Friday, July 25, 2008

Olympics Warmup: Jim Thorpe, All-American


Almost Olympics time, and the Siren is going through her usual ritual of swearing she won't watch the thing. She always gets hooked anyway. But she is also thinking about sports movies, one in particular. Ever notice how many sports movies are tearjerkers? The great romantic women's pictures get tagged as "weepies" (odious term, the Siren loathes it) but many sports movies rank high on the list of all-time downers. Just think about The Pride of the Yankees, Bang the Drum Slowly, Brian's Song, and Jim Thorpe--All-American.

As a girl the Siren wept long and hard over Burt Lancaster as Thorpe, the doomed Native American sportsman stripped of his gold medals by a class-ridden International Olympic Committee hell-bent on preserving its little image of the "gentleman athlete." She hasn't seen the movie in years, and its cringe-inducing portrayal of Indians probably would bother her a lot more now. But Lancaster broke her heart in the role. She can still remember the scene of the death of his two-year-old son, Jim Jr., and the later episodes where he is reduced to playing a living version of a cigar-store Indian.

The movie ends on a note of hope (it would, wouldn't it?) but Thorpe's real life played as almost unrelieved tragedy in the years after he stood in Stockholm and was proclaimed the world's greatest athlete. Broke, alcoholic and living in a trailer, he died of a heart attack in 1953. He served as a consultant on the movie of his life, and in keeping with Hollywood tradition he got screwed on the rights payment.

In 1982, the IOC finally defrosted enough to reinstate Thorpe's records and medals--but in a remarkably petty footnote, they declared him "co-champion" with the two athletes who won the silver in the decathlon and pentathlon, way behind Thorpe. To their credit, those two gentlemen always maintained that they considered Thorpe the only champion.

Every two years, as she sits on the couch and watches millionaire professionals compete in the Olympics, the Siren remembers Jim Thorpe, and wishes with all her heart that the IOC had gotten over itself a little sooner.

21 comments:

Adam Ross said...

Great post about a true tragic figure. It's genuinely painful to see his brief screen time in "White Heat," as just a face in the prison crowd among hundreds of other extras.

Jesse Owens' Olympic story is almost as sad. In a span of 45 minutes at a 1935 college meet, he set three world records and tied a fourth. He won 8 NCAA championships at Ohio State, yet was never offered a scholarship. Owens' amazingly short Olympic career ended abruptly when he pursued commercial offers after the Berlin games, and in the 60s was forced to work at a gas station. He had a happier ending than Thorpe, finishing his life traveling the world as a goodwill ambassador.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_Owens

Campaspe said...

Adam, I remember my late father telling me about the proposal--must have been in the early 1980s--to establish a memorial for Owens in his birthplace, Lawrence County, Alabama. They wanted to put a statue on the courthouse lawn. Daddy said this was opposed on the transparently flimsy grounds that it would establish a difficult precedent -- were the burghers of Lawrence County to put a statue up for every famous person who came from the area? Dad opined that since the only two people from Lawrence County in the past 150 years who'd been anything approaching famous were General Joe Wheeler and Jesse Owens, they had approximately another 600 years before they had to worry about statue buildup.

All the same, the anti-courthouse-statue crowd won. But they did eventually build a memorial park, which we would pass on the way from Birmingham to the family farm in the Muscle Shoals area.

mndean said...

I stopped caring about the Olympics after 1968 (even when I was 7, I saw nothing wrong in what Carlos and Smith did), for obvious reasons. When they had vermin like Avery Brundage as head, there was zero reason to watch that contrived nonsense, and it hasn't gotten any better over time. We get to watch a spectacle of nationalism and narcissism packaged for TV now, and the Olympics should have died with the ancient Greeks.

As for Thorpe getting screwed over rights, that's such a long Hollywood tradition, it's almost banal to mention. I remember one friend admiring Louis B. Mayer for being such a good family man. Admiration for a man who considered Judy Garland property and was ultimately responsible for having drugs fed to her constantly to work her until she became a psychological wreck. Beating a naive, impoverished gentleman out of paying fairly for his life story just seems par for the course, doesn't it? (note: I have no idea which production company did that, but it hardly matters - it's all a part of Hollywood culture).

Exiled in NJ said...

Wife and I spent Thanksgiving weekend 2002 at a murder mystery weekend at the Harry Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe PA. My impression was that the proprietor, a Philadelphian, had a hard time swallowing the town name.

Wikipedia: "When Thorpe's third wife, Patricia, heard that the small Pennsylvania town of Mauch Chunk was desperately seeking to attract business, she struck a deal with the town. Mauch Chunk bought Thorpe's remains, erected a monument to him, and renamed the town in his honor (see Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania), despite the fact that Thorpe had never set foot in the city."

How awful, death as a career move.

I haven't seen that film in years, but any industry that can permit Roy Hobbs to strike out, rather than hit a home run, can't be all bad. What? That's not how it ended?

Campaspe said...

MNDean, according to Wikipedia (and the Siren's memory, for what it's worth) Thorpe sold his life rights for $1500 in 1931 to ....

none other than MGM. LB Mayer was a genius in his way, about promotion, gauging public appetites, spotting and reeling in talent. But lord what an unpleasant piece of work he also was, from his treatment of Garland and others to his rolling-on-the-floor temper tantrums.

Exiled, there just isn't a single part of Thorpe's life post-Stockholm that isn't sad. I hope that town keeps its name, though. The accomplishments of all those athletes in the pre-steroid era always seem much grander to me.

Karen said...

Of the four sports movies you mention, Siren, I shamefacedly admit to having seen only the first three. I've never seen Jim Thorpe--All American, and now I will probably be banned from this site.

You're right that sports movies are weepies, though, and I think that's because sports offer the only milieu in which men are allowed to express either emotion or genuine affection. Is anything as thrilling as seeing Yogi Berra leaping into the arms of Don Larsen after their perfect World Series game? That gets me every time. Is there any non-sports situation in which it is permissible in our society for a grown man to leap into another's arms and straddle him with his legs? I don't think so. I'm reminded of that lovely scene with Walter Matthau in...is it Kotch? After having been excoriated by the community for giving a young girl a congratulatory pat on the bum, he watches a football game and, after seeing one player slap another on the butt, excitedly points at the screen.

There are so many tragic stories about great athletes from Thorpe's generation, especially athletes of color. My father's cousin, Barney Nagler, at one time president of the Boxing Writers of America, wrote a moving biography of Joe Louis, called Brown Bomber; Louis was reduced by bad management and debt to working as a greeter in Vegas.

Of course, bad management and extravagance ruins a lot of players even today. I read a recent article about Lenny Dykstra, who has become something of an investment banking idiot savant, and who is starting a magazine designed to help pro athletes plan an intelligent financial future (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/24/080324fa_fact_mcgrath)--something of a mitzvah, really.

Campaspe said...

Actually, Karen, I am quite excited. :D I feel as though I finally won "Stump the Band" on Johnny Carson.

I didn't check to see if it's on DVD but if you need a good cathartic cry you could do a lot worse.

Vanwall said...

The curious part is the Studio makes a film about a once-in-a-millenium athlete, a phenomenal artist at his craft, if you will, who has his life's work robbed by lesser men, and the film itself is part of the grinding into nothingness process - the obtuseness of the production and its venality are awe-inspiring from a train wreck viewpoint.

Campaspe said...

Vanwall, this is a rare instance where I wrote about a film entirely from memory -- distant memory at that, I was probably still in my teens the last time I saw it. So I can't argue your point, although the film certainly worked for me at the time and probably still would on the three-hanky level and because I cannot resist Burt Lancaster. But your point is an excellent one, and extremely well put as usual. The movie was just one more kick in the gut.

Exiled in NJ said...

Does the Siren consider boxing a sport? Can't find many weepies there B.S. (before Stallone).

Adam Ross said...

Exiled -- Check out "The Setup" with Robert Ryan, prime boxing weepie.

Karen said...

I dunno, Exiled; I think I would consider the 1949 Robert Ryan film The Set-up a legitimate boxing weepie. I know I cried, anyway!

Or, Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Siren, if I have been a cause of excitement for you, that is reward enough. I see that Netflix has the film, though, so I will remedy my situation post-haste.

Vanwall said...

Siren - The movie was a very effective tear-jerker, and was somewhat unusual in showing the bitter end of most of the athletic careers back then. I saw it often and mostly because of Lancaster, too.

"Body and Soul" is my favorite boxing film, and Canada Lee breaks your heart every time.

mndean said...

Well, what a bit of serendipity! To take advantage of someone in desperate circumstances doesn't take any particular genius, just ruthlessness. Record label owners used to do it all the time buying songs from desperate writers. There's an amusing story about The Tennessee Waltz and label owner Syd Nathan which may be apocryphal, but showed the sort of dealing that songwriters in (non-Tin Pan Alley) pop music had to deal with.

Exiled in NJ said...

Maybe it is semantics, but I don't consider The Set Up as a weepie. To me the term skews to the negative, a film that when I watch I can feel the score, the writer and the director pulling the strings. Cinderella Man is a perfect example of a weepie. One film I had in mind was Fat City, too overlooked today and the antithesis of the Stallone 'epics.'

Campaspe said...

I dislike the term "weepie" so much that I can only imagine applying it in the sense that Exiled means, as a perjorative for something made by people who decided at the first story meeting that getting us to drag out the Kleenex was the goal of the film. In the words of Dino di Laurentiis, "When the monkey die, people gonna cry." While I haven't seen Cinderella Man I can imagine it fits. My example would be Beaches, a movie I pretty much hated, and Life Is Beautiful fits as well.

On the other hand, the term is often applied to movies with a great deal of artistry that have themes and subtext that go way beyond "people gonna cry," which is why I prefer the term women's picture. I like all of the sports movies I named in the first graf, and I do think they work on the emotions as hard as anything Vincent Sherman ever pointed his camera at. So it's ironic that Mr. Skeffington is considered a "weepie," while The Set-Up, which also makes an intense play on the emotions, isn't. Karen is definitely onto something when she says that sports is a milieu where men--specifically American men--feel more free to express strong emotion. (I'd argue, though, that women's pictures were made largely by men, and men express strong emotion in those films as well.)

I didn't cry over Requiem for a Heavyweight, though it's certainly sad, but what about The Champ? Talk about a crying jag. And indeed I did a whole post about Canada Lee in Body and Soul. In that performance he makes boxing not only a metaphor for a rigged society, but also the particular odds that black men faced at the time. When he collapses, even as he's still trying to help his friend, we see everything that the entire country lost for so long in its mad, evil system of segregation.

Peter Nellhaus said...

This talk about the Olympics only reminds me that Million Dollar Legs is still not available on DVD.

mndean said...

Peter,
And you expect different from Universal? Two Fields packages, and still no Million Dollar Legs. Now in my fantasy, the last Fields package would have the aforementioned MDL, Tillie and Gus, Mississippi, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, and even Alice in Wonderland. It wouldn't be the best Fields set (by far, he isn't even the star of some of these), but it'd release all the Universal-owned Fields films. I'm intrigued by Tillie and Gus and I'd like to see that pairing with Alison Skipworth (a favorite of mine).

Buttermilk Sky said...

Speaking of men you love to hate(LB Mayer), how about Charles Comiskey in "Eight Men Out," my favorite baseball movie? So much to like about this one, starting with the cast (even Charlie Sheen); gorgeous period detail, including the music; and John Sayles's expert analysis of the class conflict. Ball players were not always millionaires -- in 1919 even the best were struggling to survive economically. It's good to be reminded of that when more people know A-Rod's salary than his batting average.

I haven't seen "Jim Thorpe All American" in like forty years, but will look for it. All I remember clearly is the scene where Lancaster smashes the glass case containing his Olympic medals. Please tell me this is in the movie and I didn't imagine it.

wwolfe said...

When I was a little boy, my dad told me about what happened to Jim Thorpe. I remember he said that Thorpe should have told the Olympics, "I threw my medals in the ocean on the boat ride home - go get 'em."

My favorite Olympics memory is of John Carlos and Tommy Smith on the medal platform in Mexico City in 1968. I stopped watching when Avery Brundage insisted on continuing the Munich games after the murder of the Israeli athletes in 1972.

onlyanirishboy said...

Ira Englander, who produced "Running Brave," the only other film to my knowledge about a famous Native American Olympic champion, Billy Mills, the half white, half-Sioux Marine captain whose last second dash to victory in the 10,000 meters at Tokyo was one of the great upsets in Olympic history, had planned to follow it with a Jim Thorpe film whose primary focus was the decades' long struggle of Thorpe, and then his children, to reverse the 1912 injustice. That project died when "Running Brave" failed at the box-office -- ironically, it had been the film's Indian financers, Alberta's Ermineskin Band, who had insisted on a known white actor, instead of an unknown Indian, playing Mills.

One problem with that Thorpe project was that it was Pop Warner, a beloved sports legend whose name is attached to the football counterpart of Little League and who who was played in the Lancaster movie by Charles Bickford as a father figure with Jim's best interests at heart, who got Thorpe in the situation that resulted in his medals being taken from him, by arranging for Thorpe and other Carlisle athletes to play semi-pro ball under assumed names so that they could afford to stay at Carlisle and keep playing for Warner.

The real villain, though, was Avery Brundage, who in 1912 had been a pre-Olympics favorite in the pentathalon and decathalon but finished 6th and 16th, respectively, in the events where Thorpe got his gold medals. Brundage, a successful businessman, became head of the American Olympic Committee in 1929 and was president of the IOC from 1952 through the Munich Olympics. Even when it became obvious to everyone but Brundage that Olympic medals were being regularly won by athletes, especially from communist countries, who were full time professionals in all but name, Brundage remained adamant about reversing the decision to strip Thorpe of credit for his Stockholm triumphs because he had picked up a few bucks playing baseball on his summer vacations.

There's no question that Thorpe got screwed by the Olympics hierarchy, but he also got a good run as an athlete, playing major league ball even though he couldn't hit a curveball and playing professional football years past his prime. He also got work now and then in movies like Wagonmaster, solely because of his lingering celebrity. He's hardly the first athlete to fall into an alcohol-fueled downward spiral -- Jimmie Foxx hit 500 home runs before his 33rd birthday, and spent his last years living in a shack in a swamp.

All that being said, I loved "Jim Thorpe All-American" as have several generations of guys. I am pleased to find out that at least one female shares our fond memories of Burt Lancaster as the half-Irish , half Sac and Fox athlete who in 1950 sportswriters selected as the best of the half-century.

Incidentally, everyone today seems to have forgotten that the top box-office star of the early 1930's, and America's most beloved humorist for even longer, had, like Thorpe, been born and reared in what was then officially Indian Territory, and always regarded himself as a Cherokee -- Will Rogers.