jackie’s game-winning smash that clinched the pennant his first season with Brooklyn—and many, many more.
And through them all the magnificent athlete conducts himself with dignity, speaks his lines well and clearly and faces the camera squarely, with neither shyness nor conceit. Acting, they say, is largely timing—it is movement coordinated naturally. That is in Jackie’s department. He may not be an “actor” but he certainly is no “ham.”
In supporting roles, Louise Beavers is warm and tender as the mother of the Negro star, Ruby Dee is well restrained as his sweetheart and Richard Lane is amusing as a team manager. To be sure, some of the incidents are “corny,” the diamond action is not all as colorful as it might be and the whole picture has its clear artistic limits. But it tells the story of Jackie Robinson with honest pride, and that’s a story of which all Americans with respect and gratitude, may be proud, too.