The Stratton Story (1949)

Film Title: The Stratton Storystratton-1

Year: 1949

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Drama

Starring:

  • James Stewart
  • June Allyson
  • Frank Morgan
  • Agnes Moorehead

Review

In 1942, director Sam Wood made history with Pride of the Yankees, the true story of baseball legend Lou Gehrig. Gary Cooper portrayed Gehrig in the unforgettable heart-tugging drama. Seven years later in 1949, Wood again directed a sports story of triumph over tragedy with The Stratton Story. Stratton would be the last film Wood directed, succumbing to a heart attack just three months after its release.

James Stewart is Monty Stratton, a young farmer who looks after the family business in the wake of his father’s death. Monty is also a small-time pitcher on a local baseball team. The sport is more of a hobby, as Monty spends the majority of his time being the man of the house. His mother “Ma” (played by Agnes Moorehead) is a stern woman who believes that honest hard work is the only key to success. While Monty is pitching an afternoon game, his talent is recognized by Barney Wile (Frank Morgan), a former player whose drinking problem forced him into early retirement. Barney spends his days as a rudimentary “scout”, traveling by freight train to random cities in an attempt to recapture his glory days through a young prospect. He approaches Monty about trying out for the Chicago White Sox, claiming that the coach is an old friend of his and that he can easily get him special consideration. Monty is a bit hesitant, but talks further with Barney on the long hike back to the farm. Barney has his work cut out for him when he meets Ma, who is skeptical but allows Monty to be the decision maker. Barney stays with the Strattons for a few months, helping out with chores while coaching Monty in major league pitching. When he believes Monty is ready, he suggests they make the trip to California for tryouts. Ma is less than thrilled, but again submits to her son’s wishes. She hands Monty five dollars for the trip and regretfully steps aside. Barney and Monty hitchhike to the California tryouts. When they arrive, Barney looks for his old pal Jimmy Dykes (a real-life baseball player for the Philadelphia and Oakland Athletics), while Monty loosens his arm with practice pitches. Jimmy is annoyed at Barney’s presence. He knows him as a broken man desperately trying to be part of the game again. Barney visits every spring with new phenoms who seldom work out, so Jimmy belittles Monty’s talent before seeing him throw. When he does see Monty pitch, he agrees to give him a shot.

Monty hangs around town while he’s waiting for his big tryout. To pass the time, he and a teammate go on a double date with two girls. One of the girls, Ethel (June Allyson), is practically stuck with Monty by default. She finds his sports ramblings uninteresting, but since he doesn’t know how to dance, there isn’t much else to do but grin and bear it. The end of the date is fast-approaching and Monty decides to take Ethel home rather than join the others in painting the town. He offers his apologies for being somewhat dim-witted, seeing as how he’d only known farm life before coming to California. The two show signs of interest in one another and continue dating after Monty is offered a contract with the White Sox. The team travels by train to their away games as Ethel returns to her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Monty is given little playing time and begins to resent his view from the bench. His first trip to the mound ends in a Sox loss. The Sox leave for Omaha; Monty stops off at Ethel’s house to proclaim his love for her. Her feelings are mutual. This newfound meaning appears to have a big effect on Monty. He starts winning his games and quickly becomes a sensation. Before long, he marries Ethel and the newlyweds visit Ma back on the farm. Ethel is pregnant with their first child and Ma is much more relaxed now that her son is a sports celebrity. Monty is living the American dream until tragedy strikes. While out hunting on the farm in the off-season, he accidentally shoots himself in the leg and needs emergency surgery to amputate the infected limb.

The operation leaves Monty a shadow of his jubilant self. His son has been born, but even the thrill of being a father doesn’t compensate for the loss of his career. He slips into depression and refuses to leave the farm house. Ethel and Ma try desperately to keep his spirits up, but each of their attempts is met with Monty’s pessimistic backlash. Barney also visits frequently to help, but all it does is remind Monty of what he used to have. As his son begins learning how to walk, the family is excited at how quickly he’s growing. Monty reacts in a bit of jealousy and discredits the achievement by saying “So what’s the big deal? He’s got two legs hasn’t he?” This is his rock bottom. Ethel can barely stand another day with her negative husband, and Ma is equally frustrated but compassionate. One night while he and Ethel are in bed, it suddenly dawns on Monty that he’s become a tremendous emotional burden on his family. He gets up and walks outside to think. Ethel follows him and once again offers her unending support. With a new grip on reality, Monty’s spirits take a turn for the better. He stops complaining about his misfortune and aims to enjoy the life he still has as a family man. Things improve even further when he decides to try a new prosthetic leg and walks outside with his son for the first time. Monty is once again up and about. He and Ethel begin having random catches in the yard until he practices on his own. Barney stops through again and marvels at Monty’s will power. A trip to the all-star game culminates with Monty making the comeback of a lifetime.

The Stratton Story is the true story of Monty Franklin Pierce Stratton, the Major League Baseball pitcher from Celeste, Texas who inspired the world. The real Stratton opted for Jimmy Stewart to portray him in the film, although the producers first considered Van Johnson and Gregory Peck for the role. Stewart carries the role of Stratton so effectively that we quickly forget he’s a movie star and believe he actually plays for the Chicago White Sox. He makes the transition from country bumpkin to sports hero with ease, though never losing the innocence of his rural upbringing. Naturally, much of the film was dramatized for the big screen. The real-life hunting accident in which Monty lost his leg was the result of a pistol shot rather than that of a shotgun. Exaggeration aside, the plot is able to capture the audience with its realism. Granted, the majority of people in the world are not celebrities, but everyone has had their own personal fall from grace. The notion that such a hand could be dealt to anyone is the grip that holds our attention between scenes. June Allyson was a good choice to play Ethel. In a role that demanded the requisite “little woman”, June literally fit the mold, standing just 5′ 1″ and weighing only 99 lbs. in 1945. However, on the flip-side of her character was incredible strength. She maintained her charm even in the face of Monty’s tragedy, and seemed to hide a burst of tears behind words of encouragement. Allyson was an MGM favorite, often playing lighthearted roles in comedies and musicals. The Stratton Story gave her an opportunity to stretch out a little by showcasing her serious side. Agnes Moorehead was a natural “Ma”. Although later generations associate Moorehead with “Bewitched”, she actually made her film debut in 1941’s “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles. Considering that Kane is thought to be one of the greatest films of all time, it was a fortunate jumpstart for a career that also paired her with Bogart and Bacall in “Dark Passage”. As “Ma”, Moorehead was never too over-the-top on either side of the spectrum. During times of normalcy she was reserved and in times of crisis she was restrained. Her ability to remain calm balanced the chaos of her son’s injury and her daughter-in-law’s difficulty handling the stress. Last but not least is Frank Morgan’s performance as Barney. Morgan is immortalized in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” but began his career in silent films in 1916’s “The Suspect”. He played Barney as both a needy and determined man. He’d been given the job of pitching coach when Monty signed with the White Sox. Though he had as much riding on Monty’s success as Monty himself, he was able to keep things in perspective when the accident occurred. He remained Monty’s loyal supporter from the first day he watched him play locally. Morgan, like director Sam Wood, would pass away in 1949, from the same cause just four days apart from one another. The Stratton Story is one of overcoming the odds, but it is also a lesson in prioritizing. When things are great, they’re great, but when Cloud 9 produces rain, it’s important to know who your real teammates are in life.

On Video

The Stratton Story was released on DVD in 2006 by Warner Home Video as part of the James Stewart Signature Collection. There is an obvious improvement to the audio and video quality when compared to the 1994 VHS release. The picture is sharp and has been cleaned from the original, and the audio leaves no dialogue to question. The disc is also available as a single and boasts a mitt full of bonus features, which include: Vintage featurette “Pest Control”, Classic Cartoon “Batty Baseball”, Audio-only Bonus: Radio Show with James Stewart and June Allyson and the Theatrical Trailer. This should be a welcomed addition to any sports or classic Hollywood fan’s video collection.

Conclusion

The Stratton Story included many real-life Major League Baseball players. There is no doubt, however, that the story is the centerpiece. This is also a wonderful trip down memory lane to a time when baseball was played for the love of the game. With the lopsided motives of present-day, the basis of America’s pastime has been lost in a pile of bottom lines. It seems that the morals of people have followed suit. This film is a representation of how the world once was, and with any luck, will someday return.

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