Before going to see the new Jackie Robinson biopic 42, which opens Friday, you can see an earlier depiction of the baseball hero... starring the man himself. The Jackie Robinson Story was released in 1950, just a few years after Robinson broke the color barrier for the MLB. Not only had he achieved a great step for African-Americans in sports, but in cinema as well. It was still a pretty big deal for a major motion picture to have a black lead and be about a black hero. The only major Hollywood studios initially interested pushed for a white actor to be the primary star, as a character who teaches Robinson to play so well. Fortunately, that didn't happen and the production went low budget and was distributed by B-movie label Eagle-Lion Films.
And it wound up being a respectable hit with critics and audiences, especially in the Midwest and in California. The wonderful Ruby Dee gave a breakout performance in the role of Robinson's wife, Rachel, and while the baseballer was quite stiff in dialogue scenes, he obviously was very authentic during the game sequences. He wasn't the first athlete to play himself -- Babe Ruth famously did the same, though in a supporting bit, in The Pride of the Yankees -- and he wouldn't be the last (see Muhammad Ali in The Greatest and Richard Petty in 43: The Richard Petty Story, for two other memorable examples). Considering how many criticisms there are with the way sports biopic stars inadequately swing bats, run the field, lay a punch, etc., it's a shame we don't see it done more often today.
Of course, nowadays we tend to see biopics not made when the subjects are still in their prime. The Jackie Robinson Story may seem a bit premature given how many more great years Robinson had with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Still, he'd already been named Rookie of the Year and later MVP, and he'd also played in a couple World Series. What more did a movie need? Also, this is primarily a film about the history he made by becoming the first African-American in Major League Baseball in the modern era. The timing might also have been good for his image following his controversial testimony at the House Un-American Activities Committee the prior year.
The Jackie Robinson Story is quite patriotic with its constant use of "America the Beautiful" on the soundtrack and the way it stresses Robinson's achievement being afforded by democratic opportunity. The Daily Worker even called it "patronizing and offensive" for the way it ends. But it's more remarkable for its antiracist subject matter for the time. One exchange in the film that's stuck with me has a scout claiming "no other human being" could have made a play that Robinson makes. To which a coach asks, "You really think he's a human being?" Yeah, a little on the nose, but you had to be back then.
Thanks to the film being in the public domain, you can watch the whole thing below via YouTube with occasional ads: