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.



The film's working titles were Dark Challenge and The Challenge. Orchestrator Sid Cutner's name is misspelled in the opening credits. Fireball was the first film made by Thor Productions, Inc., which was owned by Bert Friedlob and Tay Garnett. According to Garnett's autobiography, producer Friedlob owned the International Roller Speedway and wanted to make a film featuring it. Garnett's book implies that the film's skating sequences were shot during a tour of the Roller Speedway to Guam and Manila but a HR news item of 28 Nov 1949 reported that production was starting that day in San Diego. According to documents in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Arts--Special Collections Library, a building in Balboa Park, San Diego may have been used for the skating sequences through mid-Dec 1949. Other interior sequences were shot at Motion Picture Center Studios in Jan 1950. In the Var review, actor Kenneth Begley is listed as Bert Begley. Actor Glenn Corbett made his motion picture debut in the film.

The Roller Derby originated in the mid-1930s and consisted of separate teams of men and women attempting to pass each other, on a banked track, to win points. These roller skating "exhibitions" which, under different names and franchises, were characterized by staged fights and other sensationalized, fan-oriented antics, became a staple of early television programming and were popular into the 1970s.


At the St. Luke's Home for Boys, Father O'Hara realizes that orphan Johnny Casar's deliquency is due to the fact that the other boys tease him for being too short and unathletic. When the priest confronts him, Johnny promptly runs away from the home.

He soon finds a pair of roller skates and is befriended by Bruno Crystal, who allows him to wash dishes at his café. The next morning, policemen track Johnny from the parking lot where he spent the night to the café. They report his whereabouts to Father O'Hara, who tells Bruno that Johnny's running away took a kind of courage the boy previously did not have.

After the priest asks Bruno to keep an eye on Johnny, Bruno offers him steady work and a place to stay. Later, Johnny visits the local skating rink for free lessons. There, he meets instructor Mack Miller, who is a champion speed skater and a bully.

Mary Reeves, another champion and instructor, rescues Johnny from Miller's teasing and encourages him to participate in the races that are being held on the flat rink floor. Enthusiastically, Johnny works out at the rink every morning before reporting to the café.

One night, as Father O'Hara and Bruno watch him race, Johnny allows Miller to push him around on the track and win. The following week, however, Johnny yanks Miller out of the race and slugs him, losing the match but pleasing everyone with his fighting spirit.

Mary then introduces Johnny to Jeff Davis, the owner-manager of the local roller speedway team, the Bears, and tells Johnny that she will soon be leaving on an eight-month tour of the banked track circuit. Johnny attends the first local matches and heckles Miller for three consecutive nights.

Miller asks Davis to have Johnny ejected, but the crowd, charmed by the boy's exuberance, insists that he stay. A half-time interview conducted by the announcer televising the match intensifies the rivalry between Johnny and Miller. Over the next few days, Jeff is flooded with phone calls and letters demanding a race between the two, and a grudge match is arranged.

As Johnny has never skated on a banked track, however, Miller quickly eliminates him by pushing him over the track rail. Thrilled with the sold-out crowd, Jeff stages rematches for each night, and after intensive training with Mary, Johnny finally knocks Miller off the track.

Jeff then invites Johnny to join the Bears, who begin a cross-country tour. Johnny's rough playing wins them the championship, and he is named Athlete of the Year. Fame quickly swells his head, however, and Jeff tells him that he is making a "chump" of himself carousing around and not training. At a party, Johnny, whose teammates now hate him, makes a fool of himself. Although Mary, who secretly loves him, defends him, she then storms out when he makes an offhanded pass at her.

At the international championships, Johnny and Miller are skating together when, in his zeal to win at any cost, Johnny deliberately knocks Miller down, causing a dangerous pile-up of all the other skaters. The fans, Father O'Hara and Jeff are disgusted with his lack of sportsmanship, but become concerned when he later collapses.

Johnny is diagnosed with polio and begins a long program of physical therapy. Months later, discouraged with his lack of progress, he contemplates suicide, but visits from Father O'Hara and Mary inspire him to recover. Some time later, when Father O'Hara brings him to a match in a wheelchair, the team and the crowd give him an ovation.

Eventually, after years of therapy, Johnny visits the rink one night and tries to skate again in the darkened arena. Although he at first falls, Jeff, Father O'Hara and Mary are there to cheer him on. Soon, Jeff reinstates him on the team for that year's international matches. The crowd's adulation immediately transforms Johnny into the same cocky player he had been before his fall, and when Father O'Hara asks him to help a young skater make his mark, Johnny spurns him. During the match, however, the priest's earlier admonition that he should return some of the kindness shown to him during his illness sinks in, and he helps the rookie to score, to the delight of both Father O'Hara and Mary.

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