Knute Rockne All American (1940)


(director: Lloyd Bacon; screenwriter: Robert Buckner; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editor: Ralph Dawson; music: Heinz Roemheld; cast: Pat O’Brien (Knute Rockne), Gale Page (Bonnie Skiles Rockne), Ronald Reagan (George Gipp), Donald Crisp (Father John Callahan), Albert Basserman (Father Julius Nieuwland), John Litel (Committee Chairman), John Qualen (Lars Knutson Rockne), Henry O’Neill (Doctor), Johnny Sheffield (Young Rockne), Owen Davis, Jr. (Gus Dorais), Nick Lukats (Harry Stuhldreher, One of the Four Horsemen), Kane Richmond (Elmer Layden, One of the Four Horsemen), William Byrne (James ‘Jim’ Crowley, One of the Four Horsemen), William Marshall (Don Miller, One of the Four Horsemen); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hal B. Wallis; Warner Brothers; 1940)

“It set the way for how the Hollywood sports biography was to be subsequently made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Routine biopic of legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, who died in 1931, at the age of 43, in a plane crash. James Cagney campaigned for the Rockne role but Notre Dame turned him down because of his support for the Republican side in the Spanish civil war. Pat O’Brien, Cagney’s close friend, got the part and looked and sounded like Rockne. O’Brien’s stirring performance was probably his career best.

The film picks up when Knute’s carriage-maker father Lars left Voss, Norway in 1892, when Knute was five, for better work opportunities and settled in Chicago. After working in the post office as a young adult, Knute enrolled at Notre Dame as an older student and starred in football as a receiver with his roommate quarterback Gus Dorais. After graduating in 1914 with honors and marrying Bonnie Skiles (Gale Page), Knute split time between working at the university as a chemistry professor and as an assistant football coach. When he took the reins as head football coach, his teams excelled through his spirited and innovative coaching: the first coach who primarily used the forward pass and initiated the backfield shift (inspired by the precision choreography of a chorus line). His first great player was halfback George Gipp (Ronald Reagan), who helped make the small school a household name in football by beating Army. When Gipp was on his death bed after graduating, he told Knute to quote him whenever the team was in a desperate spot and in need of a victory: “Tell the boys to win one for the Gipper.” Knute used it years later when he was behind at halftime to Army and the game meant the college championship.

The coach left a legacy for good sportsmanship, supporting the academic part of his player’s stay at college, and his tremendous winning record. At his death, the university president, Father Callahan (Donald Crisp), eulogized him as a great man who touched the hearts of people all around the world.

It works as an inspirational film and one showing how the immigrant enriched the American life experience. It set the way for how the Hollywood sports biography was to be subsequently made.