Some 63 years before “42: The Jackie Robinson Story” was released, there was the original “The Jackie Robinson Story.” How do the two films compare?
Jackie as himself. The original 1950 film starred Jackie Robinson playing himself. This gave the film great authenticity, especially when Jackie stood in the batter’s box, swung the bat, ran the bases or fielded the ball. Of course, no other actor portraying him could provide the voice or mannerisms as he can. The 1950 film was also done only three years after Robinson broke into baseball, so all the scenery in the background was real and natural, even without trying. It wasn’t hard finding 1947-model cars when the year was 1950.
Branch Rickey. Both Minor Watson in the original and Harrison Ford in “42” gave strong performances as Branch Rickey, the cigar-smoking Dodgers executive who fought entrenched racism in baseball to bring about integration. In fact Ford should be nominated for an Oscar for his performance.
Rae Robinson. In both films Jackie Robinson’s wife Rachel, called Rae, is vibrant, beautiful and very supportive. Sitting in the stands, she is forced to listen to the taunts and insults directed at Robinson, and it is easy to recognize her as a third hero alongside Robinson and Rickey.
The insults and harassment. The first film offers an almost sanitized look at the threats and racial taunts Robinson had to endure as he broke baseball’s color barrier. The 1950 film does show incidents when Robinson was playing for Montreal in the Dodgers’ minor-league farm chain. Among the illustrations is a fan throwing a black cat onto the field that Robinson embraces and takes into the dugout; a fan showing up with a shoe-shine kit and asking Robinson for a shine, and a fan eating a watermelon and calling Robinson “Sambo.”
The earlier film used the n-word only once. The “42” version, on the other hand, is gratuitous in its use of the n-word, especially through the vile taunting of Robinson by Ben Chapman, the Phillies’ manager. Chapman utters the n-word dozens of times and spews some of the most hate-filled taunts of the entire film. The “42” version also showed the intentional beaning of Robinson by a Pirates pitcher that leads to a dugout-clearing brawl, and the spiking of Robinson by future Hall of Famer Enos “Country” Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals. The 2013 picture also showed how Robinson had to endure racist teammates like Dixie Walker who made him feel unwelcome in the dugout. Branch Rickey showed Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese some of the hate mail Robinson had received, and this leads to Reese putting an arm of support around Robinson when he was being taunted by fans in Cincinnati, near Reese’s hometown of Louisville. This is one of the best scenes in the film.
Length of film. The “42” version ran 128 minutes, or a little over two hours. The original was 77 minutes, or under one and a half hours. The extra time allowed the “42” picture to develop other characters. They included Wendell Smith, an African American sportswriter for the “Pittsburgh Courier” who eventually became the first black to join the Baseball Writers Association of America; Reese, the white Southerner from Louisville and leader of the Brooklyn Dodgers who befriended Robinson; and Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager who never got to manage Robinson because he was suspended for off-the-field conduct detrimental to baseball’s image.
Jackie Robinson in college. The first film devotes some time to Jackie’s college exploits, where he starred in football, basketball and track as well as baseball. The later film bypasses this chapter of his life.
Robinson speaking before Congress. The earlier version of the film ends with Robinson giving testimony before the U.S. Congress, where, despite all the abuse he has taken, he defends the U.S. and its democracy. The later film does not have this.
As befitting the times, the earlier version was more sentimental than the “42” version. The 2013 picture was more realistic, especially in depicting the hatred directed at Robinson during his rookie year. Some things are identical in both films such as when Robinson asks, “Do you want a ballplayer who doesn’t have the guts enough to fight back?” and Rickey retorts, “I want a ballplayer with the guts enough not to fight back.” They are both excellent films, but “42” has a broader scope. And of course advances in technology allow the 2013 version to have superior picture quality and detail than the original version.
“The Jackie Robinson Story,” Good Times Home Video, VHS, 1950, 1986
“42: The Jackie Robinson Story,” Warner Brothers Pictures, DVD, 2013