Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Fireball

Kerskuri / Johnny gör sensation. US © 1950 renewed © 1977 Twentieth Century-Fox. PC: A Thor Production (Bert E. Friedlob Productions). P: Bert E. Friedlob. D: Tay Garnett. SC: Horace McCay - based on an original story by Tay Garnett and Horace McCoy. DP: Lester White. AD: Van Nest Polglase. Makeup: Ed Voight. Hair: Agnes Flanagan. M: Victor Young. S: William R. Fox. ED: Frank Sullivan. Studio: Motion Picture Center Studios (Hollywood). Loc: Guam (according to IMDb whatever that may mean); Temple Street (Los Angeles, CA, Johnny's downhill ride). C: Mickey Rooney (Johnny Casar), Pat O'Brien (Father O'Hara), Beverly Tyler (Mary Reeves), introducing Glenn Corbett (not the better known G.C.) (Mack Miller), James Brown (Allan), Marilyn Monroe (Polly), Ralph Dumke (Bruno Crystal), Milburn Stone (Jeff Davis), Bert Begley (Shilling), Sam Flint (Dr. Barton), John Hedloe (Ullman). 2292 m / 84 min. Premiere: 16.8.1950. Finnish premiere: 22.12.1950. A WB Archive Collection dvd, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Warner Home Video 2010. Viewed at home, in Helsinki, 12 May 2012.

Synopsis: Johnny (Mickey Rooney) escapes from Father O'Hara's (Pat O'Brien) orphanage, stumbles at a pair of roller skates found in a waste basket, experiences a dangerous downhill ride, gets a job as a dish-washer at a diner, discovers a roller skating rink, gets free lessons from a skating master, Mary Reeves (Beverly Tyler), and becomes a champion. He enjoys the wild life, becomes arrogant, and falls ill with polio, but Mary helps him get well again. At the comeback roller derby Johnny helps a young member of his team win instead of thinking about his own performance, winning Father O'Hara's trust and Mary's love.

There is a media aspect in the movie, with television exposure important for celebrity.

A Mickey Rooney vehicle based on a true story (see beyond the jump break), changed thoroughly to create a conventional sport star's rise-and fall-and rise again movie. Mickey Rooney truly is a fireball of electrifying energy, and he carries the picture. The experienced sports reporter Horace McCoy (there is a meta joke as Horace McCoy's byline in a column titled The Outlook appears in one of the montages) brings a dimension of authenticity to the picture, and there is a no-nonsense drive in Tay Garnett's direction. A montage sequence crystallizes Johnny's rise to stardom. A much more startling and interesting montage sequence charts Johnny's pain and suffering in rehabilitation as he has to learn everything again like a baby. There are visions, nightmares and dreams during Johnny's invalid period.

Not a masterpiece like The Lusty Men, but there is something of the same gritty sense of reality in The Fireball. The documentary sequences from the roller derbies and Johnny's ride down Temple Street are exciting.

Not an important Marilyn Monroe movie, but there is a Monroe connection in the orphanage in which the movie starts. "I don't even know if Casar is my real name", Johnny tells the tv reporter. "I'm just a kid left on the doorstep of somebody's home." It's part of Mickey Rooney's talent that he makes us realize that Johnny himself is a victim of his terrible character and that his greatest victory is that he transcends himself.

From the IMDb I learn that The Fireball was constantly seen on U.S. tv in the 1950s. In Finland it hasn't been seen since the premiere 62 years ago. Thanks to my American relatives I got to see this movie at last. The image is clean and the visual quality satisfactory.
Missed the point of my father's struggle, 17 May 2007
Author: Jerod Poore from Crossroads of No and Where

I'm one of the sons of the man on whose life this movie is based. Here are a few points that were different in the picture: My father skated under the name Eddie Cazar. One of his teammates was Johnny Cazar. If this movie is a hybrid of the two Cazars' lives, someone will have to fill in the details on Johnny.

My father was not an orphan. His Irish Catholic mother did leave him in order to take up with a French-Canadian Jewish gangster. Thus Eddie was left in the benignly neglectful care of my backwoods paternal grandfather. Either it was easier just to orphan him in the Hollywood version or being an orphan was part of Johnny's story.

My father was close to six feet tall, from the pictures I've seen I recall Johnny Cazar as being kind of tall himself. Mickey Rooney: not tall. Granted Mr. Rooney could do many of his own skating stunts, so maybe that's why he got the part.

The extent of the polio was seriously downplayed, which is the entire freaking point of the movie! Polio was a big deal back then, and they really gloss over it. It really belittles my father's struggle and accomplishment. You get a montage of treatments, including brief scenes of Mickey Rooney in an iron lung, and that's about it. No massive weight loss, no being rendered mute and having his vocal cords removed, no long time spent in that iron lung; just a little paralysis, no big whoop. It was just like a bad 'flu or something. They should have treated it more like the war injuries were in "The Best Years of Our Lives." Maybe that would have been too expensive or something. Of course it makes his comeback for one final season of skating all the less spectacular. In a way my father was the Earvin Johnson of the era, having the illness everyone feared the most, yet managing to fight back and still participate in a hugely popular sport.

The treatment of his rise from street skater to rollerderby star is close enough for a '50s era family movie. I.e. not enough sex and no drugs. That's true for both Cazars.

Real life is a lot more complex than reel life. His fall a lot harder, his climb up a lot harder, his triumph a lot more amazing, but it took a hell of a lot longer for redemption.

So do check out this movie, it is a glimpse into a nearly forgotten popular culture and plague. Even if it is a watered down look into one man's life or two men's conflated lives.

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