This quitting thing, it’s a hard habit to break once you start. —Coach Morris Buttermaker
W.C. Fields said, never work with children or animals. Give the kids beer, cigarettes, a mouthful of vulgarities, volatile tempers, and bigotry and you might just rethink your position on animals. But that’s exactly what Coach Morris Buttermaker does and the results are…well, vulgar, violent, bigoted, and decidedly not politically correct, but hilarious nonetheless.
There is hardly an underdog sports movie today that doesn’t owe something to this film. Despite its datedness, it still stands up today. Mathhau is outstanding in his role as Morris Buttermaker. Watching his character arc from a man who has all but given up, to one who simply agrees to try again, is nothing short of genius. Everything else in the film is a reflection of where he is on his path to redemption. And the film pulls no punches. Amid the comedy of errors, we have moments of real pain, regret, anger, and humiliation, as well as resolve, redemption, apology, and ultimately triumph. Pivotal moments such as when he pushes Amanda away because he knows he’s no good for her, or when he realizes he’s no better than his ultra-competitive nemesis Coach Turner, come across loud and clear without being verbalized. That’s no easy feat.
And each kid has a defined personality all unto their own. What they have in common is that they don’t fit in, and no one wants them to. They’re classic underdogs, but with distinctive voices and reasons for why they’ve given up on a world that’s given up on them at the ripe old age of 10.
The music may as well be a character as it comments on the action scenes, ironcially suggesting they were well orchestrated operatic movements. The music, being an adaptation of the principle themes in the opera Carmen, shares a bit more than one might think with its source. Carmen was the first of what’s called Opera-Comique, which is to say it was the first light hearted opera departing from the tradition of heavy, heroic, and serious, and it has, as its major characters, a group of gypsies. It’s not much of a stretch to say that the ragtag group of misfits that make up the Bears are a kind of sports gypsies. And while it’s not the first sports comedy ever made, it is an early model who’s formula was copied over the following years.
Underdog sports stories were made before 1976, but back then they almost always had the underdog coming out on top by the end of the picture. 1976 was exceptional for underdog sports films because of the two films in this genre that came out that year, both underdogs failed to win the top honors. Both Rocky and The Bears continue to teach us today that in sports, and in life, winning isn’t everything, being the best you can be is.
Amanda: Hey, Buttermaker! Maybe next spring you’ll teach me how to hit.
Buttermaker: You bet.