An image of Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, scanned from a negative listed on EBay at $24.99.
Los Angeles is currently experiencing the second coming of its professional football team, the Los Angeles Rams, who first arrived in town in 1946 and also played at Memorial Coliseum. The team achieved some special firsts: such as being the first to be televised as well as the first to play themselves onscreen in the 1953 film “Crazylegs,” based on the life of its talented receiver/running back, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch.
From 1949-1957, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch excelled as one of the team’s top offensive players, earning All-Pro status in the National Football League for his top receiving/running skills. A potent ground gaining weapon, Hirsch’s odd twisted running style gained him his nickname. Hirsch’s remarkable background led writer/director Hall Bartlett to create a film about him, one that featured the team as well as its historic playing field, the Coliseum, a longtime film location.
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Thirty year old Bartlett produced his first film, “Navajo,” in 1952, nominated as Best Documentary by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that year. Directed by actor Norman Foster, the film told the story of a Native American boy caught up in controversy when he rejects the white man’s school. “Navajo” earned deep praise and another nomination for its gorgeous black and white cinematography work by renowned cameraman Virgil Miller.
Intrigued by the background of Rams player Hirsch, Bartlett bought the receiver’s story and wrote his first script while creating the independently made film. In order to gain authenticity and spread his shoestring budget, the producer convinced athletic Hirsch to play himself, and employed actual game footage from Hirsch’s college days, All-Star games, and Ram home games. Rams players would also play themselves in the motion picture, a vital selling point. Film veteran Lloyd Nolan shored up the inexperienced cast, cracking to the press, “All we need now is a mail-order movie camera and an instruction book.”
“Crazylegs” basically told Hirsch’s dramatic story through flashback, with Lloyd Nolan’s Coach Win Brockmeyer joining Hirsch on the field after the Championship game between the Rams and the Braves at the Coliseum as the player wonders if he should retire.
The story recounted his family’s financial struggles as the young man excels at football but considers going to work after high school when his father becomes ill. Earning a partial scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, Hirsch becomes a star while working part time before transferring to the University of Michigan where be earns four letters in football, basketball, baseball, and track before going off to World War II. Returning to school after service, Hirsch wins the Most Valuable Player Award at the College All-Star Game while also suffering a skull fracture. He plays for a few professional teams and suffers another skull fracture before going to the Rams. While suffering from headaches, he still excels at the sport but considers at what price.
Elroy Hirsch makes a publicity stop in Cleveland.
Bartlett pulled the production together quickly. Newspapers and trade papers reported in June 18, 1953 that the handsome Hirsch would play himself in the motion picture, to be called “Crazylegs: All American,” with famed Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward also playing himself. Virgil Miller would once again shoot and Leith Stevens score a Bartlett project, and Oscar nominated editor and first time director Francis Lyons would helm the project. The June 28 Times featured a photograph of some Rams players, stating they would also appear in the film as themselves.
Filming sped along, beginning July 6 and moving to the Coliseum for a week on July 13. By August Bartlett and Cotton Warburton, a former USC player, were cutting the film. Stevens and Bartlett composed a Rams Theme song to play throughout the picture, one they hoped would catch on with fans.
Bartlett hired George Schaefer on September 6 to sell the indie to potential distributors as the producer rushed to prepare the film for release during the fall football season. To gain much needed publicity as well as build strong word of mouth in helping gaining distribution, Bartlett arranged with the Rams to preview “Crazylegs: All American” during its September 21, 1953 fundraiser at the Ambassador Hotel’s famed Cocoanut Grove restaurant per the September 22 Motion Picture Daily.” Later on October 19, Republic screened the film for Los Angeles area high school, college, and professional football teams, hoping to gain much wider word of mouth.
An ad for “Crazylegs,” in the Monroe (Wisc.) Evening Times, Nov. 13, 1953.
On October 20, Bartlett inked a deal with Republic Studios for distribution of the film, following its world premiere at Wausau, Wisconsin on November 5, 1953 near the location where Hirsch grew up. The California Congress of Parents and Teachers named the film “Picture of the Month” on November 22, 1953, per that day’s Variety.
Most reviews praised the film, noting in particular the outstanding performance of film newbie Hirsch, full of charm and spirit. Harrison’s Reports found the picture very good, with “the thrill scenes of the different stadiums” very authentic. Boxoffice called it “surprisingly effective, ingratiating, entirely professional performance by Hirsch” in its October 3, 1953 edition. The Denton Record Chronicle on November 8 found the film featured “more thrills than a Notre Dame-Southern California game.”
Variety offered the first praise-worthy review of the film on September 24 following the team fundraising dinner. “Hirsch’s story, in the best tradition of American youth, has just the right touches of genuine sentiment and inspiration for heart tugs, and certainly his gridiron feats have all the stirring action that could be asked.” They found it thoroughly authentic thanks to the wonderful actual sports footage of young Hirsch in action. “Hirsch takes to the camera almost as easily as he runs for a touchdown.” Lloyd Nolan’s steady performance helped everyone look better.
Elroy Hirsch appears in Family Weekly Magazine, Nov. 8, 1953.
Maxwell Stiles of the LA Daily Mirror called it “the best documented flicker of a sports hero’s life… ,” leading to film screenings on November 10 in such local theatres as Loew’s State, the United Artists Inglewood, the Wiltern, Fox Hollywood, United Artists Pasadena, and the De Anza Theatres. The film road showed around the country, particularly in the Northwest and Chicago areas.
The film’s success around the country and Hirsch’s natural, ingratiating charm and talent led to more film and roles as his career wound down, gaining him additional fame and fortune. In late 1957 Hirsch retired and became sports director for an oil company, setting up sports clinics throughout California. Hirsch also opened his own “Crazylegs” restaurant in the San Fernando Valley before eventually becoming the University of Wisconsin’s athletic director.
Bartlett’s film “Crazylegs” captured the local zeitgeist as it saluted Los Angeles fearsome Rams and its skillful player Elroy Hirsch during the team’s early heyday in Southern California, the land of motion picture and television studios.