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The Stratton Story

The James Stewart Signature Collection

Believe it or don't, but Jimmy Stewart rarely played country bumpkins, despite his popular persona, which has been etched forever into movie history. In fact, Stewart spent most of his career playing rough-and-tumble cowboys (The Naked Spur), rebellious intellectuals (The Philadelphia Story, Rear Window), and educated gentlemen (Anatomy of a Murder, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). Nonetheless, Stewart's midwestern drawl and all-American charm, combined with his breakout role in Frank Capra's 1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, caused him to be typecast in the public's imagination far more than in his actual filmography. Sam Woods' 1949 The Stratton Story is one of the exceptions to the rule — Stewart actually does play a simple country boy with good manners, little sophistication, and one hell of a right arm. Based on true events, Stewart stars as Monty Stratton, a tall Texas lad who lives on a remote farm with his mother (Agnes Moorehead), where he looks after the place in the wake of his father's death. However, Monty also travels frequently into town, where he makes $3 just to pitch a game of baseball, which isn't bad money during the Depression. However, when former major-league catcher Barney Wile (Frank Morgan) sees Monty in action, he immediately recruits the boy, trains him over the winter, and takes him to the Chicago White Sox spring training camp in California. Monty's fortunate on two counts — he makes the team, and he also meets a girl, Ethel (June Allyson). Yet "Country" (as his teammates call him) has a hard time in the majors, and it's only after he's sent down to a minor-league team in Ethel's hometown that he gets on a winning streak and is ready to return to the Sox bullpen. Before long, Monty and Ethel are married and have a child, splitting their time between Chicago and the family's Texas farm. But a freak hunting accident in the off-season forces Monty's right leg to be amputated, apparently bringing his brief, bright baseball career to a sudden end.

The Stratton Story isn't a major film in the Jimmy Stewart catalog, but — as with most of his screen appearances — his mere presence makes it enjoyable and worthwhile. Stewart often blended into roles, making use of his midwestern appeal and tall, lanky frame. Here, that height makes him look every inch a baseball pitcher, just as much as it made him a capable Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (both Lindbergh and Stratton were well over six feet). Stratton's actual story is less dramatic than the filmed version of his life — after losing his leg, he continued working for the White Sox organization as a coach, and he eventually returned to the minor leagues. While the script takes a more dramatic turn after Stratton's accident, it also takes a generous amount of time getting there, allowing us to know Stratton as a young man and rookie ballplayer. Stewart and June Allyson also fill out the proceedings with small, amusing moments — in particular their awkward first date, and later when left-footed Monty shows off his dance steps. Baseball fans will appreciate The Stratton Story simply because the game is prominent (even if the crowded stadiums are rear projections), and several well-known players of the day appear in cameos. Fans of the old black-and-whites can enjoy an Old Hollywood romance, with Stewart and Allyson as charming leads. And movie fans will appreciate the fact that, back in the day, movie theaters featured ushers who actually shushed people who made a racket while a classic Clark Gable film was playing. (Query to baseball fans: Would Stratton have played major-league ball again under today's Designated Hitter Rule? Discuss.)

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Warner's DVD release of The Stratton Story, part of the "James Stewart Signature Collection," features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a splendid, trouble-free black-and-white source-print, while the original monaural audio is clear on a DD 1.0 track. Extras include a 1950 Lux Radio Theater dramatization featuring Stewart, as well as the vintage MGM short "Pest Control" (8 min.) and the Tex Avery animation "Batty Baseball" (6 min.). Keep-case.
—JJB



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