Thoughts on the 1950 Movie, The Jackie Robinson Story
I recently happened to catch some of Jackie Robinson playing himself in The Jackie Robinson Story, a 1950 movie that, from what I saw, spends most of its 77 minutes showing Jackie signing with the Dodgers and beginning his career with the team, first in spring training, with their Montreal Royals farm team, and then with the Dodgers in the 1947 season. I had never seen Robinson at such length before. Here are some notes on him and the movie:
Jackie has a soft, meek, honest, earnest voice, which reminded me of the Beav in Leave it to Beaver. I don’t know: maybe at that time people had an accent that’s gone now, and Jackie and the Beav shared that accent as common participants in a more genteel culture, in which people weren’t supposed to be aggressive or flashy or abrasive.
Jackie appears bigger than expected, with more of the robust build of a slugger than that of a middle infielder: big neck, filled-out upper body, solid, with little excess fat. He looks like he should’ve been a third baseman or outfielder, and indeed, when you look at his career stats, they profile a superb utility player. Jackie played 748 games at second, 256 at third, 197 at first, and 151 in left. He was a regular second baseman only from 1948 through 1952.
Jackie is often called “boy” but otherwise seems to be treated as close to an equal by Branch Rickey and the other managerial/executive personnel he interacts with in the movie. By contrast, when Rickey brings the white Dodger players who object to playing with a black man into his office to be educated, he calls one of them a dummy for thinking that, as the son of immigrant Italians, he has more right to play pro ball than a black man whose family has been in America for generations.
Perhaps the strongest overall impression of Robinson in the movie is that he has poise, awareness, and a calmness that makes him suited to break the color barrier. I can’t say how much of this sense is contrived, produced by the script, directing, and Robinson’s acting rather than by his true character. And again, I only saw slices of the movie.
But compare it to A.K.A. Cassius Clay, a 1970 documentary movie about Muhammad Ali that followed The Jackie Robinson Story. In the parts I saw, Ali is consistently cocky, aggressive, belligerent at the microphone, and carries an element of menace and threat. This comes across in February 1964, when he, barely 22 years old, beats up Sonny Liston; it did not emerge after the Black Panther movement and the other turmoil of the late ’60s. What happened between 1950 and 1964? The Beatles, Elvis, Bob Dylan, James Dean, the school desegregation and broader civil rights campaigns, the Kennedy assassination, the Korean War and the early years of the Vietnam War, a mass audience for TV; I could go on.
In 1950, The Jackie Robinson Story presents an America in which racial problems are on the way to resolution, because people are decent and want to rectify wrongs, and so they improve the culture they live in. The system works: problems get resolved. In 1970, A.K.A. Cassius Clay shows a country without that belief. Robinson and Ali embody the change.