Campus Life

Pat O'Brien as the young Rockne in his first day on the Notre Dame campus.


Campus Life - a book chapter about the on-campus filming of Knute Rockne All-American. From "Shake Down The Thunder."

Shooting began on the film at the Warners lot in Burbank, California, in late March 1940. A major problem occurred during the first week -the studio executives disliked director Bill Howard's work and even though he had made a number of important movies and had ingratiated himself with the Notre Dame liaison people, Warners yanked him off the Rockne picture. Into the director's chair went the reliable albeit pedestrian Lloyd Bacon. Arthur Haley, in describing these events to his bosses at N.D., carefully underlined the fact that Bacon had "attended Santa Clara University" that is, he was Catholic and sympathetic to Notre Dame.

Once Bacon took charge, he encountered the problem that Bill Howard had been unable to solve -how to shoot the forty-one-year-old and very middle-aged Pat O'Brien as young Rockne entering Notre Dame. The actor had lost "18 pounds in 3 weeks" to get ready for these scenes but, as Buckner had wamed the previous year when lobbying for Jimmy Cagney for the part, few older actors would be convincing as the twenty-three-year-old Rockne. Bacon never solved this problem, and film reviewers later commented on O'Brien's implausibility as an under-graduate, even an overaged one.

After completing the initial phase of the movie-the interior scenes on the Warners' sets replicating Rockne's office, Gipp's hospital room, and so forth -in May the cast and crew traveled to South Bend for exterior shots of the campus as well as the "funeral service in the Notre Dame Cathedral." (The football field scenes were done at Loyola College in Los Angeles during the summer of 1940; in addition, newsreel game footage was later edited into the film.)

The film crew recreated Rockne's funeral mass at Sacred Heart Basilica on campus.

The publicity department at Warners wanted to turn the trip to Notre Dame into a major news event and in an interoffice communication laid out its plans: midwestern reporters would meet the actors in Chicago and be taken on a junket to Indiana; there, the "reception at South Bend station, with the entire student body. ..on hand" should be made "even more riotous than the receptions to Rock and his team coming back from a big victory." Next, "Pat [O'Brien] should go direct from [the] station to lay a wreath on the Rockne grave. This will give "the photographers for the "newsreels a chance to cover the reception and the wreath laying ceremony." (In a pre-TV age, Americans could only view news events in the newsreels in movie theaters, and the film studios manipulated the system to create "news" to promote their products.)

The publicist also enthused, "It would be great for the University [of Notre Dame] to name Pat an honorary alumnus, and present him with some scroll to that effect." The.writer, with mock irony, added, "Even I hesitate to suggest an honorary degree of some sort [for O'Brien]."

The P.R. man was correct about Notre Dame's not being willing to award Pat O'Brien an honorary degree at this time (it did many years later). Nor would the school allow the student body to be publicity props at the railroad station. Furthermore, Acting Vice President John J. Cavanaugh wrote a sharp letter to Hal Wallis laying out the ground rules for the film crew's activity on campus -"the regular academic functions of the University must continue without interruption. The month of May is one of the most important of the entire school year and we must maintain an atmosphere conducive to serious study while your troupe is at work [here]."

One area where the N.D. administration was amenable concerned football. The publicity memo had suggested:

If Spring football practice is still on, Pat [O'Brien], in coaching togs and Rockne make-up, should be down on the field with the boys. Good for lots of shots, particularly with Elmer Layden. Maybe the boys would get in uniform for the pictures, even if they're not practicing. In any event, Pat should talk to the football squad and have pictures taken with the players and Layden.

The more Notre Dame trained coaches and great football players of the past who can be on hand, the better. They'll be good for news shots and copy shorts.

Charlie Callahan, doing promotional work for the N.D. athletic department, noted at the bottom of his copy of this memo: "I think this is a great start."

Elmer Layden was not pleased with Warners' plans for the practice field but grudgingly went along with them. His negative premonitions proved correct-not only was the publicity event disruptive to his coaching but it brought the ghost of Rockne to life through O'Brien's impersonation, reminding onlookers as well as the multitude of Fighting Irish fans who saw the scene in the newsreels that Elmer Layden was no Knute Rockne and his current squad was a blurred image of the great teams of the past. Previously for Layden, the Rockne ghost had symbolically hovered overhead, but in 1940, the film placed it on his back hastening the end of his coaching career.

More disturbing to Acting Vice President Cavanaugh that the ballhoo during the May visit were Warners' ideas for the sales promotion of the movie. A memo "Outlined by Mr. Einfeld," head of publicity for the studio, laid out a campaign whereby the Catholic school sold the movie to the public through such devices as "Notre Dame dinners stemming from South Bend and reaching to every city and town where there are Notre Dame alumni." Einfeld's definition of N.D. alums extended to all Fighting Irish fans as well as a majority of American Catholics and "those millions must be swung behind the [Rockne] picture just as rabidly" as the school's actual graduates-"It's their [the millions of fans'] picture, just as Notre Dame is their college and their football team. "

Someone had neglected to inform Warners' publicity head as to who owned Notre Dame -the C.S.C. order, in legal deed and daily fact. His words raised red flags for the N.D. administrators -as similar claims had for their predecessors in the Golden Dome -and the acting vice president wrote Hal Wallis, politely but firmly: "It is our desire that neither the University nor our Alumni Association be put in the position of promoting the 'Life of Knute Rockne.' Hence, such suggestions as Notre Dame dinners next fall. ..must not be entertained. ...We will not foster the exploitation of Notre Dame relationships" with fellow Catholics or the general public "or of the Alumni Association in advertising" the movie.

Cavanaugh did not comment on other aspects of the Warners' sales campaign -for example, "Build-up Pat O'Brien as a great American"- but the Hollywood cynicism must have displeased him. More distressing at this time was Wamers' attempt to wiggle out of the contract clause concerning the foreword to the film and its statement that Notre Dame received no money for its cooperation. The head of the studio's legal department informed N.D.:

Mr. [Jack] Warner and [producer] Mr. Wallis. ..are rather disheartened that the University should insist upon including the words 'without compensation' as they feel that the usage of such words will, to a great extent, cheapen the picture from the standpoint of public reaction, and they do not feel that such words are appropriate in the foreword of a picture made for entertainment purposes.

Bonnie Rockne and her lawyer were behind this move, realizing that if the public learned that Notre Dame received no money for the picture but that she had obtained a huge sum, she would appear greedy. Warners recognized that this admission in the foreword would indeed "cheapen the picture from the standpoint of public reaction." Therefore, as their head lawyer stated, the studio wished "to eliminate the words 'without compensation' " and, in this way, avoid any suggestion of the widow's profit.

The lawyer included Warners' new version of the foreword. Beginning with two syrupy paragraphs about Rockne's "dedication to the Youth of America," the third and final one read: "This picture has been made with the permission and valuable assistance of his widow, Bonnie Skiles Rockne, together with the cooperation of the University of Notre Dame." In heavy black pen, Cavanaugh crossed out the last clause and wrote: "Gratitude is expressed to the University of Notre Dame, which without compensation, has cooperated."

Warners pressed on, Bonnie Rockne on its side, and because the movie was almost in the can and she was due to receive the bulk of her money, Arthur Haley informed the studio, "The University advises that if there is some better wording which you might have to suggest, but which would still impart this idea [of no compensation], it would be satisfactory." Warners' new formula was: "Appreciation is expressed to the University of Notre Dame for its gratuitous cooperation." Possibly the N.D. administrators were tired of the haggling or they believed that the average American moviegoer's vocabulary included a secondary meaning of the word gratuitous, but surprisingly, they accepted this sentence. Another explanation is that N.D. had already clashed with Warners over the use of the school's name in the title of the film and now faced a fight over the final title; rather than skirmish on many fronts, the N .D. authorities focused on the most important one -keeping "Notre Dame" off the theatre marquees and out of the advertising campaign.

Hal Wallis had long pushed for Knute Rockne of Notre Dame, arguing that it "seems such a 'natural' [and] has so much more general appeal than just The Spirit of Knute Rockne or The Life of Knute Rockne. It ties him in with your great institution and recalls to his millions of followers and admirers the association of many years." But the N .D. administration held its ground, Haley informing Wallis that "the authorities of the university do not believe they can change their decision concerning the title, as covered by the contract."

By the summer of 1940, the studio bosses had hit upon Knute Rockne-All American, Robert Buckner telling Arthur Haley, confidentially, "I think it [this title] is terrible, I think it is cheap in every sense of the word. ...Of course," with the United States probably entering World War II, "it is obvious what the studio hopes will be read into the word 'All American.' ...I hate to see the hard work which we poured into it [the film] now handicapped by a cheap, jingoistic, flag-waving, opportunistic title!"

Haley showed Buckner's letter to Cavanaugh; the N.D. administrator agreed with the scriptwriter's comments and also disliked the title because, as Haley informed Jack Warner, Knute Rockne-All American "definitely tags it as a football picture, a title that might be given to some great football player, such as Red Grange-All American" but provokes "much dissatisfaction here at the University." Haley suggested the two-word title Knute Rockne, pointing to the recent success of the biopic Lillian Russell.

Jack Warner, like his fellow movie magnate Louis B. Mayer, was neither polite by nature nor concerned about Notre Dame not wanting to be labeled "a football school." His studio had lived up to its contractual obligations-"Notre Dame" would not appear on the marquees or advertising -and he informed Haley, "We here at the studio have come to the conclusion that no matter what thought you have of Knute Rockne, he will still be known for his association with the great game of football." Warners had already placed the title on the prints of the movie and they soon announced it to the press.

In mid July, the studio "sneak previewed" the picture in a small California town and, as Jack Warner informed N .D., "it was amazingly [well] received by the audience." Robert Buckner noted: "The entire sequence of Gipp was one of the highlights of the picture. When he died I don't believe there was a dry eye in the theatre. 90% of the preview cards ...commented on Reagan's performance." Warners decided to emphasize the scene in its publicity campaign and, subsequently, the deathbed request transcended the film, "Win One for the Gipper" becoming Ronald Reagan's most famous movie speech and his political slogan.

In late July, Warners sent a print of Knute Rockne-All American to Notre Dame, but the campus reaction to the initial showing was more muted than the one at the California sneak preview. Arthur Haley informed Robert Buckner: "Everyone here last night really did like the picture very much, but I did not find anyone using the word 'great.' The story was well done, but. lacks some finishing touches in direction ...I think there were several opportunities missed. In Gipp's death scene, Reagan really does fine, but I think Pat misses a little direction in work. ...On the whole, the picture is very good and I am sure will do great business."

By the end of the summer of 1940, the Notre Dame administrators were tiring of the Rockne commemorative festivities. They had not initiated the film project and had not enjoyed the constant negotiations with Warners and Bonnie Rockne. They detested the studio's reneging on parts of the contract as well as its plans for the university to promote the film. The movie, with a title they disliked, was due for fall release, and even though they agreed to participate in a South Bend premiere, they privately looked forward to the day when all the Rockne memorials were in place. The recreation building had been completed in 1939 and, by the end of 1940, the movie; Knute Rockne-All American, would have come and gone.

Fathers Hugh O'Donnell and John J. Cavanaugh, the relatively young and very energetic men in charge of the Catholic school, preferred a Rockne ghost pemanently fixed in stone and celluloid, not a "living presence" to disrupt their plans for the future. With the country coming out of the Depression and probably entering World War II, the N.D. administrators faced very different circumstances than their predecessors had encountered. They regarded their regime as beginning a new period in Notre Dame history. Nevertheless, many elements from the past would not die, notably the debate on the overemphasis of college football and N.D.'s relationship with the Big Ten conference.

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