Hollywood has made a number of films about great baseball stars: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Monty Stratton.
OK, so Monty Stratton is no longer exactly a household name. But the real-life story of this Chicago White Sox pitcher who continued in the game after losing a leg made for a warm, often humorous, sometimes uplifting, if sometimes slightly dull, 1949 motion picture starring James Stewart. Put it this way: It's a baseball picture for people like me who don't care much for baseball.
According to www.baseballlibrary.com, "Stratton posted 15-5 and 15-9 marks for the White Sox in 1937-38 before his major league career was tragically ended at age 26. While he was hunting rabbits near Greenville, Texas, in November 1938, his pistol accidentally discharged, sending a bullet into his right knee, severing the femoral artery. The leg was amputated the next day. In 1939 White Sox management sponsored a charity game in between the Cubs and the White Sox, the proceeds of which (about $28,000) went to Stratton. In a touching, courageous display, Stratton took the mound to demonstrate that he could still pitch, though he was unable to transfer his weight effectively to the artificial leg. After coaching for the White Sox, he was given a minor league contract; in 1946 he posted an 18-8 record in the East Texas League."
Given this background and given a few liberties with the man's actual life, "The Stratton Story" recounts mainly the events leading up to the accident, and then it shows us Statton's courageous attempts at continuing in the game he loved. The real-life Statton acted as a technical consultant on the movie, which turned out to be a popular hit for MGM.
The movie may not be a classic, but it does succeed on two important levels. First, Jimmy Stewart is at his patented down-home, country-boy, aw-shucks best; and, second, the film never takes itself too seriously. That is, this is the kind of film that could easily have gotten all maudlin and sentimental really fast. It doesn't. In fact, just the opposite. For most of its 102-minute running time, it's light and amusing. This is Stewart in his Elwood P. Dowd mode (he was doing the stage version of "Harvey" about that time and would do the movie "Harvey" the next year). Stewart may have been almost twenty years older than Stratton's real age at the time, but he conveys a friendly, genial spirit that is easy to take; thus, we hardly notice that Stewart is forty-one and not twenty-four.
Beyond Stewart in the starring role and the general pleasantness of the script, there isn't a lot more to the movie. The filmmakers are smart enough to postpone the tragedy as long as possible, the shooting accident put off until about two-thirds of the way through the story. And then we see the main character brood for only a short while before rebounding with good cheer. As Stratton says early on and then repeats when he's down, "A man's gotta know where he's going."
The film covers about three, maybe four years of Stratton's life--the year before he breaks into the big leagues, his first two years in the majors, and the year of his recovery and determination to take his place in the sport again. During his breaking into big-league baseball, he courts and marries a young lady, played by June Allyson, and that sweet romance is as much a part of the movie as the baseball. Audiences, incidentally, liked Allyson and Stewart so well together, the two performers played in two more pictures, "Strategic Air Command" and "The Glenn Miller Story."
The other key contributors to the film are director Sam Wood ("A Night at the Opera," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "Kings Row," "Pride of the Yankees," For Whom the Bell Tolls"), who died shortly after making "The Stratton Story"; and co-stars Agnes Moorehead as Ma Stratton, Monty's pragmatic mother, and Frank Morgan as Barney Wile, the down-on-his-luck baseball scout who discovers Monty playing ball down on a farm in Texas. Morgan, you may recall, was the excellent character actor probably best known as Professor Marvel, the Wizard, and several other characters in "The Wizard of Oz." He oozes almost as much amiable charm as Stewart does. Then, adding a note of authenticity to the proceedings by portraying themselves are real-life baseball players Bill Dickey, Gene Bearden, Jimmy Dykes, and Mervyn Shea.
It's pretty hard not to like a film with some of the lines Stewart gets: "You know," says Monty, referring to the hitting prowess of the Yankee sluggers he has to face, "there's a tailor in Chicago that gives a suit away to every baseball player that hits the scoreboard in center field. As of yesterday, the New York Yankees are the best-dressed team in baseball." Later, when Barney points out that a teammate is dancing with Monty's girl, saying "That Ted's a pretty good dancer, isn't he?" Monty responds, "I dunno. I never danced with him."
"The Stratton Story" is a warmhearted picture, never a depressing one, despite its tragic central conflict.
You won't find an age mark on this print--not a scratch, fleck, line, flicker, or fade anywhere--which helps to make it a pleasure to watch if you're an old-movie buff. The film comes in a standard 1.33:1 screen size of the day (1.37:1 actually but rendered here for television), transferred from good, cleaned-up stock. The movie's black-and-white contrasts do not look quite as pronounced as in some of the best fully restored prints I've seen, and definition is only so-so, but these are small matters.
As usual, there is not much to say about the older monaural soundtrack. It's fairly ordinary, actually. As Warner Bros. audio engineers have done with all of their remasterings for DVD, they cleaned up the background noise well, providing clear, if in this case somewhat soft, midrange reproduction. Although the sound is limited in things like frequency response and dynamic impact so it sounds rather compressed compared to today's blockbuster sound, it's perfectly adequate for the dialogue it has to communicate.
As with many of WB's titles from the 1930s and 40s, the studio has coupled it with vintage short subjects one might have also seen in a theater of the times. In this case they include a Pete Smith comedy short, "Pest Control," eight minutes long; a classic Tex Avery MGM cartoon, "Batty Baseball," seven minutes; and a theatrical trailer. Additionally, they provide an audio-only bonus, the February 13, 1950 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of "The Stratton Story," with Stewart and Allyson reprising their roles.
The extras conclude with twenty-six scene selections (but no chapter index); English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
"The Stratton Story" is sweet and uplifting, not a little corny, but helped immensely by Stewart's easygoing, soft-spoken appeal. Because the film never goes over the top into total mawkishness as a hardship tale like this one might have done, it is able to maintain our interest most of the way. Yeah, it's maybe too laid back and more than a little slow at times, but it's nothing that a person might hold against it to any great extent. The movie is an old-fashioned, lightweight, inspirational yarn, with enough humor to make it palatable.
Warner Bros. have made "The Stratton Story" available individually or in the box set "James Stewart: The Signature Collection," where you will also find "The Spirit of St. Louis," "The FBI Story," "The Naked Spur," and a double-feature disc containing "The Cheyenne Social Club" and "Fire Creek."