The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)


(director: Alfred E. Green; screenwriters: Arthur Mann/Lawrence Edmund Taylor; cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo; editor: Arthur H. Nadel/Maurie M. Suess; music: David Chudnow/Herschel Burke; cast: Jackie Robinson (Himself), Ruby Dee (Rachel Isum Robinson), Minor Watson (Branch Rickey), Louise Beavers (Jackie’s Mother), Richard Lane (Hopper), Billy Wayne (Clyde Sukeforth), Joel Fluellen (Mack Robinson); Runtime: 77; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Mort Briskin; Eagle-Lion; 1950)

“One of the most sincere sports biopics.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of the most sincere sports biopics, that has Jackie Robinson doing a great job playing himself as he breaks the color barrier in pro baseball. It’s an inspirational biography about the first Negro to play in the Major Leagues, who must not only prove himself as a ballplayer but overcome the stings of racial prejudice and is under instructions from Brooklyn Dodgers top executive Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) not to fight back under any circumstances against the expected racial slurs and dirty play. Alfred E. Green (“The Jolson Story”/”Gentlemen Are Born”/”Baby Face”) tightly directs; the fine screenplay is by Arthur Mann and Lawrence Edmund Taylor. It’s a low-budget “B” film, shot in black-and-white, during the off-season of Jackie’s third time around with the Dodgers.

The film opens in 1928 and a nine-year-old impoverished Jackie Robinson is given an old battered baseball glove by a stranger hitting balls to a group of white kids in an empty neighborhood lot. It flashes ahead to 1937 and Jackie Robinson (himself) is at Pasadena Junior College, where he’s shown at home with his single tender-hearted loving mom (dad abandoned the family of five in Georgia) and later the newspaper headlines tell of him breaking his brother Mack’s national broad-jumping record. His track feat gets Robinson a scholarship to UCLA, where he starred in a number of sports including football. Upon his graduation, Robinson tries to get a coaching job, but the doors were closed to black athletes. After serving in the army during WW II, Robinson plays with the barnstorming Black Panthers of the Negro Baseball League. Branch Rickey, the innovative president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, finds the team depleted because of the war years and was impressed enough with Robinson to sign him to play with the Dodger’s International League’s farm team of the Montreal Royals for the 1946 season. There the second baseman faces segregation at the southern ball parks for spring training and when the regular season starts, he receives verbal abuse from racists in the stands. During that season, because of Jackie’s great play the team wins the Little League World Series and the club sets attendance records. In 1947, Rickey brings him up to the Bigs despite protests from six Dodgers who sign a petition that they don’t want to play with him. What was termed Rickey’s “Great Experiment,” proved to be immensely successful as the forever mediocre Dodgers would make the Series that year–only losing in 7 games to those damn New York Yankees. Robinson survived the jeers by many of the opposing baseball players, managers, and fans; and because of his skills and good demeanor, he became extremely popular with the American public. He also became baseball’s first rookie of the year, and at the season’s end was invited to Washington to speak his mind before Congress–telling them that democracy works for those willing to fight for it and that it’s worth defending.

In this age of jock culture, Robinson’s story can’t be minimized; it’s truly an historic and genuine heroic one that broke baseball’s color line and gave the country a chance to look good in the eyes of the rest of the world. Robinson’s victory was not only for himself but also for his country and the black people. It changed an ugly chapter in American history forever. This film might not be a work of great art, as it certainly has its limits, but it’s a fine record for history and it was thrilling to see Jackie convincingly play himself without conceit in such an honest, dignified and intelligent way. His presence more than makes up for some of the film’s shortcomings (the lackluster sports shots).

Ruby Dee is sweet as Jackie’s loyal wife Rachel, who was a great support to him in his time of need.