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Celluloid Hero: Director Spell Realizes Dreams In Making Maureen Connolly Film

By Richard Pagliaro
04/24/2003

Jennifer Spell was only five years old when she first encountered the legendary Maureen Connolly. Though the nine-time Grand Slam great had died 14 years earlier, her inspirational impact immediately changed Spell's life.


The 29-year-old Spell first became aware of Connolly when she watched a made-for-television film based on Connolly's life. The film proved to be a life-altering experience for Spell.

"The film aired on September 5th, 1978 and my birthday is September 6th so I asked my father for tennis lessons the next day and I played all through elementary school and junior high," Spell said. "I wanted to be Little Mo the day I saw that film."

Nearly twenty-five years after seeing the film, Spell has brought Connolly's remarkable life story back to the screen in a compelling documentary.

Connolly's entire competitive career lasted less decade, but her legacy lives on. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Connolly's sweep of the 1953 Grand Slam, the documentary film, Unforgettable The Little Mo Connolly Story, will premier at the 33rd annual USA Film Festival on Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.

Directed by Spell, an emerging filmmaker from New York whose credits include the award-winning April In New York, Unforgettable chronicles Connolly's rise from the cracked cement courts of Balboa Park in her native San Diego (her neighbor, baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams praised Connolly as one of the greatest athletes he saw) through her Grand Slam sweep at the age of 18 when she won 61 of the 63 matches she played that season and surrendered just one set in claiming all four Grand Slam crowns in succession. Her superior skills were surpassed only by her pure passion to succeed.

It is a passion Spell shares for the subject, who infused her with the inspiration to pursue her own dreams.

"My overall mission with this film is to inspire the kids the way Maureen inspired me and so many kids," Spell said. "Especially during times we live in now with the war and violence and despair, people need to return to love and do things from love. And that was Maureen — she played for the pure love of the game. And today with players playing for so much money there's something special and pure about a player who didn't play for the money or the fame, she played for the love."

Armed with a $1.50 racquet and insatiable appetite for learning the game and a deeply-driven desire to attain greatness, the little lefthander learned to play tennis right handed. The girl who was nicknamed "Little Mo" stood only five-foot-four, but would grow into one of the greatest players in history.

In terms of skill and style, Connolly was ahead of her time. A brilliant tactician, Connolly took the ball on the rise, hit hard and could play all-court tennis when necessary.

"She was thinking four to five points ahead much of the time," Spell said. "She had the whole match played out in her head the night before and she had a photographic memory for points. In the film, we use her comments in comparing her strategy to a matador and how she would tire her opponents out before going in for the kill."

The film also traces Connolly's transformation from a driven, determined young player propelled by hate for her opponent and fear of losing to a master of the court who became the first woman to sweep the Grand Slam by playing from the pure love of the game.

"I have always believed greatness on a tennis court was my destiny — a dark destiny, at times, where the tennis court became my secret jungle and I a lonely, fear-stricken, hunter," Connolly wrote in her autobiography Forehand Drive. "I was a strange little girl armed with hate, fear and a Golden Racquet."

Harboring hostility for opponents and a loathing of losing at the outset of her career, Connolly reached the culmination of her career — her classic 7-5, 8-6 victory over Doris Hart in the 1953 Wimbledon final Connolly characterized as her "perfect match" — powered by playing for the pure love of the game.

"I had played the finest tennis of my life," Connolly said. "And to have won against such a great adversary, at the very height of her game...it's a thrill beyond description. And I had won without hate, without fear."

The extreme emotions that fueled Connolly's drive to greatness are revealed in the film using Connolly's own quotes and sometimes her own voice.

"We took a lot of quotes from Mo to get her feelings and what she was going through into the film," Spell said. "Some of the footage we bought and some of the film the BBC sent is really great stuff that I don't even think her family has seen in years."

The film also explores Connolly's courage in coping with an abrupt end to her time at the top of tennis when a horseback riding accident cut short her career at the age of 19. An avid horseback rider, Connolly was riding her horse, Colonel Merryboy, when a passing cement truck frightened the horse, which threw Connolly into a ditch. She suffered a fracture fibula and bled profusely. The cut "was big enough to put your hand into," a nurse said.

The accident effectively ended her career. "I knew immediately I'd never play again," Connolly said.

The film details Connolly's post-tennis life as she married Norman Brinker, became a mother, a tennis journalist and a tennis coach and courageously battled the cancer that would claim her life at the age of 34.

"The talents and efforts given toward this project reflect my mother's influence in the lives of her family, friends and fans," said Cindy Brinker Simmons, daughter of Maureen and Norman Brinker. "Our family is absolutely thrilled that the documentary captures the spirit of Little Mo and that it will be part of the distinguished USA Film Festival."

A second debut of Unforgettable will be held on Thursday, May 8th at the San Diego History Museum a few blocks away from Connolly's childhood home. The museum overlooks the courts in Balboa Park where Little Mo learned to play tennis almost 60 years ago.

Without a distribution deal, Spell is hopeful a network such as HBO Sports, ESPN Classic or the Tennis Channel will pick up the film so that Connolly's story will be seen by a new generation of tennis fans.

Spell has invested nine months of her life — as well as her life savings — into the film. Despite taking a substantial financial risk, she believes the reward of bringing Connolly's story back to the public and is well worth it.

"I have absolutely no financial future if this film does not get picked up (for distribution)," Spell said. "I've spent the last nine months and put every dime I had into making this film — that's how much I believe in Mo and her story. One of the things that really drove me is that a lot of the kids playing today seem make it all about money. Mo didn't play tennis for the money. I'm not making films to make money. I'm making films because I love to inspire someone to go out and do something that's fulfilling in their life and that's exactly what Mo did for me. In the times we live in now, we could all use a little bit of Little Mo and her incredible inspiration in our lives."
 

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that's too bad that spell didn't get a distribution deal but i think this film might find a bigger audeince if shown on hbo or pbs, for example. thank you for the information.
 
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