baseball movies

Movie Review: The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) – Could Be, Should Be Done Better

Written by Arthur Mann and Lawrence Taylor
Directed by Alfred E. Green

Note: This review was written in 2007 for Epinions, which is now defunct. Most of the reviews I wrote for that site are easy to update for all these years later. This is one I couldn’t without basically starting from scratch. It was written before the (much better) movie 42 came out. It is presented as it was posted back then, with a few spelling and grammar corrections.

There was a time, just after the Second World War, when the United States was at a crossroads. The war changed everything, including the social perceptions of people’s place in society based on gender and race. Women, who were previously thought of as relegated to managing the home, found they liked the freedom that came from having their own incomes as well as the status that came with it. Likewise, African Americans were given a bigger role.

Into this time came people who would be a catalyst for challenging many people’s pre-conceived notions. They could be called revolutionary, but many of them achieved what they accomplished with a quiet dignity rather than loud demonstrations. One of those such people was Jackie Robinson.

The Jackie Robinson Story was filmed over the winter of 1949 – 1950. 1949 had been a stellar year for the Brooklyn Dodger second baseman. He won the batting championship and was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player. To capitalize on that somewhat, this film was rushed to production to be out in time for the start of the 1950 baseball season. It starred none other than Jackie Robinson himself.

The Jackie Robinson Story starts out in 1928 when a young Jackie Robinson impresses a local audience with his fielding enough that a man gives the boy an old glove of his that is falling apart. Still, Jackie loves the glove. As he grows up, he ends up running track for UCLA and impressing everyone not only on the track but on the football field and baseball diamond as well.

Branch Rickey (portrayed by Minor Watson) owns the Dodgers and wants to sign the first black player to play major league baseball. He decides to take the chance on Robinson. Rickey says it’s because of the depletion of quality players following the war. He asks Robinson to take the chance as well, telling him that no matter what happens he can’t fight back and must let his playing on the field be the statement he makes.

The main problem with The Jackie Robinson Story is the lack of depth in the characters. I never felt like I really got to know anyone all that well, even Robinson. The film comes in at just 76 minutes long and it feels it. I can know in abstract that it was going to be difficult for Robinson to break into the Major Leagues. I can know he had to endure plenty, from both his fellow players and the so-called fans. I want to understand more about that and his reaction to it. I would like to have seen his struggles and frustrations in light of the obstacles he faced. I would have liked to have gotten a feel for the bond between him and his wife that helped him have the strength to turn the other cheek to the racial taunts and sometimes outright physical intimidation.

Instead, The Jackie Robinson Story is a shallow picture that fails in many ways to draw viewers in. That’s a shame because the story is such a compelling one.

As far as the acting goes, well, Jackie Robinson may have been a great civil rights activist. He may also have been one of the greatest ballplayers in baseball, ever. I can’t say Jackie Robinson is one of the greatest actors I have ever known, however. He does a decent job, but it’s not exceptional. You would think with being able to be emotionally invested in what happened he could get the part down pretty good, but he doesn’t. I think so much had been fictionalized in The Jackie Robinson Story to make it fit in with the climate of the times that Robinson had difficulty fitting into the role.

Ruby Dee as his wife Rae is very good. This was her first major role and she does quite well. Her acting is so good, that the scenes in which she is opposite Robinson are some of the best and I would have liked to have seen more of them.

Minor Watson is great as Branch Rickey. He portrays the man as pig-headed and stubborn, which was a good attitude to have with the way The Jackie Robinson Story depicts events happening. Rickey is written to be more interested in gaining notoriety for having the first black player in Major League baseball. My opinion is that Rickey was motivated more by money than a sense of what was “right” although that’s not really shown here. If Rickey thought he could have won the pennant and kept drawing in crowds without starting to cull from the Negro Leagues, I believe he would have done so.

Also forgotten along the way are the events in Jackie’s life which led up to this moment. The cliches such as the incident with the glove are there, but missing are an accurate picture of what his time in the Army was like. This time included a court-martial for refusing to sit in the back of a bus during a transport operation. There’s nothing shown on how the other Negro League players reacted to Rickey choosing Robinson to break the color barrier.

I was surprised that there haven’t been more movies made about the man who did so much to further the standing of African Americans both in the sporting community as well as in society. Spike Lee has been rumored to want to do a project on Robinson’s life for years, and there’s also one in pre-production with Robert Redford as Branch Rickey. I would really like to see his story covered in modern times with less of the influences this one had.

I watched The Jackie Robinson Story on DVD in black and white. I have to say the picture has held up pretty well through the years and a good job was done restoring the picture and sound. The only problem is the complete lack of extras on the disc.

The Jackie Robinson Story isn’t a horrible film. It’s just way too short for the subject matter and could have either been more in tune with telling the real story so Robinson could portray himself with more comfort, or had someone else cast as the lead. It’s worth a peek for baseball fans, although I am more hopeful about some of the other pictures possibly coming out soon about this man’s life.

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