This Summer we are going to do some catching up on the Strother Martin Film Project. My attention has been a lot of different places over the last couple of years, but I have never abandoned my goal of doing a post for all the film projects that Strother “Jay” Martin was credited with. We may not get to the TV projects because they are simply innumerable and hard to find sometimes, but this Summer we will do something special with the films. Every Wednesday this Summer, I plan on putting up at least one new post. By the time Labor Day arrives we should have a dozen projects covered. We are kicking off the Summer Strother Celebration with a personal favorite and reportedly Paul Newman’s favorite film of his career, “Slap Shot”.
Only the great Paul Newman was listed in the opening credits, but Strother is first in the closing credits, making him second billed. George Roy Hill had used him in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, a small role but a great part. This was the final of six movies he made with Paul Newman and it is fittingly his biggest role in any of those films. He plays Joe McGrath, the penny pinching, publicity seeking, feckless manager of a small time hockey club that finds itself on the brink of collapse. This is a comedy, and the man at the center of a lot of the comic moments is Jay.
Joe tries to keep local interest in the team up by trying a variety of publicity stunts. One regular one is having the players model fashions at the local department store. None of the players are enthusiastic about doing so, and one, when given a particularly festive robe to model, threatens to open the robe and show his hockey stick to the crowd. Joe doesn’t think he will do it but as he is making a phone call, he hears the crowd response off screen and he reacts as you might expect, with a resigned sign and an exhausted pose. Strother has many opportunities in this film to do reaction shots that fit the moment.
I am famously not a hockey fan. I may have seen one complete game in on television in my life. However, hockey has always been one of my favorite subjects for a sports movie. I love “Mystery Alaska”, “Goon”, and especially “Miracle”. I first saw “Slap Shot” in a theater when it opened in the winter of 1977. Over the years I have recommended it as one of my favorite comedy films of all time.
To be fair, Jay is not the only funny character in the film. The movie gets stolen from everyone by the three Hanson Brothers, the young, immature Goons that Joe has acquired and the leading character, played by Newman, Reggie, decides to exploit to bring up the enthusiasm for the team.
McGrath: “I got a good deal on those boys. The scouts said they showed a lot of promise.“
Their exploits on the ice and the way they interact with the other players is a key ingredient in the films success. They take over the top violence, combine it with a naivete of youth, and juxtapose it against the background of the decaying town and team.
There is also a semi-serious story intertwined in the film about the relationships of the two main players on the team. Reg is still in love with his wife but is so caught up in the hockey lifestyle that his separation from her and their impending divorce, doesn’t keep him from tomcatting around the league. He is also flirting in a playful way with the dissatisfied new bride of his star player, Ned played by Michael Ontkean. She is the young Lindsay Crouse, and her bitterness overflows and is ruining her relationship with her husband. Reg and his soon to be ex-wife intercede to try and repair the young couple before they go down the same trail they have traveled.
While the story is interesting, and the exploits of the team on the ice are hysterical, it is the subtle use of facial expressions by Strother Martin that reminds us that this is supposed to be a real world story. Sure there are some exaggerations at the right moment, but most of the time, Joe McGrath is a everyday guy, trying to cope with a bad situation, and failing on most days.
An especially nice moment occurs when McGrath is trying to get the bail reduced for the Hanson Brothers, and he offers a gift to the desk sergeant of a Charleston Chief’s Key Ring. It is a sincere gesture from a man who does not have the means to do any better for his players, who all hate him anyway for making them do the dumb publicity stunts he comes up with.
Strother’s best moment of his patented feckless frustration however, comes during the climatic championship game. The team has clawed it’s way to the game, the crowd is packed, and Joe has hockey scouts and executives at the game in hopes of securing his and the player’s futures. The other team has decided to out goon the Chiefs at the very moment, that Ned has guilted Reg into playing hockey in the traditional, sporting fashion.
McGrath: “Every scout in the NHL is out there tonight, with contracts in their pockets, and they’re looking for talent. For winners. OOOOOOOOOH. All my years of publicity. All the fashion shows and radiothons for nothing… They come here tonight… to scout the Chiefs… the toughest team in the Federal League! Not this! Buncha… pussies.”
This was the apex moment of frustration, and the teams reaction is the catalyst for the conclusion, perhaps the least exciting end to a championship game ever. They basically back into a victory by flouting convention and getting a forfeit. As far as the team and the local fans are concerned, a win is a win. Time to celebrate
There is a lot more to say about the film, but of course we are trying to focus on Strother Martin’s contributions here and I think that pretty much covers it. One more on screen moment to highlight:
And roll Credits…