5/10
Cornball.
4 April 2012
Warning: Spoilers
The Platonic ideal of a 1950s biographical movie. Hardly a word or a scene is believable. It's so stilted and unimaginative that I rooted for it to win.

When I was a kid the theaters were filled with nonsense like this, colorful life stories of extremely famous celebrities nobody ever heard of, and gaudy musicals with songs from the Old Stone Age, all from the teens and 1920s. It wasn't until some years had passed that I realized that, for most of the audience, these people, events, and songs were still alive in their memories, no farther behind them than the Beatles are behind us.

Grover Cleveland Alexander, a Nebraska farm boy (Reagan), is a natural pitcher who is discovered by a minor league team and plays ball for them during the summer. The problem is that his girl friend (Day) doesn't want him to be a baseball player. She wants to settle down with him on a nice farm with a picket fence and a rose garden and build a stable home. Already the movie has left originality behind on a distant horizon, hidden in a cloud of stirred-up Nebraska loess, and it's only fifteen minutes into the story.

But never mind. Day moons over the conundrum for a while longer and then decides to marry him anyway, after he's offered a contract with a major league team in Philadelphia.

Alexander is a success in 1911. He's a great pitcher. We know this because there is a montage of Ronald Reagan winding up, throwing a ball past the camera, and leaning into it with a big grin. There is also a montage of a proud and smiling Doris Day pasting newspaper clippings, bespeaking triumph, into a huge scrap book labeled in gilt "Grover Cleveland Alexander".

Little did they know that tragedy lay just around the corner. Somewhere along this time line -- I forget exactly where in Alex's dazzling rise to fame -- he gets clipped by a bean ball and is knocked out. He wakes up with diplopia -- seeing two of everything. Now, this is unwelcome news for a famous baseball pitcher, and Alex retires to the farm for a year, unreconciled to his disorder -- partly because he's convinced he can still PITCH if only it weren't for his eyes, and partly because he can't spell diplopia.

Then -- a miracle! He wakes up at night, goes to shut the window, and he sees only ONE MOON! And before you know it he's back in the game. However, tragedy lies just around the corner. No, no, the diplopia is gone for good. This is a different tragedy.

It's 1918 and World War I is upon us. Alex is drafted and is an artillery sergeant. The constant booming of the cannons makes him a little hard of hearing but, worse than that, he begins to get dizzy spells. After a triumphant return from the war, a dizzy spell causes him to pass out on the mound. The spells return. Alex sees a doctor in secret who tells him gravely that "science doesn't know much about these things." He is SO right, because doctors are not screenwriters. Writers know all the details of mysterious illnesses -- what the symptoms are, when they should appear and when they should go away. Based on Alex's description of the symptoms, my Dx is temporal lobe epilepsy. That will be ten cents.

The mysterious dizzy spells cause him to start drinking and he winds up a bum in some shabby carnival as so many heroes of these biopics must -- Joel McRae in "Buffalo Bill", Tyrone Power in "Nightmare Alley." He's rescued by an offer to return to the majors by an old friend, with the complicity of Doris Day, and a gigantic hole appears in whatever logic the plot holds. His dizzy spells disappear on the pitcher's mound, as long as he can look into the stands and catch the refulgent splendor of Doris Day's big white grin. At the very end, at the most critical moment, with the Yankees at bat and the bases loaded and the count three and two, Day is delayed in reaching Yankee Stadium, and Alex looks worried and sweaty, and the shapes begin to waver and shift, and -- and -- I had to close my eyes because I couldn't stand the tension so I can't tell you what happened.

I applaud this movie because instead of just one tragedy -- either the double vision or the dizzy spells -- you get two. This ratchets up the suspense to the Red Alert level. Also, Doris Day is mighty saucy.

Don't miss this if you want to see a typical biographical flick from the 1950s. Definitely see it if you want to know why "they don't make 'em like this anymore" and feel happy that they don't.
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