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New book! 50 movies to start your discovery of Old Hollywood

6 classic football movies that score touchdowns

It’s football championship season in the U.S., but classic movie lovers have football films all year long. 

In classic movie land, football has been a favorite plot line for decades. Like the sport itself, football movies flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. As this list of football movies from Wikipedia shows, tried-and-true storylines keep getting repeated up to the present day: prison game matchups, nerd-becomes-hero, comeback from injury, the cost of winning and more. 

Most lists concentrate on more modern movies, so we’ve rounded up a few pre-1960 football flicks that we’ve enjoyed. 

So whether you’re looking for an alternative to the football talk or you just can’t get enough, here are a few choices that are touchdowns for classic movie lovers:

The Freshman (1925)

One of the biggest hits of comedian Harold Lloyd’s career, “The Freshman” follows Lloyd’s character as he attempts to be popular on a college campus, including participating in a slapstick football game that includes several sight gags that are paid homage to (or “borrowed”) in later football movies.

The climactic final scenes were filmed in real college football stadiums. According to a Library of Congress essay, Lloyd shot scenes before – and in the halftime – of a real game between Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley. Scenes were also filmed in an empty Rose Bowl in Pasadena. 

Horse Feathers (1932)

Football, according to the Marx Brothers. Groucho is college president Wagstaff who asks his son to recruit pro footballers to help the struggling collegiate team. Instead, dogcatchers played by Chico (Baravelli) and Harpo (Pinkie) suit up for the field. 

But the plot doesn’t really matter. Groucho is Groucho, Chico is Chico and Harpo is Harpo, and zaniness and witticisms abound. 

Saturday’s Heroes (1937)

Proving that history repeats itself (or maybe society never resolves its issues), “Saturday’s Heroes” tackles the topic of colleges getting rich off athletes, who don’t themselves profit. 

Van Heflin plays the poor quarterback who scalps tickets on the side to make some bucks, but endures a  scandal after he’s found out. The 1937 drama was one of Heflin’s first movies and his first starring role.

Knute Rockne, All American (1940)

Legendary real-life Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne gets the Hollywood biopic treatment in the 1940 drama. 

Pat O’Brien is the visionary Rockne, with future U.S. President Ronald Reagan as one of Rockne’s players, Gip (the origin of his political rallying call “Win one for the Gipper” decades later). The movie holds up, especially for audiences who like their football victories with a side of tears. 

Jim Thorpe, All American (1951)

Another biopic worth seeing, the 1951 drama stars Burt Lancaster as real-life Jim Thorpe, the Native American athlete some consider the best – if not most versatile – athlete of all time. 

Lancaster – who would be nominated for an Oscar two years later for “From Here to Eternity” – and director Michael Curtiz – who helmed such iconic classics as “Casablanca” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” – elevate a “sports movie” into a classic gem.

Pigskin Parade (1936)

This 1936 comedy musical is a fun football romp.  A country bumpkin who happens to be a genius at football saves the day for the new husband-and-wife football coaches at Yale University. 

The bench is deep in this tale of gridiron glory: Jack Haley stars as the football coach, his future “Wizard of Oz” co-star Judy Garland makes her screen debut in a small part, Betty Grable and Tony Martin appear as supporting cast, Stu Erwin earns a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his performance of the pigskin-passing hick and even Alan Ladd shows up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him uncredited role as one of the college students.

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