The Case of the Missing Folder: A Two-Part Hollywood Mystery
The Robinsons, the Obamas, and the case of the missing folder: A Two-Part Hollywood Mystery
How “The Jackie Robinson Story” became “42”
“This is the Jackie Robinson story, but it is not his story alone not, his victory alone. It is one that each of us shares. A story of victory that can only happen in a country that is truly free. A country where every child has the opportunity to become president or play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
With those words, the credits rolled to “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a 1950 Hollywood feature film starring Jackie Robinson. With time, many things take on an anachronistic tinge. Others are timeless.
In 2016 President Barack Obama, Jr. hosted the MLB World Champion Chicago Cubs at the White House. It was Martin Luther King Day. Said the first Black President just before the end of his second term: “There’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here.” President Obama’s words were not rhetorical hyperbole. The Jackie Robinson Story’s hopeful monologue, almost fanciful in 1950, came to fruition.
In 2013 First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a student workshop, to discuss the impact of “42,” for which Rachel, then 90, was in attendance. Jack and Rachel’s story was once again brought to life. One of Mrs. Obama’s assistants was a Jackie Robinson Scholar, sent to college with a scholarship from the Jackie Robinson Foundation, Rachel’s living monument to Jackie Robinson’s legacy.
The tale of how “The Jackie Robinson Story,” became “42,” is the story of Robinson’s legacy in life and death; the torch carried by his wife Rachel as the watchful steward of the Robinson cultural inheritance. Jackie Robinson’s legacy is not an accident, as was the case during his lifetime, it was the synthesis of character, ability, work, and fortitude.
Rachel Robinson became a centenarian in 2022. We see less of her, but Jackie’s widow attended the Jackie Robinson Museum’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in late July. It was an edificial culmination of the foundation Rachel started in her husband’s name. Like the foundation, and the movie the Museum’s mission is to educate and inspire. Steel and concrete only add tangible evidence to a living legacy.
Said Obama at the 50th Anniversary of Selma: “We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head and stealing home in the World Series anyway.” The pressure of a firehose was dinner conversation at the Robinson home on Cascade Road. Sharon, the future family scribe, took pride in bringing Selma and Birmingham front and center. David can be seen under Jackie’s arm at a rally, a visual touchstone to say, your children are my children. Jackie’s insistence that he won’t have it made until the poorest sharecropper did wasn’t just fodder. His mother Mallie Robinson trekked West with five children to escape that world.
Jackie Robinson lived his life to impact others, but the family unit was Robinson’s private fiefdom of love. He wasn’t a voluntary martyr. The Robinsons were part of a community, and unflinching activists but home and family came first. Their daughter Sharon wrote multiple books on Jackie Robinson the pioneer. Yet, at home, Jackie Robinson, icon, was Daddy.
The Jackie Robinson Foundation and “42,” were public love letters to Jackie, from Rachel who has now spent half of her life as his widow. Jackie’s first Hollywood story was a reluctant love letter from a husband and father to his family in 1950.
Financial security was always on Jackie’s mind. Money is always a concern when you live on sweet bread and sugar water during the depression. A baseball player made a good living, but he was nobody’s fool. Robinson knew the fleeting nature of sports. The window was short. By the late 1940s, Jackie Robinson’s name had become a marketable commodity and he yearned to make the most of it. After he debuted with Brooklyn, only Bing Crosby was a more universally beloved star. He saw fit to make sure his family had the financial security he never had and wanted for nothing. Jackie’s likeness was everywhere. On shirts, comic books, and games. He ate his Wheaties, sold bread for bread, and toked on Chesterfields. The Noble Experiment had gone mainstream. What is more American than a saleable product?
There was money to be made, or was there? Jackie had, for the good of noble experiment sublimated the fiery ethical cauldron that simmered within. He was establishing a career and had not yet time to establish his voice. Two studios had expressed interest if they could somehow find a White leading man to hold a naïve version of Jackie by the hand and make him baseball’s version of Rochester to Jack Benny or Dooley Wilson at the Piano, dutifully playing “As Time Goes By.” In other words, it was ok to tell Robinson’s story so long as he didn’t have too much agency. There were no Black leading men in Hollywood, long after Black baseball stars like Mays and Aaron followed Robinson.
Then Hollywood came knocking, check-in-hand with an offer Jackie was financially disinclined to refuse. Family security came first. He spent the first years of his career just trying to survive. Literally. Less astute about the pitfalls of professional athletes, the publisher of his first memoir with Wendell Smith, owned the copyright to his story. Enter Branch Rickey and his fixer Arthur Mann, who penned an authorized biography on Jackie, opened the door for Robinson to control his name, and Rickey to shape the narrative. Call it Hollywood imitating life, life imitating art imitating life, or in baseball parlance, déjà vu all over again. Even now the Robinson family steadfastly controls Jackie Robinson’s brand. It might sound cynical, but it’s easy for people to filter Jackie’s story through what it means to them.
As in 1945, Robinson was in the right place at the right time. Robinson had just testified in front of Congress against Paul Robeson’s Communist sympathies. Robinson took the opportunity to give Washington a lecture on race in America, but the White, male body heard what they wanted. Jackie Robinson, an example of American racial virtue, speaks out against the red menace and is thus a great American. With the Cold War simmering, William Heineman and Eagle-Lion Films took a chance on a Jackie Robinson film. From the start, they were scraping together funds. With no obvious choice, Robinson was tapped to star as himself alongside budding star Ruby Dee whose own break came when she appeared with her husband Ossie Davis, as the wife of fellow newcomer Sidney Poitier in No Way Out. Considering Robinson was an athlete by trade with no formal training he put on an admirable if not magnificent showing. Told by all to be himself, it is doubtful Jack the firebrand would ever sheepishly wonder aloud if “they might call me names or beat me up,” among the many racial tropes and anachronisms one can see through a contemporary lens. The budget was low, and the production values were poor, but Jackie received good reviews. Still, it exposed Jackie to a broader audience.
“There was this was raw honesty about Jackie,” said Dee in a 2005 TCM interview. “The Director, we all sensed it and worked with that quality in him…I thought he was thoroughly believable, charming, and wonderful.”
Robinson did insist on a couple of things. He left Rachel with newborn Sharon behind at Cascade Road. That was soon rectified. He also insisted on a part for his former UCLA teammate Kenny Washington, who appeared in the Jackie Robinson Story as a Negro League coach. Washington and Robinson bussed tables at Warner Bros. together in the 1930s. They produced “42.”
“He was considerate and patient and I came to appreciate him as a man as well as a ballplayer during that film,” said Dee in 2005. “I met Rachel his wife and I held their baby.”
The Jackie Robinson Story was a movie that reflected its time. In many ways it was uplifting, it couldn’t be anything else. Still, he’s called boy multiple times. Branch Rickey, in his 60s, called all his young players boys, but never demeaned Jackie, with the connotation Minor Watson’s Rickey did on screen. Robinson’s industrious mother Mallie was portrayed with all the stereotypical tropes by Louise Beaver, television’s Beulah.
The film concludes with a dramatic postscript depicting Jackie’s 1949 testimony before Congress and an homage to patriotism and finally the narrator’s speech about Jackie’s victory. Jackie grappled with his patriotism throughout the rest of his life. The veteran was proud of his son’s service in Vietnam but later admitted he could no longer salute the American flag that dominated the 1950 film’s dramatic montage.
Dee said had she met Rachel before taping, she would’ve had more moxie onscreen. They later became friends. Ossie Davis emceed Jazz Concerts at Cascade Road to raise money for civil rights. “We’d see them many times on the ‘struggle circuit’ I call it,” Dee later recalled, “working for justice, appearing for different causes.”
Jackie made a few dollars, though he learned that Hollywood accounting isn’t simple. What looked, on paper, like a golden opportunity was not quite as advertised. He had to pay two scriptwriters from his share, and though he was promised a share of the profits, the fine print provided for a tax reserve. Box office projections, rights, and contracts are not for the foolhardy. After he paid script consultants he made some money, but hardly a windfall; he was still owed money. His share of the profits in 1958, with a $12,000 tax reserve attached to it, was less than $400, with another check for $2,500 in the mail.
The Robinsons seldom made the same mistake twice. Jackie and Rachel came to rely upon Stone’s counsel with the intricacies of a complex portfolio of pitches, projects, and causes tied to the Robinson brand. “Back in 1950, Jackie starred in the movie of his life story,” Stone wrote Warner Bros. in 1973, “Jackie later regretted making this picture because it was a low-budget production, shot in ten days. He was, however, under the pressure of financial needs at the time and so it was done.”
Jackie immediately lamented making the film. Jackie and Rachel Robinson made sure they henceforth maintained control of his image and likeness. Before Spring Training 1954 Robinson wrote producer Bill Heineman of United Artists about his future in showbiz, and the status of another film. There was a plan for a sequel to The Jackie Robinson Story, whose plot largely deals with the years up through 1947. By then Jackie’s plate was full. He had other ideas about how best to use his voice.
Wrote Heineman: “Your new project with Look sounds very exciting… Now as to you doing another movie. You will recall that our agreement provided that we were to have first call on a sequel to THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY. However, don’t worry about it. When you’re ready for that end of it, give me a call and we’ll discuss the matter further.”
Heineman reminded Jackie that he had a few partners, but it was his call. Eventually, Eagle-Lion was bought by United Artists. In 1954 Heineman was unambiguous about Jackie’s obligation. Robinson was on good terms with Heineman who cast Jackie, untested as one of Hollywood’s first Black leading men, itself a commentary about race in America. When Robinson first contemplated retirement in early 1955, he asked Martin Stone to explore possible pursuits for Jackie after baseball. He connected Jackie with Chock Full O’ Nuts President William Black. When Jackie retired in 1956, he again charted new territory for people of color. Black hired the National League’s first Black player and Hollywood leading man to be his Director of Personnel. Jackie’s life, if anything had provided ample experience in what we now call Human Resources – people. At Chock Full O’ Nuts Robinson became the first Black VP at a major American company. Robinson also helmed the NAACP Freedom Fund, to which Bill Black later presented a sizeable check.
Jack did join the Negro Actors Guild. Elected Treasurer in 1964, he was selected by a group that included Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and legal counsel Percy Sutton. Black statesman Edward Dudley, Ralph Bunche, and the king of late-night television Ed Sullivan were on the advisory committee.
Beginning in 1959, Robinson collaborated with two Black artists who used their talents to break ground on screen and their voices to advocate for equality off it. Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Jackie Robinson collaborated with Bunche to bring about fund the emigration and education of about 75 African students at American Universities. Robinson spoke to the inaugural group at Kennedy airport. The program which lasted until 1963 ultimately funded almost 800 scholarships.
Among the beneficiaries was a Kenyan economics student by the name of Barack Obama, Sr., who attended the University of Hawaii. Jackie Robinson played running back against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors when he spent the Fall of 1941 in Hawaii playing semiprofessional football. Jackie was on his way home when Japan struck Pearl Harbor. President Obama’s mother Ann met his father Barack there. Ann’s parents moved to Hawaii. President Obama’s Grandfather with whom he lived in Hawaii, was discharged from the Army on August 30, 1945, two days after Jackie Robinson agreed in secret to play with the Dodgers.
Sidney Poitier was still working as the janitor of the American Negro Theatre in New York before he got his big break. A nameless Jewish patron of the New York restaurant where he washed dishes taught the Bahamian immigrant how to read. While growing up in Nassau, Poitier softened his West Indian accent by imitating American radio. Soon, he was starring opposite Dee, a fellow American Negro Theatre alumnus.
When The Jackie Robinson Story premiered Black men could play beside white men on the field because of Jackie, but they certainly couldn’t play beside White women. The sexual paranoia of American racism made interracial affection a dramatic taboo. Interracial marriage was still considered miscegenation – there was even nomenclature for it. It certainly wasn’t depicted on film, even into the 1960s.
A Raisin In The Sun, poster, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, 1961. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)
Poitier broke Hollywood’s racial glass ceiling. The Defiant Ones came out a year after Robinson retired and the Dodgers came West in 1958. The film version of Raisin in the Sun, in which Poitier stars alongside Dee came out in 1961. When one looks at the fire and authenticity Poitier brought to Lorraine Hansberry’s Walter Lee Younger, one can see tantalizing glimpses of an on-screen Jackie Robinson.
In 1964 people called Poitier the Jackie Robinson of the big screen when became the first Black Academy Award winner for Best Actor in Lilies in the Field. He became Hollywood’s first unequivocal Black Leading Man, with an Oscar to prove it.
Robinson’s first movie seemed as dated as Ike in contrast to JFK. The sixties were a time of change. Jackie was front-and-center, on civil rights making his rounds on, as Ruby Dee aptly called it, the “struggle circuit.” With his pen, his mouth, and his wallet, Jackie Robinson was an integral pillar of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He and Poitier were both at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. King speak.
With Marty Stone’s encouragement, he never let go of the movie bug, nor the idea of retelling his story on his terms – to use the medium of film to inspire others. The only thing as singularly American as baseball – is Hollywood. First, Jackie needed to escape the obligations left from the first film. Bill Heineman’s 1954 letter unambiguously acknowledges their agreement. Eagle-Lion would have the first crack at another Robinson flick. He wanted no part of that and tasked Stone with unraveling the complications.
Ask a layman, and they might not know the name, William Bernstein. Show most film buffs the iconic Orion logo, and baseball fans will likely think of Bull Durham or Eight Men Out, among the studio’s many hits. Bernstein joined the legal department of United Artists in 1959 and left in 1978 to launch Orion Pictures.
On September 14, 1959, according to records, Bernstein, new to United Artists, signed out the legal file. It was never seen again. When the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research acquired the records ten years hence, all that was left behind was an index card with “Bernstein, Legal, 9/14/59,” and an empty folder, which is all that can be found to this day.
Presumably, that’s the last time anyone connected to the project laid eyes upon a written contract in its rightful place, the legal file. Heineman’s 1954 letter that referred to a contract and sequel would’ve likely been stored in that file. That was with Stone. There was no actual contract to be found.
When Robinson and Stone inquired, Heineman likely ran into that empty folder when looking for the contract. No contract, no obligation. Whether it was an accident of history or subterfuge that suited both parties one may never know.
With Stone’s counsel, Jackie wrote Heineman in March 1966. “I’m sorry that despite all your efforts and those of the legal department at United Artists, you have been unable to uncover anywhere a copy of the contract between me and Eagle Lion Pictures for “The Jackie Robinson Story Film.” There are some complications confronting me on this matter, which may require my referring to that contract and I, unfortunately, can’t find my copy. Therefore, I am writing you with your assurances that there is no copy in existence…”
With no written contract, Jackie agreed to forfeit all rights if Eagle-Lion and United Artists did in kind. Put simply, Robbie was out with no muss, no fuss, and Heineman’s John Hancock. The two agreed to part ways amicably. A line on which to put his mark provided, William Heineman put his signature on the bottom of Robinson’s letter. With that, he was legally free.
No paper contract was the same rationale that Branch Rickey used when signing Robinson and the Black players who followed. The letter Jackie and Stone had Heineman signed was eerily evocative of one Jackie signed for Mr. Rickey, who like Stone was a business attorney by trade, in 1945. Like Jackie attested, Heineman affirmed in writing, that neither party had a current contract, nor did either have any obligations to the other. Robinson, in 1945 affirmed he had no current or previous agreement with any other professional baseball organization. Call it the Monte Irvin rider. Negro League Newark Eagles Owner Effa Manley wanted $25,000 for Irvin to join Robinson in Brooklyn. Rickey, morally unimpeachable but a notorious tightwad looked elsewhere. The less fastidious Cleveland Owner, Bill Veeck paid 10-large for Larry Doby’s contract in August 1947. He integrated the American League a week later.
There would be no sequel to The Jackie Robinson Story in which the actor starred in the titular role as himself. By April of 1966, there was once again movie chatter. When Branch Rickey died, Stone got the Rickey family’s permission to pursue another film about the Noble Experiment or breaking of the color barrier.
Jackie asked Stone to arrange a lunch with his Oscar-winning friend. Robinson and Stone drafted a letter for Poitier in June 1966 that articulates their sentiments. Stone expresses Jackie’s frustration with the first film and the story’s potential. Stone, ghostwriting for Jackie wrote, after consulting him, “What excites me about this project is that it need not be as it should not be a story about breaking of the color line. It is the story of America, of equal opportunity. Branch Rickey did not seek [Jackie Robinson] as a Negro. He was interested in getting the best players for Brooklyn, whether they be black or white or yellow. Pee Wee Reese from Louisville, Kentucky, works side by side with [Jackie] on a double play for the good of the team. And he couldn’t have cared less about [Jackie’s] color. He wanted a win. So, did I [Jackie Robinson]. So did Rickey…That’s the contribution I [Jackie Robinson] can make to America, to tell how all people who deserve a job should have the opportunity, whatever their color or creed… I think this deserves telling all over the world. That can best be done only with a splendid film good enough to win an Academy Award.”
Proposed for 1968 or 1969, Stone’s letter makes clear that the Robinsons and Stone wanted to tell the same story depicted in “42.” Jackie wanted inimitable Sidney Poitier to portray him, the part that Chadwick Boseman embodied 50 years after his passing in “42, The True Story of An American Legend.”
Jackie was turning 48. Surely, he didn’t envision his life rounding third. Neither did Rachel. See how the incomparable Rachel ensured Jackie was brought back to life on their terms during her 50 years as the widow Robinson in the next installment of Beyond 42.