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VEB Movie Club: The Pride of St. Louis (1952)

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Dizzy Dean hits the silver screen

The Pride Of St. Louis Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

Today’s movie club review focuses on The Pride of St. Louis, a little known 1952 movie about St. Louis Cardinals legend Dizzy Dean. The movie details the rise, fall, trials and tribulations, and colorful personality of the Hall of Fame pitcher. Because of some other obligations (an insanely busy last 2-3 weeks at work- John), today’s reviewers watched this movie about a week apart. I opened up jdog’s review and realized that it’s... well, it’s a thing of beauty. To quote Dizzy himself, it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up. With that said, rather than me trying to squish my comments in to his review and act like we had a conversation, I’m just going to post the reviews back to back.

jdog’s Review

Full disclosure: I’m not really an old movie kinda guy. I typically find them just too corny for my taste, with convenient, silly plot lines and odd, out-of-place dialogue. And who would really believe Jimmy Stewart as daring pilot Charles Lindbergh, I mean—(What’s that? Oh. That’s The Spirit of St. Louis.)

[90-minute intermission while jdog watches correct movie: The Pride of St. Louis.]

Ah, a baseball movie! A Cardinals baseball move! That’s better! Going in, I really didn’t know much about Dizzy Dean’s back story, other than his humorous butchering of English, Hall-of-Fame pitching, and post-career play-by-play stint.

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Immediately after the opening credits, in large font, the movie told me “This is a true story.” Not “based on” a true story.

When has Hollywood ever lied to me ? I was ready for a fact-packed biopic free from embellishment.

Well,…not that I did any fact-checking mind you (okay, I did on some things), but I’m pretty certain several scenes didn’t happen at all or certainly didn’t happen how they were depicted. That was okay. Those incidents didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the film; rather, they gave me a chuckle. During my comments, I’ll indicate those I felt stretched the truth.

The film covers the time between he was “discovered” to his work as a play-by-play guy. Overall, it focuses more heavily on his pre-Cardinals events, which makes sense, as that was the stuff most folks didn’t know about.

The Discovery

The opening scene shows Dean pitching in some kind of organized rural league team in Arkansas on a flat “mound,” in bare feet and jeans, as some kind of critter (dog? armadillo?) skitters between short and third in. I believe all that.

It always looked so hot in all these old movies, yet everyone wore full suits and hats. But really, in the Ozarks, they wore suits and hats to a not-pro baseball game in the middle of nowhere?

Watching the game, a scout for the Cards calls out to Dean during an inning as he’s starting his windup (sure?) calling him over to offer him a spot on the Cards’ Texas League Houston Buffalos (was that area crazy with bison?) Don’t believe it.

Extremely confident even then, Dean wonders why he can’t just go to the Cards immediately. He also immediately lobbies for his brother Paul, who of course eventually followed him to The Lou.

Hugh Sanders And Dan Dailey In ‘The Pride Of St. Louis’ Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

The Beginnings

While trying to fit in with his new Bison teammates with better clothes, Dean met Pat, the department store credit employee where he’s getting a new suit. He quickly became smitten, immediately asking her to dinner, during which he notes he quit drinking moonshine when he was 7, picked 400-500 lbs. of cotton a day at age 10, didn’t have hardly any education nor did his family, and he didn’t get shoes until couple of years ago. I’ll buy all that.

She quickly digs him, as during that date, she places her hand on his (the one nervously holding an apple like a baseball the whole time.) Let’s move things along people! He was so sure he was going to be called up soon, he got the ladder out to elope at Pat’s window. Proposal, first kiss, acceptance. Wedding next day. That’s fast even by Old Hollywood standards!

The Ascendance

The movie actually didn’t have very many extended on-filed baseball action scenes, but most of the other actors displayed fairly believable baseball skills. A few hitters especially looked like they might’ve been legit professionals, while others took cartoonish swings. The movie whisks through his early seasons of great success, including he and Paul winning 2 games apiece in the World Series win over the Tigers.

Other on-field stuff depicted during his time in the minors that I believed: Diz trash-taking to hitters, waiving to his (then) girlfriend in the crowd from the mound, and his teammate hitting him after a game because Diz mentioned his three errors.

As far as his major-league antics in his debut: no warm-ups (sure); waives cap like Forest Gump to wife in stands (reckon he did), calls time to talk to catcher, who relays a message to the ump; then, the catcher talks to the bat boy, who tells Pat that Diz said not to worry; the ball just “slupped.” (Nah.) He also gave different birth dates and locations to multiple reporters after the game. (Bet he did.)

And in the 9th inning of World Series Game 7, with the Cards up 11-0, Diz calls time to talk to catcher about a shotgun he wants the catcher’s uncle to send to him. He was worried he would miss the chance to ask him about it after the game. (I’ll call BS on that one.)

Paul (issued the “Daffy” nickname after making it to The Show) and Diz engage in several off-field antics, all of which I believe: They work as ushers and in the ticket booth; Diz plays band leader and sings with band in stands. Paul plays drum.

They miss a train because they promised to be at a kids’ baseball tourney; fish on day off without telling team; got fined $100 apiece. Went on strike. All no-doubters.

The Pride Of St.louis Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

The Decline

Pat and Diz argue about his “strike,” asking him to stop being so impulsive. To me, she had the line that summed up Diz. He was: “Like a kid who steals cookies 5 min before dinner just because he’s alone in the kitchen.” After an extended encounter helping a disabled man into his car, Diz gets inspired to call off strike.

The next season, both Paul and Diz get hurt on come-backers. Paul gets nailed in the right arm with line drive and during the All-Star Game, Diz gets hit on his left foot but stays in. He later discovered it was broken. He has a long lay-off but comes back.

During a game vs. Pittsburgh, his arm was clearly hurting. In an “I don’t think so” moment, Pittsburgh’s 3B coach goes to mound to tell him he can’t put weight on his foot, which is over-stressing his arm.

He takes himself out and starts a long stint of rest and therapy, during which the Cards sell him to the Cubs for $185K and 3 players. I didn’t know that!

While rehabbing, he plays catch with Paul, who notes he’s lost his fastball but has better control and is smarter about his pitching. But he’s worried the Cubs are just using him for a short-term ticket sales bump. Totally believe that!

The Cubs get to the World Series that season—don’t believe it!—against the Yankees. In Game 2, he gave up a late HR, and he trotted after the runner from 2B to home, jawing. He was a Cub, so that seems like a Cubs kinda thing to do.

He got sent down to Tulsa the next season, did poorly, and was released.

Rock Bottom

Diz returned to St. Louis where he was offered a sales job from his friend, the disabled man. He turns it down, still expecting to catch on with a team. While waiting, he drinks, gambles, and gets in fights. Pat leaves him, afraid he’ll never grow up; plus, she wants to work again. The veracity of all that’s a coin toss to me.

The Comeback

Diz went back to the friend who made him the job offer. But while they were listening to a baseball broadcast together on the radio (duh), Diz began some play-by-play riffing in his mangled English. His friend convinced him to start doing it for real for the radio station he and his dad just bought! Thanks, Old Hollywood!

Controversy

In what seemed to be a rush to finish the movie, several events unfolded right quick. An angry teachers’ group petitioned to get him off the air, as they felt he was undoing all their efforts in teaching kids good English. Diz’s boss left it to him, so he of course sought advice from a bartender and short-order cook, who were.no help; go figure.

He went on the air to tell kids not to talk like him, as he had no education beyond third grade. He quit right there with a mic drop. He went home to find Pat returned, who he welcomed back with open arms. Yay!

His boss then called, telling him the public clamored for his return, but he refused. Awww! But he’s happy with Pat. Yay!

Then the leaders of the teacher’s group called Diz immediately after to say they were ashamed. They’d keep teaching kids English, and he should keep “learnin’ them baseball.” Yay!

Immediately, their doorbell rings, and it’s kids asking Pat if Diz can come out to play. She allows it, and just like a kid, he does.

Note: According to Wikipedia, Diz never did quit. During a broadcast he said: “A lot of folks who ain’t sayin’ ‘ain’t,’ ain’t eatin’. So, Teach, you learn ‘em English, and I’ll learn ‘em baseball.”

So, just the opposite of what the movie depicted. Teachers’ union must’ve been powerful, to get that ending.

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The Nickname

Before this movie, I never knew Dizzy’s real name, Jerome Hermon Dean, (helpfully displayed in the movie’s intro text). And true to his playful nature, “Ol’ Diz” apparently also was known as Jay Hanna Dean. I could be mistaken, but throughout the entire movie, brother Paul always called him Jay, never Diz. During their early courtship, Pat called him Jerome, but she used Dizzy quickly after it was introduced later in the movie.

And about the origin of that nickname. An early scene is of Dean pitching for the Cards’ Texas League team the Houston Buffalos in an exhibition against the AL’s White Sox. Pitching a perfect game into the 9th, Dean gave up a solo dinger, the ChiSox 3B coach yells to his next hitter: “Knock this Dizzy kid outta the box, Joe!” The first base coach echoes the taunt.

Wikipedia documents the same quote was uttered by a White Sox manager, but indicates it happened while Dean was in the Army playing for the Fort Sam Houston team.

Susan Strasberg, Dan Dailey And Rita Gam
Actors Susan Strasberg, Dan Dailey and Rita Gam. Dailey stars as Dizzy Dean in The Pride of St. Louis.
Photo by Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images

The Acting

The actor playing brother Paul had a tough time with a believable southern accent, but otherwise he did fine in the relatively few scenes he was in. I only later realized he was played by a young Richard Crenna, who I best recalled as Rambo’s ex-commanding officer.

But I was extremely impressed with Dan Dailey, the actor portraying Dizzy. He was tall and athletic, and his windup was quite era-appropriate, what with full, exaggerated arm swings and leg kick. And he certainly dispensed with a busted English-style of speaking pretty effortlessly, with a believable southern twang to boot. He also was constantly tugging at his belt in uniform and in street clothes. Perhaps the real Diz did that, as it was done frequently in the film.

In Closing

Ol’ Diz liked to keep people and hitters off balance, but he’d win them over in the end. This movie did that to me. While it took me a good 30 minutes to adjust to the rhythm of Dan Dailey’s language in portraying the quirky southerner, once I did, I appreciated the work.

In the end, the movie won me over with its sweetness. Dailey did a credible job of portraying not only the baseball action, but also the childlike qualities of Diz. He made both seem natural and believable.

John’s Review

Jdog is a tough act to follow but I’ll add what I can here. The first and most obvious thing I’ll say about this movie is that it’s absolutely drenched in 1950sness. Or 1950socity. Let me go on a bit of a tangent here. This movie was made in 1952, in the post-war years. Every country’s approach to cinema was impacted in some way by World War II. Italy leaned hard on humanism, born in the Italian Neo-Realist movement featuring lots of non-actors in roles. Japan reached further back in its history to find heroes, giving birth to the golden age of samurai cinema (thanks, Kurosawa!). France shone a light on the grim realities of war with brutal and important documentaries like Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, and mimicked early gangster films from their American liberators (Touchez Pas au Grisbi, for instance). In Sweden, this was the age of Bergman, whose most popular film in the 50s is about a warrior (in this case, a crusader) returning home from the Crusades and playing chess with death and postulating on his existential dread. If that’s not a metaphor for nuclear era, post-World War II angst, I don’t know what is. And then... there was America.

The American homefront was a little removed from the grim realities of the war, at least in the rawest sense that France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan were exposed to it. That’s not to say there wasn’t suffering. There was clearly a lot. But the U.S. also won the war, and there was no action on American soil after Pearl Harbor. Americans were understandably done with the strain of the war era and wanted escapism. They wanted lighter fare when they went to the movies. And this was the heart of the Hays Code era, with its overt moralizing, schmaltzy themes, and stringent rules about what could and could not be shown. In other words, it’s no wonder that so many American movies of this era all feel the same.

The Pride Of The Yankees
What this movie wanted to be
Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

That’s the context for the world in which The Pride of St. Louis was released. The screenwriter on the movie, Herman J. Mankiewicz, also wrote Pride of the Yankees (1942) and co-wrote Citizen Kane (1941). The former is the Hays Code era gold standard for sports biopics, while the latter- Kane- dabbles in darker stuff. Somehow, The Pride of St. Louis toes both of those lines and it gives it a bit of a weird tone at times. The bulk of it is light and breezy, a sports biopic about a folksy American hero. Yet the rock bottom portion of the movie, to use my co-reviewer’s parlance, feels like the movie wanted to do so much more with Dean’s problems. Surely a movie made today would have pushed those themes further, but it really wasn’t done- not overtly- in 1952. It feels haphazardly slapped on here, probably much more effectively in the screenplay before some studio head censored the bejeezus out of it.

The movie plays the biopic pretty straight. In fairness, if it seems formulaic now, it’s because of movies like this existing for our whole lives. Sports biopics gonna sports biopic, complete with spinning headlines and sidebars from announcers. This was at least one of the earlier formula biopic examples. That’s not to say it’s groundbreaking- I guess that would be Pride of the Yankees- but it was at least much less formulaic in 1952.

Dizzy Dean Pitching Ball

It’s frequently bland but still satisfying, particularly if you’re a giant baseball dork who loves characters like Dean. It’s like a bologna sandwich- satisfactory if boring- but Dan Dailey’s portrayal of Dean’s wacky colloquialisms is the tasty side dish. Dean’s personality, and Dailey’s execution, adds enough charm to make the movie more enjoyable. “The ball just slupped”; Dean’s insistence on using “ain’t”; giving a series of conflicting birth dates and locations to reporters; and his Ozark incubated hillbilly charisma add much needed charm, preventing that bologna sandwich from getting too dry.

I’ll add that it takes a certain stomach to watch a movie like this. I don’t mean that as a knock on the movie itself, which is fairly simple and easy. Rather, if you’re the kind of person who thinks of a movie from 1990 as old; or considers Ghostbusters to be “classic” cinema (as compared to, say, a very good and well-made historically modern movie); or just generally is unwilling to think of movies like these in their historical context, you’re probably not going to enjoy it. The schmaltz and the over the top earnest speeches will come off as ridiculous to you. There’s no shame in that. It’s just the reality of things for a lot of folks.