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Film / Knute Rockne, All American

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Knute Rockne, All-American is a 1940 film directed by Lloyd Bacon and an uncredited William K. Howard, starring Pat O'Brien, Gale Page, Donald Crisp, and Ronald Reagan.

It is a Biopic of legendary college football coach Knute Rockne (O'Brien), who built the Notre Dame Fighting Irish into a football dynasty. Rockne emigrates to America with his Norwegian family as a child, then as a young adult he works until he has enough money to attend the University of Notre Dame. Rockne plays on the football team as a receiver, and he and quarterback Gus Dorais popularize the use of the forward pass when they use it to upset Army in 1913.

Rockne graduates from school, shows promise as a chemist, and actually teaches chemistry at Notre Dame for a while, but his love for football eventually leads him to take the job of head coach of the Fighting Irish football team. Rockne builds the Irish, formerly a rather small-scale program, into a national power, and invents the "Notre Dame box", a highly successful offensive formation. One of his best players is George Gipp (Reagan), who becomes an All-American and a huge star before meeting a tragic end.

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Ronald Reagan appears for only ten minutes and three scenes as Gipp, but became strongly associated with the character, even more so when he went into politics and people started calling him "the Gipper". Latter-day releases of that movie have Reagan featured much more prominently than the actual star, Pat O'Brien.


Tropes:

  • As You Know: Used many times to get exposition across. After Pop Warner says something to Rockne, one of the other coaches says "Pop Warner is right!"
  • Autobiographical Role: Real Life college football coaches Glenn "Pop" Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Howard Jones, and Bill Spaulding appear as themselves in a scene where they join up with Rockne to defend college football from a Congressional inquiry.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: While much of the portrait of Rockne's life is fanciful, the iconic "win one for the Gipper" halftime speech is more or less accurate, based on a real speech that Rockne gave to his team at halftime of the 1928 game against Army. Gipp's death scene in which he delivers the line to Rockne is also dramatized. Rockne made the whole speech up in 1928 as a Motivational Lie; Gipp never said any such thing and Rockne wasn't even there when Gipp died.
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  • Eureka Moment: Rockne gets the idea for his "Notre Dame box" offense while watching the movements of ballet dancers at a performance.
  • Exact Words: Rockne's doctor, worried about Rockne's phlebitis, says "You don't move out of that bed. Those are orders." In the next scene Rockne is coaching Notre Dame practice from a bed on the sidelines.
  • Football Fight Song: The Real Life Notre Dame "Victory March" is prominently featured throughout.
  • Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee: Rockne winds up testifying in front of a Congressional committee that is investigating "professionalism" in college football. He winds up giving a passionate speech in defense of football as being both good for academics and good for the moral character of the players.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The movie's version of the lives of Rockne and Gipp is just a teensy bit idealized.
    • Knute Rockne is pictured as throwing a gambler out of his office. The real Rockne wrote a column in which he gave advice to football gamblers, and is known to have tolerated his players gambling on his own team. In the movie, Rockne angrily denies not making players go to class, while in fact the real Rockne never bothered to make George Gipp attend classes (see below). The movie is quite vague about why Rockne took his fatal plane trip, saying only that he was going to "help" some people; the real Rockne was on his way to LA to sign a movie deal when his plane crashed.
    • George Gipp was a pool hustler. He drank copious amounts of alcohol; his death from strep throat came not long after he spent a whole night passed out drunk in the winter snow. Gipp was one of the players who regularly bet on Notre Dame games. His attendance record was so poor that he twice received no academic credits for an entire year, and he was briefly kicked out of school for skipping classes, only to be re admitted because he was such a great football player. Ronald Reagan, of course, portrayed Gipp as a fresh-faced paragon of virtuous youth.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Rockne barks at his players that "I haven't got any use for anybody who won't take instructions." This is after he's come to a practice in direct defiance of his doctor's orders.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: George Gipp coughs. In the next scene, he croaks.
  • Law of Conservation of Detail: Even if a viewer didn't know how Knute Rockne died, it wouldn't take a genius to figure it out after a scene near the end of the movie gives inordinate attention to Rockne's routine plane flight to Los Angeles.
  • Married to the Job: Rockne is all about football 24/7/365. His wife Bonnie (Gale Page) complains that they never get to take a vacation and the players eat all the food in her fridge.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: 7-year-old Rockne leaving Norway and arriving in America with his family, and learning the game of football, before the film cuts to Rockne as an adult working at the Post Office.
  • Not Afraid to Die: George Gipp, who says "what's tough about this?" right after receiving the Last Rites.
  • Psychic Link: Rockne's wife Bonnie gets a chill at the moment that Rockne's plane is crashing.
  • Rousing Speech: The iconic "win one for the Gipper" speech given by Rockne when Notre Dame went into halftime losing to Army in 1928. It's actually rather subdued as delivered by Rockne, but it succeeds in motivating the team to come from behind and win.
  • Spinning Paper: Portrayed in classic style, with newspaper headlines delivering exposition by zooming up to the camera and, yes, sometimes spinning. (The first paper to announce Rockne's death spins.)
  • Stock Footage: Of various Notre Dame football games, and always noticeable as it is significantly grainier than the rest of the movie.
  • Time Passes Montage: Several. Rockne's years working at a post office are symbolized by a montage of stamps postmarked with progressively later dates.
  • Verbal Irony: When young Knute is accepting a job as lab assistant to the chemistry professor, he says "Father, you don't think I'd be crazy enough to take on coaching as a lifework, do you?"
  • Win One for the Gipper: Trope Maker, or Trope Codifier if one considers Rockne's original (made-up) story the Trope Maker. Also a case of Beam Me Up, Scotty!, as the line delivered by both Gipp and Rockne is "win just one for the Gipper."
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