If you’re a hockey fan, it follows that you also watch hockey films, and that you also wish there were more quality films with hockey at their core. The brawl-tastic Slap Shot (1977) is a de rigueur hockey cinema citation, ditto 2004’s soul-enlivening Miracle. If you ever went to hockey camp sometime in the years before those two films you probably watched a lot of Youngblood, which is so very 1980s, and kind of like a steamier, romance novel version of Slap Shot with a dude doing something on a penalty shot that I’m pretty sure has to be a giant rules violation but is kept in for dramatic purposes anyway.
If you really know your stuff you might be familiar with The Boys on the Bus, a 1987 documentary about the Edmonton Oilers, which follows Wayne, Mess, Kurri, Anderson and Coffey around, and then there’s the television docudrama Miracle on Ice from 1981 with Karl Malden as Herb Brooks, and the Soviets coming back to tie the game, then add five more goals late to vanquish the would-be U.S. miracle and unleash one of their own. That’s not true. But Karl Malden is in it, and it’s pretty stiff. Best seen once, and then not again.
But what about some hockey films that are pretty damn good, which won’t pop up on any hockey films syllabus, not that anyone makes hockey film syllabi? Turns out we have two from 80 years ago, which are well worth your time, for an assortment of reasons. To be clear: these are not masterworks of cinema that, when dragged out into the open, will give Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks or F.W. Murnau pause. Those guys can rest easy. But let’s call these two films part of the sports film taxi squad, gripping little works—and I mean little, as both clock in around an hour—that sprinkle in some worthy thrills. Not front row thrills, perhaps, but good, solid mezzanine thrills.
First we have Idol of the Crowds, which was directed by Arthur Lubin, who tended not to go the sports route. He’s probably best known for Buck Privates and Hold that Ghost, Abbott and Costello films from 1941 that number among the duo’s finest, and 1943’s Phantom of the Opera, an ambitious—for it is part musical—take on that horror warhorse from Universal, back when Universal was pumping out terror classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. And then there was The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) with Don Knotts, which you happen upon at some point or other if you’re a kid, or you once did, anyway—like when a grade school teacher got bored, or too depressed over her love life to teach that day, and wheeled out the TV and said, “Here, watch this.”
But here’s the real appeal of Idol of the Crowds: it stars John Wayne. As a chicken farmer. Who needs money. And who therefore suits up for a hockey club, because chicken farming John Wayne used to be a great hockey player, and, what do you know, he’s still pretty damn great. He’s committed to his teammates, only now those teammates are more of the agrarian, clucking variety.
I’m sure no one has ever said this about this film, because if you watch it you’re probably either a hockey nut or a John Wayne nut and likely not a film noir nut—noir being that style that would dominate the 1940s, with rain-soaked nighttime streets, would-be heroes that become guaranteed fall guys, and femme fatales—but this is proto-noir. Totally not what you’d expect as a film historian.
Wayne is like a movie dry run for Maurice Richard. Same type of build, actually. He was not yet a star, nor a great actor at this point. And say what you will about Wayne and the associations that tend to dog him around—that he was just this “howdy partner” drawling big galoot atop a horse—but the man was a damn fine thespian in the end. It wasn’t you or I who could have just rolled out of bed and been Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), one of the dozen or so set-apart masterpieces of the medium. The hockey scenes have the quality of folk art, like some over-exuberant hockey parents have gotten close to ice level to capture the action. There’s a woman up to no good, mobsters crowding in on Wayne’s post-retirement return to the rink, and a nice little edge, frankly, with a camera that Lubin likes to keep moving.
This is two years before Wayne would make Stagecoach with John Ford, his first movie that we can safely say will always be around. The young Orson Welles, upon being lured to Hollywood to make movies and leave his radio and theatre career in NYC behind for the time being, screened Stagecoach 100 times in an effort to master the visual vocabulary of cinema. Let’s just say he manage to master that as easily as Michael Jordan got the hang for hang time.
Welles married the actress Rita Hayworth in 1943, and she’d go on to star in what might be the weirdest noir of all, 1947’s The Lady from Shanghai, which Welles directed, and which Hollywood rejected as too messed up and in awful taste, thus kicking his career back to the minor leagues for the latest installment of what would be umpteen times. It’s an awesome film, though.
And so isn’t it odd, then, that we have Hayworth, before she knew Welles, before, again, there even was film noir, in a 1937 hockey film that anticipates noir called The Game that Kills? What manner of madness is this? And that title—that’s the stuff. Unless, say, you are the ghost of Ben Chapman, and then it is not. Then it is very upsetting. You almost expect Humphrey Bogart to be cracking laconically wise in a film with that name, but instead it’s about a player named Alex Ferguson—no relation to the Manchester United coach—whose brother dies during a game, which our hero thinks is no accident at all.
It’s a story straight out of the pre-War pulps, with so much of the gambit resting on that initial concept. Actually, Stephen King tends to write like this, where the starting premise/idea is almost always better than the overall effect. Ferguson, handily, can play hockey at a high level, so he joins the team and goes undercover to root out his brother’s killer.
Now, maybe you went undercover in similar fashion during your pee-wee days to drill some romantic rival through the boards—ah, the sweet release of launching a person off their feet—and can empathize, but here’s betting that the coach’s daughter—shades of Youngblood!—was no Rita Hayworth. Like Wayne, she’s also still finding her way as an actor, but she has the enigmatic portion of her persona locked down, and it’s that portion that is going to serve her well into the next couple of decades.
Will these films serve you well? Look, they’re not going to make you barrel over the boards to screen them again and again, but what films do? I think of them as chip-and-chase films: sit down with them and give their shared style a chance, and some rewards are bound to come your way. They’re like the movie versions of a dirty goal. No, not the dirty movie versions. Though now you’re thinking like a noir anti-hero.