' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Saturday's Hero (1951)

Friday, September 14, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Saturday's Hero (1951)

“Saturday’s Hero” was released in 1951 and into the midst of the Army Football academic scandal, a fact which makes one wish for a present-day film to really challenge college football rather than re-issue standard sentimental underdog claptrap. Because even if the term “student-athlete”, one born less of noble deeds than clever, if dastardly, means to prevent college football players from getting theirs, was 13 years away when “Saturday’s Hero” was being screened in theaters, David Miller’s film, based on Millard Lampell’s 1949 novel, already knew that term was bunk. And the eponymous hero of autumn Saturdays, Steve Novak (John Derek), finds that academics and athletics do not mix, not when his Coach and his benefactor don’t want them to, that is, and rest assured it is to them that Steve belongs. And though Steve eventually finds the means to live his life his way, this is where the film’s parable falls apart, at least on an aesthetic level.

We are introduced to Steve through his dexterity on the gridiron, which is celebrated by the Polish-American immigrant inhabitants of his New Jersey hometown, one where every male’s fate seems to be working in the local mill. Not Steve, however, and as he, his brother, and father (Sandro Giglio) stroll past the mill in an early scene, Poppa Novak wags his finger at the grimy place of industry, taunting it, saying it won’t get Steve. If a certain pride is typically attached to the notion of working towns and the entities sustaining them, this moment exposes that inherent lie. And after Steve leaves, occasional cuts back to his hometown show the residents discussing Steve like a savior, portraying football as deliverance for them as much as him.

If the college football stars of so many honest cinematic evaluations of the sport were portrayed as clueless yokels or smugly superior, Steve is deliberately written as an All-American, or yearning to be. He spurns tried and true football schools for Jackson, a southern university touting its credo of a Jackson Man, a well-rounded sort of lad who excels equally in the classroom and on the football field. Living up to that lofty ideal, Steve surprises his English teacher, Professor Megroth (Alexander Knox), in wanting to learn, though there becomes something brutally ironic about Megroth, sensing a soul under Steve’s football jersey, giving his young charge Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to read. Steve contains multitudes, which, while theoretically defining a Jackson Man, reveals itself as less an attribute than an issue.

This comes through in Steve’s benefactor, T.C. McCabe (Sydney Blackmer), required to pay Saturday’s Hero’s way since Jackson offers no athletic scholarships. Introduced in basically every other scene by pouring brown liquor from a decanter, the universal symbol of fat cat, McCabe is an evocative illustration of the modern day booster, defined, per NCAA.com, as “representatives of the institution’s athletic interests.” Indeed, in financially sponsoring the young, ahem, student-athlete, he more or less takes, ahem, ownership of Steve, just as he demonstrates ownership of his daughter, Melissa (Donna Reed), telling her in no uncertain terms to keep away from the athlete under his quote-unquote care. And rather than act as a check against the oft-overwhelming demands imparted by the game, McCabe eagerly consorts with the hard-driving coach, Preacher Tennant (Otto Hulett).

The football scenes were shot on location in both The Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles Coliseum, and while there is some solid ground-level in-game camera work that is much more than the from on-high newsreel sort of footage you often find in these movies, the gridiron action is most effective in a twilight sequence when the stadium is empty and Tennant forces the team to practice the same play, over and over, deep into the night. It is, essentially, the scene from “Miracle” where Herb Brooks drove the US hockey team to skate from one end of the rink to the other again and again, endlessly, even after the stadium lights were turned off. But if that was presented as necessary back-breaking work to construct a Team, the scene in “Saturday’s Hero” demonstrates how a similar cinematic scenario can be twisted into something else, less necessary than hotheaded irresponsibility. Besides, the football squad of Jackson is not representing America; it is representing its employers.

As the film goes on, Steve finds himself torn between honoring his employers’ orders and living up to the faux ideal of being a Jackson Man, the latter eventually tied up in his courtship of Melissa, much to his benefactor’s chagrin. She is played by Reed less as Alma Burke and more as Lorene, for all you fellow “From Here to Eternity” acolytes, which is to say a little more like a rebel. Both characters are under the thumb of institutional control – a football factory and the patriarchy. Together they find the wherewithal to bust loose and take charge of their own lives, which sounds inspiring but is mostly limp. That is because while Derek’s dim star power is credible in sequences where he is essentially a rag doll between politics, it is much less successful in the already under-developed scenes between he and Melissa. The romantic tension is minimal; his going against the grain barely registers. It is a disappointing denouement, one draining a fairly damning movie of a good chunk of its righteous fury, going to a show that a message is only as effective as the movie peddling it.

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