Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lou Gehrig: Baseball Star-Movie Cowboy

Who knew that Lou Gehrig, the great NY Yankee first baseman, moonlighted as a cowboy movie star shortly before his life was cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

Gehrig’s was a genuine American success story. From a family of poor German immigrants, he attended Columbia University, ironically on a football scholarship, and rose to prominence over a 15-season span and 2,130 consecutive games with the NY Yankees - setting several Major League and American League records along the way.

In 1939, the Yankees' Iron Man was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative neurological disorder that would later become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. July 4, 1939 was declared “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankee Stadium. That was the day Gehrig made his famous farewell to baseball speech, which included the line: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Gary Cooper's rendition of Gehrig’s famous quote from The Pride of the Yankees was recently rated #38 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 favorite movie lines. Most classic movie fans are familiar with Cooper’s 1942 portrayal of Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees, yet few know about a 1938 B-movie gem called Rawhide, starring Gehrig as himself, and produced a year prior to his diagnosis.

Matinee at the Bijou is proud to include Rawhide among the feature presentations that will be presented in HD during Matinee's first new season. The Rawhide plot has Gehrig retiring from baseball and moving out west with his sister (Evalyn Knapp) to take up ranching. Director Ray Taylor (who also directed our Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe serial) keeps the story moving at a lively pace, and costar Smith Ballew fits nicely into the role of a crooning cowboy-lawyer who talks Gehrig into refusing to sign up with the racketeering cattlemen's protective association.

One of many highlights occurs when Gehrig, in a barroom fight, arms himself with billiard balls and uses his baseball-honed throwing arm to rout the racketeers with some serious knockdown pitches.

Authentic American sports heroes worth admiring are thin on the ground these days, making a look back at Lou Gehrig’s personification of raw talent, integrity and humility all the more timely – and all the more ideally suited for the sequel series to Matinee at the Bijou.

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