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Monday, April 05, 2021

WB Leads a Pigskin Parade


When College Ball Captivated Us All

The role of Pat O'Brien's career. He'd be asked about this one all the way to the end, sport buffs regarding the biopic as almost a religious totem. Football as embodiment of the American spirit was never so keyed as here. Part of that was gear-up to coming war, Rockne's big speech about grid standing-in for needed combat among male youth being no coincidence. Here was training for more than mere whipping of opposer teams, stakes having widened to an arena that was worldwide and poised to boil over. These boys would soon enough trade leather helmets for steel ones. Rockne as presented by Warners personified preparedness in addition to character and sportsmanship. A screen bio could not have been better timed. There was initial effort to have James Cagney play him, but neither the Rocknes nor Notre Dame administrators liked the idea of a badman playing such a good man, so scotch went that proposal. O'Brien worked up the mannerisms and speech patterns, trying hard to put over singularity of a persona many remembered to last detail. As Rockne had a sort of Bull Montana look, so too would Pat with help of facial appliance. Were Knute Rockne --- All American made ten years later, they probably wouldn't have gone to such length toward authenticity.

Rockne-devised plays are tendered as revolutionary to the game. Did he really invent the forward pass? My knowing nothing about football doesn't help, so why do movies about the sport appeal more as I get older? Maybe it's regret for not having embraced it sooner, but not to extent of playing. I hear guys can get hurt doing that. Notable names besides Rockne are on and off quick. No sooner do we know Ronald Reagan's George Gipp than he's breathing his last, but you could hardly tell Rockne's story without Gipp. Don't know if Gipp's deathbed speech was actual, or Rockne's repeating it later. Anyhow, it works from sentiment angle. There's "scandal" for third-act suspense, upon which no suspense hangs as we know Knute would never have paid off his players or rigged their academic sheets. This was all-the-way white rinse with the Rockne family looking on, not unlike what Universal dealt when it told the Glenn Miller Story in 1954. If there was a dark side to this man, certainly we get none of it here.

There's a good sense of the coach having to renew his brand every three years as star athletes graduate. The pressure to keep winning must indeed have been enormous. Rockne thinks at one point he's all washed up for losing just one match, a reaction typical, I'd guess, of any coach who got out-scored. Warners wanted to widen appeal of Knute Rockne --- All American by making it as much about America as land of opportunity for immigrants seeking upward mobility, and that's thrust of at least an opening reel where we meet Knute and Norwegian family back in the old country. Patriotic music accompanies all this. America as ultimate dreamscape would be defended with arms soon enough. Toward Rockne as an almost sacred figure came priestly O'Brien whose public image was pristine as reverse-collar parts he played in major hit Angels With Dirty Faces and more recent, and even bigger, The Fighting 69th. In a long run, he was probably the better choice for this role over Cagney, it being easier to subsume the O'Brien personality in deference to legend and icon that was Knute Rockne.

Warners' campaign was their customary massive for the time. Knute Rockne --- All American was culmination of far-flung premiering that dated back to 42nd Street and continued through to junket opens for Dodge City and The Fighting 69th. War would curb some of such extravagance, but for now, skies were the limit so far as making events of these bows. Knute Rockne --- All American got an Indiana launch and proclamation from the governor of that state of "Knute Rockne Week" to coincide with a star-studded premiere. Such occasion was great for local economy as train-loads rolled through and spent heavy along the way. Tens of thousands lining streets would after all get hungry and need lodging. Since when had Indiana merchants and tradesmen had it so good? South Bend's three theatres were booked and sold out. O'Brien pal Jim Cagney came along to personal appear, with Bob Hope acting as M.C.

Famous coaches who'd known Rockne appeared in, and were saluted by, the film, bringing out hordes who had worked with these and entire student bodies besides. It was a collegiate round robin and word-of-mouth snowball, the kind you couldn't buy no matter the ads placed or dollars put forth. Focal point for promotion was Notre Dame, where Rockne hung his helmet for the whole of a coaching career and where his name was revered above all others. Warners sent addresses of every alumni association to showmen across the country, goal being for each to make contact and have clubs attend en masse. Schools were targeted with tie-in rallies, proms, and the inevitable goal-kicking contests.

WB hedged bets by holding costs down to $646K. Domestic rentals were a gratifying $1.5 million, but foreign was an expected bust --- $128K --- as what did they care about our colleges or football? The Rockne story with Cagney would indeed have done better, but then Warners would have been obliged to spend more making it, thus a more-less dog fall in the end. The thing was about football, after all, and that wasn't stuff of widest audience appeal. TV prints of Knute Rockne --- All American were for years truncated because of dialogue that had to be taken out, including the "Gipper" speech. Controversy began with a radio scribe who sued Warners years before, and they had failed to settle in terms of TV use of disputed footage. It's only been recent that vital stuff has been put back to make Knute Rockne --- All American at last play as it did in 1940. TCM runs a nice HD transfer of the complete version.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The appeal of this film seems to be restricted to the United States only. I have never seen it included in classic film editions on VHS and I have never seen it on domestic television either unless it went as a filler that I missed. The TNT channel (its Latin America feed) used to rotate it a lot in the days before TCM and when the channel run classics, when they stopped it became something unwatchable. For awhile they used a computer colorized version when the fad was waning but there were still things to be shown.

It is an OK movie but not as memorable as they used to mention in the TNT promos. And I still openly dislike football.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Gotta wonder what that LAUREL AND HARDY live show with a company of 30 and the LAUREL & HARDY BEAUTIES was all about. I bet it was fun.

10:02 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

I'm guessing the L&H show included their Getting a Driver's License sketch, feature longtime Roach cohort James C. Morton as a police officer.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

And note that Laurel & Hardy get top billing over Knute!

9:38 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

9:44 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

One can read all about Laurel & Hardy's 1940 revue in Scott MacGillivray's excellent book "Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward." Scott was the first author to dispute the claims that everything Stan and Ollie did after leaving Roach was worthless. An outstanding book, highly recommended.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Look at those ticket prices. That doesn't add up to very much. 35 cents 9 am to 1pm, 50 cents to 6:30. Wonder what it was after that 75 cents? How many seats did the theater have? Laurel & Hardy, a cast of 30 plus the movie. Divide it up. That's a lot of work for a mall pie anyway it's looked at. As someone has has run programs for decades I pay attention to those things. The theater in my home town charged 5 cents for Saturday matinees. 300 seats meant a lot of work for a gross of $15. When they raised the price to a dime the town mothers practically rioted.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

RH -- As a child I got a quarter for the movies. The ticket was 15 cents and a bag of popcorn was a dime.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I cannot remember ever paying less than 50 cents for admission to the movies, but I did not go to the movies on a regular basis - so I could be in error about taking this as the standard price of a kids' admission back then. It may have been less - 35 cents seems to stick in my mind for some reason.
Back then, that 50 cents was about a third or so of the hourly "minimum wage" for adults around here set by law, as it then was. That "minimum wage" in my jurisdiction is now about 14 dollars an hour, and from the web I see that film admission for children locally now runs about 12 or 13 dollars.
So the percentage of the adult hourly "minimum wage" that a kid has to pay to see a movie has gone up plenty over the course of my lifetime, around here anyway. Either the relative cost of going to the movies has gone up for kids, or the amount of the "minimum wage" hasn't been keeping up with the cost of living, or maybe a little bit of both has been happening over the decades. No matter the explanation - going to the movies has simply become more expensive for kids compared to what it used to be when I was a kid.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

We lived in a wonderful moment in time. Saturday afternoon at the movies with tons of other kids all of us having the time of our lives but not knowing it. That ended when TV entered the picture.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Of the eight comments so far, 5 are about Laurel & Hardy, 2 are about ticket prices, and only one about the topic at hand -- and even that's negative. So I think know where we Greenbriar readers stand on Knute Rockne.

For what it's worth, PBS aired a one-hour documentary on the real Knute Rockne many years ago, which was probably better than the movie, and likely more factual.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Who wants to talk about football (even in movies)? Does anyone under the age of 40 or 50 have any idea who Can Oot Rock Knee is/was? If it weren't for Reagan and "the gipper" the film would be mostly forgotten, I think.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Just watched this for the first time ever.
The "Gipper" as portrayed by Ronald Reagan surprised me, both with the brevity of the character's appearance in this film as compared to the fame Reagan later received in the media during his Presidency for playing the role - it's only a few scenes, and it seemed to me as if you could miss all of it by taking a short ill-timed bathroom break during the screening - and in the apparent indifference the character as portrayed by Reagan displays towards playing football at all, an indifference which seems to nearly extend to the very act of living itself for Gipp, as the depiction of his passing doesn't show any kind of pained struggle, grief or woe on his part, nor did I notice it clearly specify any cause for Gipp's apparently very quick fall from being a healthy - and famous - star athlete to laying in his deathbed, exhorting his coach with his last breath to achieve further pigskin glory by using his own impending death as an inspiration for future players. I'm unclear on the dates - was it the "Spanish Flu" that got the "Gipper"?
The "Gipper", despite all this, still comes across as being both a likeable and a memorable character; and from that, I draw the conclusion that Ronald Reagan had some skill as a film actor, assisted by a "built-in" charisma, or talent - the type that passes screen tests with flying colors.
The film itself is important as a marker or milestone in the transformation of college sports from a "character-building" leisure-time activity of college kids, which nobody else much cares about or pays any attention to except for some of the alumni and shady gambling types, into the "big time" mass-media entertainment and gambling business it has become in the 21st Century.

7:03 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff remembers Knute Rockne, minus winning one for the Gipper:

Dear John:

The astute Kevin K makes a good point: a lot of us would still rather talk about Laurel & Hardy than almost anything else. [If I could find someone who'd actually seen this Chicago Theatre appearance, I'd pester and beg them to share any faintly recalled detail.]

But my primary recollection of KNUTE ROCKNE is patiently watching the picture on television back in the day, appreciating the dependably solid performances of O'Brien and Crisp, admiring the film's apparent considerable amount of location work... and waiting... and waiting... and waiting... for the famous " just one for the Gipper" scene. Which never appeared, of course; the speech and at least some of the scene (as well as other scenes) had been cut from syndication prints for the legal reasons you cite. [I can't have been be the only viewer puzzled and disappointed by this; UA-TV should have put an advisory at the beginning of the print warning about the deleted material.] Anyway, this unexpected omission annoyed me so much, I've never bothered to revisit the movie!

As usual, you did a fabulous job assembling the photos, press materials and ads for this; you really can see some of the things Warners could do when they went all out to promote something. The shot of the crowded street the night of the dual premieres is fantastic; it's like Times Square at New Year's Eve!

-- Griff

12:29 PM  

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