Up until today, the only film starring John Wayne that I had seen in its entirety was Sands of Iwo Jima (in an undergraduate class on World War II films). His likeness is virtually synonymous with the Western genre and I have never seen one of them in whole. The only reason I’ve acquired a second J. Wayne experience is because I recently discovered that he was in a football movie called Trouble Along the Way (1953).
Directed by Michael Curtiz and produced and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, Trouble Along the Way is one part father-daughter and one part save-our-school-through-football. The back of the DVD provides the following plot synopsis:
According to new coach Steve Williams, his football team “couldn’t whip Vassar at tiddlywinks.” Clearly he must recruit a new team…fast! John Wayne tackles the role of Williams, a big galoot of a coach with a bigger heart when it comes to his young daughter (Sherry Jackson). Williams has been banned from the major conferences and is making ends meet as an oddsmaker. Then tiny St. Anthony’s College calls.
For St. Anthony and its likable Father Burke (Charles Coburn), Williams is a last resort to make the school profitable by establishing a top football program. For Williams, it’s a way to prove to a Children’s Court officer (Donna Reed) that he’s a fit parent. It’s a sporting match made in heaven. With some Trouble Along the Way…
The synopsis leaves out two important contextual factors: 1. Father Burke, St. Anthony’s rector, pursues the profit of football in order to save his school from closing by paying off a $170,000 debt to the province. 2. Steve Williams wouldn’t have anything to prove to anyone if his former wife Anne (Marie Windsor) hadn’t filed a complaint against him. He apparently hasn’t allowed her to see their daughter Carol for five years. The film establishes the narrative goals and quite a bit of characters’ traits within twelve or so minutes. Specifically, Father Burke’s farsightedness is an indicator of aging that is not tolerated by its “wearer;” Steve likes to liquor up and is content to leave football well alone.
Once the two men’s lives become intermingled, the story shifts a degree to focus on the relationship between Carol and her father (whom she refers to as “Steve” rather than “dad,” “father,” or even “pops”–she calls him “coach” near the end of the film). Thematically, holding up his end of the bargain ($3,000 a year and room and board) would effectively validate Steve’s abilities as a parent. In terms of the plot, though, that metaphoric leap is not so strongly suggested. I saw the football more as Steve doing what he set out to do, trying not to go back on his word. Perhaps I was stuck on the gender role question that Alice Singleton, the child services’ agent, represents: is a father any more or less qualified than the mother to be sole caregiver of a young girl? Why must a young girl have pink dresses and hats that she can’t wear when she plays?
There is, however, a link between football and Steve’s initial reluctance to accept the coaching job at St. Anthony’s. When John Wayne first appears on screen, looking the part of a private investigator, he is shooting pool. Father Burke makes his offer and Steve responds with the following monologue:
I’ve been kicked out of the Big Ten, the Ivy League, and the Southern Conference. They wouldn’t even let me coach at Alcatraz…Oh, it’s a fine game, football. Noble game. Originated in England in 1823 by an enterprising young man named William Webb Ellis who studied for the ministry, by the way. He found his team behind in a soccer game, so he picked up the ball…and ran through the amazed opponents for a thoroughly illegal touchdown. And that’s how football was born. Illegitimately. So it moved to America where someone took advantage of a loophole in the rules and invented a little formation called the flying wedge.
So many young men were maimed and killed by this clever maneuver that President Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, had to call the colleges together and ask them to make the game less brutal. He was, of course, defeated in the next election. In spite of this setback, football became an industry. Price of a good running back often surpasses the salary of a professor. And when some righteous committee unearthed this well-known fact, it was always the coach who took it on the chin. I just got tired of picking myself up.
The film later reveals that–spoilers ahead, highlight at your own discretion–Steve has not permitted Anne to see Carol because one night when his players were beating the other team, he suddenly went home and found another man in the living room. He kicked them both out. While Steve was dealing with this particular sight, he could hear his team wining on the radio. Although the thought of football does not appear to cause him distress, an association was formed those years ago between something he loved and something he couldn’t love anymore. Towards the end of the film, he confronts Anne and tells her that she stopped wanting their daughter two months after she was born–to which Anne responded that he stopped wanting her at about the same time.
The first image of football in the film is a close-up of Father Burke’s hands holding a book called Football for Beginners by Buck Holman. “Marlow’s Sports Equipment” is on the back flap. Holman (James Flavin, uncredited) is a coach at Morningside University and turns down Burke’s coaching offer. St. Anthony’s can only pay “very little in cash but a lot in gratitude and appreciation” (as opposed to the $25,000 Holman gets at Morningside; he recommends Steve Williams, “the only man…within [Burke's] price range.”
There are three practice sequences and one montage that covers practices fourth through seven (June through September). Most of the actual drills are in the third practice and the montage sequence. The one game sequence is between St. Anthony’s and Santa Clara and takes place at the Polo Grounds. The field goal post was more of an “H” than a “U” on a stick, but the game-play looked oddly similar to contemporary televised football (the shots, the angles, the movement of the camera). Much of the high-angle imagery looked like archival footage.
Even though I decided to get Trouble Along the Way on account of the football, I ended up enjoying the non-football segments much more. In fact, removing the sport in theme and story (effectively the St. Anthony’s context as well), the film reminds me of Paper Moon…or vice versa. The film’s ending left me feeling a bit squinty. I liked it the way it was–Miss Singleton takes Carol to child services because Anne’s case against Steve is being reconsidered; Father Burke steps down from the rector position and tells Steve that there’s still another season as football coach if it’s desired, and the two of them walk off onto the campus and away from the main buildings. It ended as an open text. One could imagine the characters continuing to exist after the fade to black.
The film’s poster is worth a small spotlight. John Wayne towers over Donna Reed, who is smiling but is also trying to fight him off. Between their arms and hands, there’s practically a “holding” and “personal foul.”
Watch the trailer of Trouble Along the Way here.
According to IMDB’s trivia section, “Several Loyola-Marymount football players played in the football scenes.”
Read more about the film’s production here.
The owner of a blog called Double Down 11 brought to my attention that there aren’t many futbol entries here. I gave basketball a proper try and rather liked it…I’ll give futbol a couple more proper go’s.
And before I go, Eat your Coney Island.