Patrick Henderson 2 p.m., Sept. 23
Free movies of the week: The Jackie Robinson Story
What differentiates The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) from 42, the $40 million biopic -- based on the life of the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers player who broke baseball's color barrier -- opening today at a theatre near you?
The most obvious difference is Lickona wasn't around when JRS opened. He took one step forward by requesting review duty on 42.
What else? Both versions are based on a true story. And one's in color, no offense. (For those of you chromaholics in the crowd, Legend Films released a colorized edition.)
CGI wasn't around when JRS was made. They didn't need it. Ebbets Field was still standing, so there was no call for a digitized mockup. Chadwick Boseman is right for the role in 42, but who can compete with Jackie Robinson playing himself in the original?
JRS was directed by Alfred E. Greene, a prolific, sorely undervalued figure who signed a string of pre-code delights for Warners (The Green Goddess, Union Depot, The Dark Horse, Baby Face). Green had dozens films to his credit when it came time to direct Jackie. Better known for his work as a screenwriter (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, Cirque du Freak), 42 is Brian Hegeland's fourth time behind the camera.
Ernest Laszlo (Stalag 17, Kiss Me Deadly, While the City Sleeps) photographed JRS. 42 appears to have been shot by a colorist in Burbank.
As much of an admirer as I am of Green's previous and Laszlo's subsequent films, nothing in JRS showcases either filmmaker at their best. Laszlo was just starting out in the business. This was something like Green's 100th film and the flat packing and lackluster staging prove it.
The film was released at a time when segregation ruled the land. According to author Donald Bogle, the project had been put on hold when the film's producers refused to give in to studio pressure by including scenes of Robinson being tutored by a white man.
It's shocking to see just how similar the two films are. It's one thing to try and sanitize a story made in the '50's and starring the real public figure in the lead. Haven't we moved beyond that both historically and artistically? Add color and 'Scope and subtract about two minutes worth of transitional calender pages flapping past the years and both versions are practically identical.
It must have something to do with the estate and the fact that Robinson's widow is still alive and doesn't want to see her husband's legacy portrayed in any way other than that of a giant filmed Golden Book. You can bet if Spike Lee got his mitts of this material more than one baseball bat would have been snapped in the name or racial injustice.
JRS is in the public domain which means dozens of bootleg dupes are available. The only restored version of the film is released by MGM Home Entertainment. I picked up this pressing for a buck at a pawn shop, and it never looked better. (The same goes for William Cameron Menzies' production design on Pride of the Yankees.)
More like this:
- Jackie Robinson's true legacy — June 6, 2013
- Mr. TJ does a reading, part one — May 1, 2013
- New releases opening this week: 42, Trance, Room 237, and more — April 12, 2013
- The Shining is The Evil Dead — April 3, 2013
- Yes, Virginia, there was a Jackie Robinson — March 14, 2013