Hard, Fast and Beautiful

At a time (now, 2014) when women’s professional tennis is so rife with incompetence, gutlessness, malingering and fakery as to be practically unwatchable, I’ve turned to The Vaults. It’s possible to find quite a few interesting old matches on-line; the Australian Open posted some great ones on its web site that I watched during this last tournament, for instance.

And then there’s fiction.

Hard, Fast and Beautiful is a 1951 film directed by Ida Lupino (who was also an actress, of course) for RKO Pictures. It traces the meteoric career of a young tennis player who wins the women’s singles title at the US Open, only to find her hopes and dreams jeopardized and almost crushed by the machinations of her horrible mother. I will spoil the ending now by saying that in the end the young player quits and goes off in the arms of her fiancĂ©e, who promises to be a good earner.

The mother, played by Claire Trevor, is the star of the story. She is a cold bitch with a rotten character and an addiction to status, smoking, cocktails, fur coats, fancy hotels and basic cash money. Which is a problem for her because in the “pre-professional era” of international tennis, which didn’t actually end until 1968, tournament play was reserved for amateur athletes. The four “majors”—Wimbledon, Roland Garros, the United States Open, the Australian Championships—and other title events around the US and the world, did not offer prize money. If you won, you got a cup. If you wanted to make money playing tennis, you went “pro” and played against other pros on one of the exhibition circuits. (In 1952’s “Pat and Mike,” Katherine Hepburn’s character plays pro tennis, appearing at one point against Alice Marble who won many Grand Slam titles as an amateur; she also spied against the Nazis until she got shot in the back and had to go home.) Pro matches could be quite competitive but professional tennis wasn’t considered or expected to offer true competition in the sense that amateur tennis did.

So poor Millie Farley (the mother) does what she can to leverage her champion daughter’s world-class but non-paying titles into a living. She joins forces with a suave scumbag talent scout-manager-promoter and in no time at all her daughter’s getting free racquets, free clothes, and big checks made out to “Cash” from major hotel chains who want her as a guest. There’s a big mother-daughter confrontation when young Florence Farley wins Wimbledon and comes back drunk from the post-finals ball to their huge suite at the Piccadilly Hotel, where she reveals that none of the other girls get to stay in huge suites and that she’s being ostracized because of her ill-gotten gains. Millie doesn’t want Florence to turn pro—she just wants her to keep winning so that they can keep traveling around the world in luxury. But eventually (see above) this becomes too much to ask and Florence quits. Millie has a downfall.

This movie, its fine acting and dramatic qualities aside, offers a wonderful look back at a vanished world. The US Open scenes were filmed on location at Forest Hills, right in the grass court stadium, and also at the Forest Hills Inn (which still exists, though not as a hotel now, it’s co-ops). All the play is with wooden racquets and it’s extremely good play, complete with lots of strategy and “American Twist” serves. In one montage all the old East Coast tournaments show up—Philadelphia, East Hampton, a couple in New Jersey, there was even one in Essex, Massachusetts. Upper-class white East Coast Yankees (redundant, redundant) coming out to watch white women play tennis, with no money casting its sullying shadow over the enterprise, pure competition—this was the picture of a dream world.
Forest Hills, Queens
Of course people always took money. Perks. There must have been a lot of gambling. Match-fixing. The pure amateur was a figure of myth long before the sport was professionalized. Poor Millie, all alone at the end, the bad mother. She has a bad greed problem and that made her a bad person by the stated standards of her day. But looking at the ending of Hard, Fast and Beautiful from the perspective of 2014, when Dominika Cibulkova (a nice girl, no question) got $1,350,000 for winning six games in the Australian Open final, it’s harder to judge, hard not to sympathize.

Maybe the greedy people were simply ahead of their time.