Genial, easy-to-take biopic of the famed St. Louis Cardinals pitcher "Dizzy" Dean...but that's all. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released The Pride of St. Louis, the 1952 biopic from Fox, written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, directed by Harmon Jones, and starring Dan Dailey, Joanne Dru, Richard Crenna, Richard Hylton, Hugh Sanders, James Brown, and Leo T. Cleary. Loosely built off mile markers in Dean's bio, The Pride of St. Louis keeps everything low-key and light, with ingratiating Dan Dailey largely carrying this slight but smoothly-fashioned baseball love story. An original trailer is included in this sharp black and white fullscreen transfer.
The Ozark backwoods, 1928. Big-league baseball scout Jim Horst (Hugh Sanders) has his eye on barefoot pitcher Jerome Herman Dean (Dan Dailey), a super-confident, super-talented hick with the gift of fractured gab who can't understand why Horst doesn't just send him up to the majors, rather than wasting his time signing Dean to the Houston Buffaloes farm club. Once there, the brash pitcher realizes his hayseed clothes are the subject of bemused looks, so he's off to one of Houston's better haberdasheries, grandly charging his $137 (over 2K today) bill to the club...which triggers a walk down the hall to fill-in Credit Manager Patricia Nash's (Joanne Dru, beautiful and completely wasted here) office. Bowled over by the gorgeous brunette, Dean
bullies charms his way into wrangling a dinner date with her, with all her future draft rights already staked out by the assertive rube--something the sensible-but-flattered Pat doesn't like. Eventually, Dean's never-ending line of bullsh*t sweet, childlike good humor wears Pat down and she marries him, just as he's moved up to the majors: the St. Louis Cardinals. There, with the help of his brother and fellow Cardinals' pitcher, Paul Dean (Richard Crenna), he becomes not only one of the National League's greatest pitchers, but also a folk hero to the fans for his rowdy, showboating antics. At the height of his fame, however, a physical injury highlights a flaw in Dean's character--his refusal to grow up--which almost leads him to total destruction.
Out of all the genres and subgenres of movies you could offer me, sports biopics--and romantic ones, at that--would have to be near the bottom of what I'd choose to watch on a Saturday afternoon. I played organized sports all throughout school, but watching sports in person or on TV is, frankly, a bore to me (yep, I'm a one-percenter). So watching a movie about watching sports is two times removed from any real experience I want to have with that particular endeavor. As for The Pride of St. Louis's subject matter, Jerome "Dizzy" Dean, I certainly knew his name as one of the greats of the game...but that was about it. Briefly looking up his bio and stats prior to watching the movie, it was apparent that screenwriting genius Herman J. Mankiewicz (The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, The Pride of the Yankees) hit a number of Dean's sports milestones, at least, before making-up out of wholecloth that ending with the schoolteachers threatening to go to the FCC about sportscaster Dean's poor grammar. And that makes sense for a sports bio; after all, it's one thing for a Hollywood biopic to fudge or invent facts about historical figures like Disraeli or Pasteur or Napoleon that the average history-challenged American moviegoer isn't going to realize (or care about) anyway. But screw up who won what at which World Series, and baseball fans would be merciless in their scorn for such fabrication.
Too bad The Pride of St. Louis didn't tell me what I really wanted to know about, though: Dizzy Dean himself. The Pride of St. Louis spends quite a bit of time on his wooing of Pat and their subsequent marriage, and those elements are well-handled--if in a thoroughly familiar, even pat manner. We've seen this kind of 50s Hollywood cutesy-pie romancing and married play-acting a thousand times before; just change the names and Dailey's syntax and those scenes could be found in countless other minor Hollywood light romances of the era. The Pride of St. Louis's twist, according to the script, is that Dean's a big, sweet, well-meaning kid in a strapping man's body who doesn't listen too well to
mommy wife Pat or anyone else, for that matter. So, when his fall from grace nears, his unleavened bravado only exacerbates the inevitable (a line-drive foot injury wasn't taken seriously by Dean, which led to him throwing out his arm when, to accommodate his injured toe, he changed his pitching stance), leaving him emotionally ill-equipped to handle his athletic decline and professional and personal downturns. Whatever the reasons for his fall, Dean's storyline as crafted here fits most biopics of the time (as well, suspiciously, scripter Mankiewicz's earlier, far more successful baseball flick, The Pride of the Yankees): humble beginnings, the right mate to foster support in hard times, the ascent to greatness, the inevitable fall due in part to a personal, "fatal" flaw, and finally redemption through the subject's return to humility.
If the romance portion of The Pride of St. Louis is so congenially ordinary, the matter-of-fact sporting elements are no more notable. Director Harmon Jones (City of Bad Men, The Kid From Left Field, Gorilla at Large) doesn't exactly put you on the edge of your seat with his thoroughly anonymous, pedestrian mountings of Dean's various sporting milestones (I could see having a hard time capturing the thrills of being in right field for three hours, but pitching is the most visually dynamic position in the game--what gives here?). From what I could glean on the internet, some storied moments in the Diz's career were left out of The Pride of St. Louis (taking an intentional bean to the head to stop a play; a Detroit riot where fans pelted him with bottles and garbage), but I have a feeling that even if they had been included, they would have been pasteurized down to the same bloodless level present in the game footage that does show up here. That just leaves us with the man himself, then. We the audience would probably hate to have to listen to the movie Dean's crap day in and day out (that oblivious aw shucks "plowing through" can quickly become "insensitive *sshole who needs to shut up for two seconds and realize other people have wants and needs, too"), but Dailey has such a pleasant, winning, non-confrontational way about this bucolic bore, we wind up grinning despite ourselves (if Dailey had been at all threatening, or sardonic or cynical, the audience would have turned on the character in a second). He's really the whole show here, keeping us interested in a character we might eventually want to pop in the mouth, if only to make him listen for once. And just on that surface level, we can enjoy Dailey's performance just like we can the rest of The Pride of St. Louis. However, any hopes of getting to know who, exactly, the real Dizzy Dean was, or what made him tick, or why he pulled the antics he pulled (from what I've read, those were toned down, too, for this biopic), are just that here: hopes, and nothing more. The Pride of St. Louis, like so many Hollywood biopics from that era, seems more interested in providing an illustrated Facts on File timeline of a famous person (usually with a de-emphasis on the "facts"), rather than revealing anything complex or contradictory in that famous figure's personality. Dean talks about his humble beginnings at home (one pair of shoes for the winter), and it moves Pat, but we don't know howhe feels about growing up so poor. Everybody laughs and calls out to "Ol' Diz," but why did Dean pull the antics he pulled? Was he a simple jokester? A free spirit? A self-promoter? A games-player? Addle-patted? Who knows here. I guess you don't really need to know to enjoy The Pride of St. Louis' calm, measured, familiar drama and humor...but it would have helped.
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for The Pride of St. Louis looks quite good, with a sharp image, decent blacks, nice contrast and few if any screen imperfections.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track has little hiss; no subtitles or closed-captions are available, though.
An original trailer is included here--a nice extra for these Cinema Archives releases.
Like a hundred other Hollywood biopics of that era you've seen before: scrupulously smooth and professional...and somewhat bland. You won't find out what made "Dizzy" Dean tick (something had to...), but ingratiating Dan Dailey keeps pitching until we can't help but smile. For his turn here, I'm recommending The Pride of St. Louis.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.