March 29, 2009
The Stratton Story (1949)
Grade: 51/100

Director: Sam Wood
Stars: James Stewart, June Allyson, Frank Morgan

What it's about. A biography of Monty Stratton, a major league baseball pitcher for the Chicago White Sox during the 1930s. Stratton (James Stewart) is the protege of Barney (Frank Morgan), an aging derelict who promptly cleans up his act once he meets the talented young pitcher. Barney entices Stratton to leave his taciturn mother (Agnes Moorehead) and the family farm to try out for the White Sox.

Stratton makes the team, but is soon sent to the minors. There, he romances June Allyson, the nicest honey-voiced tomboy bachelorette in Omaha. They are wed, and baby makes three. Stratton's career improves until he returns to Chicago and makes the 1937 All-Star team.

Both Morgan and Allyson have the hide their disappointment when Stewart makes a habit of hitting the town each night without them. Imagine their relief when it turns out he has merely been taking dancing lessons. Stewart's irreproachable character is truly tested, however, when a hunting accident requires amputation of his leg, seemingly ending his baseball career. But after a period of sulking, Stewart shapes up and attempts a comeback, crowned by a dramatic win at an all-star game.

How I felt about it. The Stratton Story is a competent film with a superior cast and a quality script. As is inevitable for Hollywood biographies of the era, the story has fictional elements designed to make Stratton and his wife more sympathetic, and exaggerate the triumph of his comeback.

All "true stories" must be taken with a grain of salt. For example, the character of veteran baseball scout Barney is almost certainly virtually completely fictional. Probably, a scout discovered Stratton and shepherded his way into the majors, but that scout was presumably completely different from Barney, who transitions readily from railcar tramp to assistant major league coach.

The dancing school subplot is equally suspicious, and it is clear that the comeback at an all-star game is a device to allow the film's four star ballplayers (Gene Bearden, Bill Dickey, Jimmy Dykes, Mervyn Shea) to appear in the same game despite the fact that they played for different teams.

The Stratton Story was one of the final films featuring Frank Morgan, who died the year of its release, 1949. 1949 was also the year of Stewart's only real-life wedding, to model Gloria Hatrick. But onscreen, Stewart would be married to Allyson in two later movies, The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command.

How others will see it. Stewart was too old in 1949 to be convincing as Monty Stratton at the beginning of his career. But star power has its advantages. We enjoy watching Stewart perform, to the point that we don't care whether or not he is a suitable representative for the real-life player. The same also goes for Morgan and Allyson. Classic film fans like the return of familiar faces, and are quick to forgive Hollywood formulas, such as Old Fool Makes Good, Boy and Girl Find True Love, and Man Overcomes Adversity.

The Stratton Story was the final film for Sam Wood, whose Hollywood career as a director extended back to 1920. Today, Wood is best known for his two Marx Brothers movies, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Wood also directed several important prestige films between 1937 and 1943: The Good Earth (1937), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943).

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