' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Trouble Along The Way (1953)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Trouble Along The Way (1953)

John Wayne was kind of meant to play a football coach. As I have written before, The Duke didn’t have dialogue so much as rhetoric, and the role of a football – college, that is – coach affords all sorts of opportunities for his specially made brand of speechifying. The one potentially different shading in his role as Coach Steve Williams in “Trouble Along The Way” (1953) is that he is a disgraced coach, one in possession of suspect ethics. That’s a fairly significant step forward for the gruff symbol of All-American Nobility, the man who never shot another movie character in the back, the man who we like to imagine slept beneath a Stars & Stripes comforter. Of course, despite his suspect ethics this movie prominently features the Catholic church, and so we can only assume forgiveness of his sins awaits.

Echoing the recently reviewed “College Coach”, itsy-bitsy St. Anthony’s College is facing immediate closure unless the vast sum of $170,000 can somehow be corralled. Alas, though Donna Reed may be in this movie, this isn’t Bedford Falls and a gaggle of priests and students won’t march into Father Burke’s office and hand over saintly stacks of cash free of charge. This is, however, 1953, the height of the Frank Leahy era at Notre Dame. Catholic College Football thrives! So, Burke wonders, why can’t teensy-weensy St. Anthony’s get in on that Saturday afternoon moolah? Old and broken-down but spiritually spry, Burke wades into a pool hall to find Williams scamming suckers for a few bucks and offers the ex-coach a second chance. At first, Williams turns him down flat. But he will have a change of heart – or, more accurately, a forcing of his hand.

College football actually factors less into “Trouble Along The Way” then Williams’ relationship to his daughter, charismatic eleven year old tomboy Carol (Sherry Jackson). He’s a single dad and his ex-wife, the scheming, party-throwing Anne (Marie Windsor) wants Carol back in her life if for no other reason than it would constitute a “victory” over Steve. Enter: Alice Singleton (Reed), the social worker tasked to check up on Carol and determine whether Steve is a fit father. Her requisite backstory – she grew up sans mother – would seem to leave her inclined to recommend moving Carol from her father’s stead to mother’s, even if Steve and Carol have a solid relationship. So Steve takes the coaching gig as a means to give he and Carol a place on campus where they can theoretically hide out from the vile clutches of his ex-wife and her mom. Upon taking the job, however, he realizes his team is in over its heads, so he instantly returns to his nefarious ways, recruiting academically questionable students and then asks the various priests in charge to simply have faith in the legitimacy of the phony transcripts.

That last detail is intriguing. There is much blending of Faith with good old fashioned Political Machinations. Father Burke has faith that football will save his school, but he’s also aware of the necessary oil to grease the machine. Does he turn a blind eye to the reality of Williams cunning ways? He probably does, and he more or less admits it near the end when he steps down from his post, purportedly because of his age. You can tell, though, in Coburn’s gently weary performance, that he views this stepping down more as a way to atone for his sin and hopefully absolve the school of theirs. The Father makes himself the Fall guy. Respect.

So too does Reed convincingly portray these conflicting emotions. Initially her existence appears entirely predicated on being the Shrew, Disagreeing with John Wayne at every turn before eventually Falling In Love With Him because, hey, he’s John Wayne (and so John Wayne can compliment her legs even though she’s constantly outfitted in dresses past her ankles). And she does fall in love with him (well, she says she does, but I was suspicious) but we eventually we come to see that her actions are based not on favoritism to the ex-wife or spite toward the ex-husband but affection for the little girl. She believes a little girl needs her mother, until that perception is changed.

Which brings us back to John Wayne who, by his own admission, played John Wayne in all of his movies. And though he threatens - well, let’s say hints - at playing a variation of John Wayne, he remains John Wayne throughout. He may forge transcripts and bend rules to his advantage but Father Burke takes the blame, explaining he merely asked his coach to do “the impossible.” He may angrily, drunkenly grab Alice and try to kiss her and when she pulls away grab her and try to kiss her again and when she pulls away a third time grab her and try to kiss her again, but this doesn’t prevent her from declaring love for him. His perception doesn’t change. He did what he did because it’s the way he’s always done it.

In other words, Wayne (Williams) is not so much forgiven for his sins as he is declared to have never committed any in the first place.

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