'Roughness' is latest in line of films tackling football's dark side


September 29, 1991|By Allen Barra | Allen Barra,New York Times News Service

Paramount Pictures' new comedy, "Necessary Roughness," has a story line as new as last week's Sports Illustrated: a pair of college football coaches, stung by National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions against their team, set out to clean up the program and return the game to amateurs.

Given the rampant professionalism of modern college football, one is hard-pressed to decide whether the coaches' task comes under the category of comedy or science fiction.

But "Necessary Roughness" is more than the latest example of a somewhat arcane and uniquely American genre known as the football movie. Instead, it marks another departure from the genre's origins as a rah-rah reflection of the sport's glories. Increasingly over the last two decades, filmmakers have seen football as a reflection of the darker, more violent side of the American char- acter.

Not surprisingly, this revised perspective coincided with the growing popularity of professional football. By the mid-1960s, fans realized that both the college and the professional game were big business.

And they had read enough about off-the-field scandals, like the 1963 heroin-induced death of the star tackle Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb of the Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, to know that football's alleged character-building qualities were dubious at best.

"The game of football is portrayed a lot more realistically on film than it used to be," says Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films, the official film company of the National Football League.

"Today's fan has seen hundreds of games on TV, so you've got to give him something more convincing." And in some cases, even more than convincing: In films like "The Longest Yard" (1974) and "Semi-Tough" (1977), football appears to exceed its actual violence.

Most early football movies, starting with "Brown at Harvard" in 1921, were firmly lodged in the B-movie category, intended for regional audiences and churned out like sausage links in the 1920s and '30s and even after World War II. Their plots, according to the author and sports historian Bert Randolph Sugar, "were invariably contained in their titles" -- "The Spirit of Notre Dame," "One Minute to Play," "Two Minutes to Glory."

For the most part, the attitude of these films toward religion, family, teamwork and the Old College Try is exemplified by perhaps the best-known specimen of the genre and one of the few pegged to a national audience, "Knute Rockne, All-American" (1940), starring Pat O'Brien and Ronald Reagan.

The America that it and other such films depicted was one in which football built character (or at least hones what was already the finest in the American character), where virtually any skinny bookworm with guts is capable of coming out of the stands to drop-kick a game-winning 60-yard field goal, and where white youngsters of various ethnic backgrounds can forget their differences and pull together when the chips are down (the football teams of the 1930s movies graduated to become the bomber crews of the 1940s war films).

Spoofing the genre

Of course, not all early film makers swallowed this myth whole. Harold Lloyd's "Freshman" (1925) turned the melodramatic football films of the '20s upside down and was, by some accounts, the decade's highest-grossing comedy.

Aficionados still argue as to which is funnier, Lloyd's or the big Darwin vs. Huxley match in "Horse Feathers," where Chico Marx barks out signals like "hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, this time I thinka we go uppa da middle. Hike!"

The films that Lloyd and the Marxes spoofed have been mostly forgotten -- viewers can't laugh now in recognition of the conventions they satirized -- but they can still laugh, because it is obvious that something sacred is being trashed. "Horse Feathers" (1932) opens with Groucho Marx, as college dean John Quincy Wagstaff, asking his staff: "Do we have a university? Do we have a football stadium? Well, we can't afford both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the university."

In a later scene, Groucho sneaks into a gin mill to try to buy football players for his school's sagging program. "How dare you suggest," he tells his son (Zeppo) in a tone of righteous indignation, "that I, a college dean, look for football players in a speakeasy -- without even telling me where it is?" All the recent books on the scandals of college football seem like a series of footnotes to "Horse Feathers."

Fracturing the image

In the coming years, the players who made their way into films were more primitive as actors than the earlier stars. Heroes-turned-movie actors such as Alabama's Johnny Mack Brown (who became a star in westerns) and Red Grange of the University of Illinois (who played a football player in films with titles like "Racing Romeo" and "The Galloping Ghost") were clean-cut amateurs who reflected All-American qualities.

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