Sunday, 7 February 2016

Trouble Along the Way

Ah, the Super Bowl.

It’s my favourite holiday, mostly because of the food. 

I’m not big on roast dinners of any variety, and I don’t like getting religious, but I like football and I love chicken wings. And potato skins. And dips of endless variety. And mini-sandwiches. Oh, Super Bowl, you are so wonderful.

In fact, this is an automated posting, because I’m spending all day watching the football and eating the snacks.
But what do you do when the game is finished, and you feel like it’s really too early to fall into a total food coma, but now you’re tired and you don’t want to go out?

Football movies.

Just watch football movies.

Don’t watch Brian’s Song – it is very good, but super maudlin, and who feels like crying that much? I mean, yes, Billy Dee Williams is amazing and the speech he gives is amazing, but it’s just a super sad true story that makes you feel powerless against death. Kind of a downer post-game. Everyone should see it once, if only to give them a better idea of what TV movies were like before VCRs, and also to know why old men cry when you talk about the Chicago Bears. But not on Super Bowl Sunday.

I hear that some people watch Rudy. That’s nice. They must not want to punch Rudy in the face as badly as I do.

What I usually watch is John Wayne, former USC Trojan, in 1953’s Trouble Along the Way.

I’m picky about John Wayne movies because – she says as she hides behind bulletproof glass and puts on a helmet – some of them are really, really awful. For every The Quiet Man there is a McQ. I mean, I understand that he is one of the most beloved cinematic icons of all time, and that is why you are throwing tomatoes at me and arguing that McQ has its good points, but no. Not every John Wayne movie is magically awesome because John Wayne is there.

This film, however, has one of my favourite performances of his. It plays to quite a few of his unsung strengths, like his sly comic timing, his naturalness when working with children, and those inherently footballish qualities that seem to fit him just right. Plus, he’s an ordinary person here, which is really nice. Lots of people are like: “No! Give him a horse and dress him like an admiral! Boo!” But I like him as an average, contemporary character.

As for the leading lady, she’s flawed and dynamic and impossibly likeable because she’s played by Donna Reed.

Half of you are now gone, streaming this right away, because oh my god Donna Reed is the actual best.

The director was Michael Curtiz, most famous for Casablanca, which is an amazing thing to be most famous for. This film has that pitch-perfect dialogue that Curtiz seemed to be able to get out of anybody; as well as the same balance of realism and optimism that worked for him in White Christmas, but without the hokey coincidences.

Wayne plays Steve Williams, a former big time football coach, current bookie, and single father to Carole, played excellently by Sherry Jackson. Carole and Steve’s wry, cynical exchanges are the heart of the film. They’re surprisingly timeless. My favourite moment is always when Steve is holding his bible upside down, and Carole gently flips it around for him.

It’s the question of Carole’s legal custody that drives the plot, when Steve’s ex-wife brings the court into things. 

Enter social worker Donna Reed, to assess Carole’s needs and try really hard not to fall in love with Steve. She does a pretty good job of the first part, eventually.

Steve, meantime, is approached by Father Burke, played by Charles Coburn. Father Burke wants most of all to not be forced into an early retirement, and second of all to keep the small Catholic college where he works open, since that would help with the no retirement thing. The plan is to create a solid football program, and for that, he wants Steve’s help.

It’s not a job that Steve would ordinarily take, but “Head Coach at church school with maple trees” looks a lot better to the judge at Family Court than “washed up has-been making book and playing pool for spare cash.” Steve agrees to work at St. Anthony’s.

What follows is a surprisingly fresh and honest look at the politics of divorce, the stress on social workers, the difficulty of fathers raising daughters, the corruption of the college football system, and how if we all give up just a sliver of our selfishness, we can start to make things work. It’s not what you’d expect from a 50’s family comedy.

It’s also one of the few films to really deal with the dark side of coaching, which seems weird, I know. But when you sit back and think of stories that choose to focus on a coach instead of on a player, it’s always like: “A morally bankrupt professional is forced to coach an inner city team on a losing streak, and while he teaches the kids to win at hockey, they teach him to win at life.” (I didn’t mean to just summarizeThe Mighty Ducks, it was an accident, but it’s the epitome of a coaching movie, so I’m sticking with it.) Trouble Along the Way is more like: “A disgraced coach with bad habits can’t get rid of his bad habits. The team starts to win, but it’s a quagmire of ethics.”

Fair warning: The ending is one of those non-endings that promises an improved future instead of an instant solution. I tend to like those, and I like this one. A lot of people really don’t, but I feel like anything more pat or too polished would undo the nuances of the story. For me, the whole point of the film is that it’s the little steps that lead to big changes. But it might be one of those things that makes you throw up your arms and demand to know why you couldn't get everything wrapped up like a present because that is what movies do, you stupid movie.

Either way, the performances are worth watching and I like the idea that stories don’t always have to be about the teams that win Big Games; sometimes, they can be about the kinds of people who are brave enough to play.

Other suggestions for your Super Bowl Sunday:

Paper Lion (1968) – Alan Alda plays George Plimpton, reporting for Sports Illustrated and training with the Detroit Lions. He kind of sucks at football. It’s funny.

Knute Rockne, All American (1940) – A little like Brian’s Song, but not as sad because, honestly, the performances are worse. It’s hilarious when The Gipper bites it. A biopic about Notre Dame’s beloved coach, and useful for understanding one of the jokes in Airplane.

Father Was a Fullback (1949) – Frequent John Wayne co-star Maureen O’Hara here plays the wife of Fred MacMurray, State College football coach, and mother of her Miracle on 34th Street daughter Natalie Wood. But it’s the older daughter that’s giving everybody trouble, and it would be nice if MacMurray’s team could, you know, win.

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