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Jackie Robinson and Hollywood go back a long ways

I suspect that you've never seen a movie about Jackie Robinson, or featuring Jackie Robinson.

But 42, which opens Friday around America, is certainly the highest-profile and biggest-budget movie featuring Robinson, it's hardly the first.

In 1996, HBO produced Soul of the Game, which told the story of Robinson -- played by Blair Underwood -- signing with the Dodgers, while also throwing Robinson together with Satchel Paige (Delroy Lindo) and Josh Gibson (Mykelti Williamson) in a bunch of (what I'm assuming were) utterly invented scenes. Willie Mays' father somehow has a substantial place in the production, too. I haven't seen the movie, but you can get a pretty good flavor here, in the trailer. I think it's safe to say that in 1996, HBO hadn't yet decided to invest huge amounts of money in original productions.

In 1990, Andre Braugher -- coming off a secondary role in Glory and a few years before his breakout role as Frank Pembleton in Homicide -- played Robinson in TNT's The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson.

Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. Later, and with the help of Joe Louis, Robinson was admitted into Officer Candidate School at Fort Riley, Kansas, and commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943. Shortly, he was transferred to Fort Hood, Texas.

While riding a bus one day on the post, Robinson sat next to the light-skinned African-American wife of a fellow black officer. The army was still segregated -- it would remain so until 1948 -- but the actual facilities were not, at least officially. Robinson knew it. When the bus driver told Robinson to move to the back of the bus, he refused. Before leaving the post, the driver stopped and summoned military policemen, who eventually took Robinson before the duty officer, Captain Gerald Bear. According to one of Robinson's biographers, "Robinson and Bear exchanged some heated words over the incident. Tempers flared. Bear said Robinson would be court-martialed." Which he was, for insubordination.

Robinson was acquitted, which (as I recall) is roughly how the movie ends. Oddly, that court-martial might have led to Robinson's baseball career. Because of the court-martial, he wasn't around when his unit was sent overseas, and he wound up being transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. Just before getting mustered out of the service because of a lingering foot injury, Robinson was passing by a baseball field and noticed a black pitcher throwing some impressive curveballs. It was Ted Alexander, who before the war had pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs. Alexander advised Robinson to write Monarchs owner Tom Baird. The rest is history.

Hey, that was some sort of digression! Andre Braugher's a fine actor, but it's been a long time since I've seen his portrayal of Jackie Robinson so one can only guess how good the movie was. One great bit of trivia, though: In The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, Robinson's mother was portrayed by Ruby Dee ... who, exactly 40 years earlier, had portrayed Jackie's wife Rachel in The Jackie Robinson Story.

Which was, incidentally, the only previous film that attempted to treat Robinson's life in a serious way. Well, semi-seriously; in a sense the movie was a giant stunt, because Jackie Robinson was portrayed by ... Jackie Robinson. This was in 1950, and Robinson received $50,000 and a (supposed) share of future profits. The budget was $300,000, the shooting schedule one month, and the result wasn't exactly a towering cinematic achievement. Robinson's acting -- and oddly, sometimes even his walking -- was terribly stiff, and the Branch Rickey-vetted script is strictly by the numbers; the single-digit numbers, at that.

The budget was $300,000, the shooting schedule one month, and the result wasn't exactly a towering cinematic achievement.

There are some affecting scenes, though, however contrived, with allusions to the prejudices Robinson faced while in the minors and in the majors. The legendary meeting between Rickey and Robinson, with Rickey testing Robinson's willingness and ability to take the abuse he would surely endure upon breaking the Color Line, is done about as well as possible. And it's clear that Jackie's older brother Mack, a silver medalist in the 1936 Summer Olympics, had few professional opportunities because of his skin color.

The movie ends ... well, oddly. In 1949, Robinson had been "invited" to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, essentially to repudiate a suggestion by singer and activist Paul Robeson that black Americans might not be willing to fight in a war against the Soviet Union. Robinson handled the situation about as gracefully as he could have, and Rickey and his minions decided to conclude the film with a recreation of Robinson's testimony ...

I know that life in these United States can be mighty tough for people who are a little different from the majority. I'm not fooled because I've had a chance open to very few Negro-Americans. But I do know that democracy works for those who are willing to fight for it, and I'm sure it's worth defending. I can't speak for all 15 million Americans; no one can. But I am certain that I, and other Americans of many races and faiths, have too much invested in our country's welfare to throw it away, or to let it be taken from us.

Behind him, strains of "America the Beautiful" and images of the Statue of Liberty. In his actual testimony, Robinson continued with a nod to religious freedom, and a vow to continue the fight against racial discrimination without any help from the Communists. It was a pretty good speech, and in his memoir Robinson wrote, "I have never regretted it."*

* But he also wrote, "As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world."

One wonders if he looked back on this scene and just shook his head. Then again, the $50,000 presumably came in handy, considering his salary with the Dodgers had been just $17,500 in the previous season.

According to Arnold Rampersad, Robinson's best biographer, "On the last day [of filming], Jack made it a point to thank in person everyone on the set. Workers inured to the vanity of stars were astonished to see him climb a catwalk to shake hands with an assistant electrician. Then, late for training camp, he hurried to catch a flight to Florida."

Reviewers were kind to the movie; The New York Times even praised Robinson's "solid, aggressive performance." The bar was set pretty low in those days, I guess. It's a lot of fun to see Jackie Robinson walking and talking and batting for 70 minutes, but even the baseball scenes aren't dramatic or realistic. What did the public think? Rampersad:

The Jackie Robinson Story proved to be one of the more successful sports movies of the era, although the response at the box office was uneven and unpredictable. In Manhattan and even in Brooklyn, as well as in large cities such as Baltimore, Boston, and Washington, ticket sales fell well below expectations. But in Detroit and Chicago, in California and in Canada, and in many smaller midwestern towns, long lines formed to buy tickets. In the often mysterious way of Hollywood accounting, Jack made little additional money from the movie. However, almost fifty years later it had become both a period piece from Hollywood's darker days and a fascinating memento of a genuine American hero portraying himself on the silver screen.

Rampersad's right: The Jackie Robinson Story is both of those things. A compelling movie, it's not. But maybe that's just me; if you like, you can see everything for yourself ...