What’s the worst baseball movie starring William Bendix? The Babe Ruth Story, as any fule kno. But what’s the best baseball movie starring William Bendix? Now we have an answer.
Kill the Umpire [Lloyd Bacon, 1950] is like an extended sitcom episode. Bendix’s Life of Riley isn’t one of the canonical sitcoms, but his protagonist Chester Riley was the first in a line of inept blue-collar fathers on TV sitcoms. Yes, he may look and sound sort of like Al Bundy [here’s a a sample from Life of Riley], but I think personality-wise, Bendix’s Bill Johnson in Kill the Umpire is closer to the guy from The King of Queens than he is to Homer Simpson, Fred Flintstone, or the other schmoes mentioned by Wikipedia. He’s not lazy, but he’s easily distracted. He’s impulsive, but completely non-threatening. He doesn’t come up with complicated schemes, but he does improvise half-assed schemes to cover up his dumb decisions.
At this point in his late-blooming career Bendix had been the star of The Life of Riley on radio and in its 1949 film adaptation, but for contractual reasons had been replaced by Jackie Gleason in the new TV Riley. The sitcom nature of his family here is accentuated by 27-year-old Gloria Henry [soon to be Dennis the Menace’s mom] as his teen daughter, and 17-year-old Connie Marshall [Dragonwyck, Daisy Kenyon, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House] as his preteen daughter. His idyllic life is made possible by post-war full employment — whenever he loses a job because he skips out to watch the ball game, he can find another one immediately [albeit this may only happen during spring training, the highlight of his life in St. Petersburg, FL]. As Jim McLennan at AZ Snakepit points out, this evokes the world of 1950 in which, just like in 1901, the westernmost [and southernmost] team in the majors is in St. Louis, and the southernmost team on the East Coast is in Washington. To me it’s bizarre to think fans of the Texas League [“Texas Interstate League” in Kill the Umpire] would take their baseball more seriously than any major-league fans, but in 1950 Texas simply wasn’t AL or NL territory. Likewise, the excitement of spring training in the era of the Marlins, Rays and D-backs is not what it was when February and March were Bill Johnson’s only chance to see big leaguers.
“Tryin’ to make an umpire out of me…that’s the lowest thing that can happen to a man.”
Bill Johnson is a generally humble guy whose one obsession in middle age is the game he used to play. Now he participates in baseball as the annoying loudmouth disputing every call. He does this out of almost ideological fury, making startling claims about the inferior nature of umpires — beliefs he seems to share with other players and ex-players. But at his family’s darkest hour, in his deepest moment of shame, he’s willing to give umpiring a try, as a job he might not get fired from. At umpire school [was there such a thing? is there now?] the pupils live in dorms, spend their days doing drills [making the “safe”/”out” and “ball”/strike” gestures], and get to know their equipment, including the AL/NL differences between chest protector standards. Like so many other sitcom sequences, the resemblance to boot camp is clear. He eventually realizes that umpires have a use, during a kids’ sandlot game that features a lovely shot of baseball in the foreground and a train in the background.
Before they graduate, they have the umpiring equivalent of the Indianapolis scouting combine, in which each recruit officiates part of an exhibition game in front of “our distinguished visitors, George Welsh of the American League and William Rogers of the National League”. Bendix finally decides to take some of his pal’s performance-enhancing eyedrops, with the inevitable result that he starts seeing double at exactly the moment he starts umping. In defiance of all we know about the human mind, this doesn’t affect his accuracy, but leads him to make every call twice [“Safe! Safe!”] as if he were an agent of Breach overseeing two contemporaneous games occupying distinct metaphysical planes in the same geographic area. The newly nicknamed Bill “Two Call” Johnson wows the scouts with his flair, and gets signed to a minor-league deal.
He and his pal are thrown into the pressure cooker that is the Texas Interstate League pennant race, featuring teams like the Texas Gophers, the Oil City Longhorns, the Buccaneers, the Stetsons, and the Cotton Pickers. A controversy erupts and the whole family takes refuge in a hotel overlooking a lawless town square reminiscent of Touch of Evil. Hijinks erupt and the movie ends with an even more outlandish car chase than the one that ends Alibi Ike. Veteran director Lloyd Bacon [42nd Street, Here Comes the Navy, Knute Rockne All-American] got a lot of help from Frank Tashlin on that chase and other madcap visual comedy [the massive bouncy chest protector, the weird scene where Bendix gets a ride from an Indian chief]. Tashlin was an master animator who went on to make a bunch of comedies starring Bob Hope, Bob Cummings, and especially Jerry Lewis. Kill the Umpire has surprisingly quick comic timing for which I presume he can be credited.
"Hey, I hope you don't mind me stepping all over that nice clean plate with my dirty old shoesies."
Does it begin with newspaper headlines about spring training? Is the structure of a classic baseball movie really as formulaic as I think it is? We shall see. Unlike the first two films in our series, this one does not begin with newspaper headlines about spring training. It begins with the words “St. Petersburg Herald” printed on a paperboy’s newspaper sack, as he throws the paper to the protagonist, during spring training. Also, the classic “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” over the credits is eschewed in favor of “Three Blind Mice”.
What are ballplayers like? We hardly spend any time with players in Kill the Umpire, and there’s not much game footage. There’s no cameos from big leaguers. Bendix has a pitcher for a future son-in-law [an incredibly bland guy named Bob], and he has nonviolent exchanges of views with a couple catchers [one played by Alan Hale Jr.] who fit into the “likeable lug” category.
What are managers like? Gruff.
What are umpires like? Here we get into this movie’s unique point of view. We don’t get to know very many umpires, but we see what motivates them. It seems like it was a more logical choice for ex-pro players in 1950 than it is now — the increased money in today’s sport, in addition to making ex-pros wealthier, means there’s a lot more coaching jobs for those who want to keep working in baseball.
One of the sitcom aspects of Kill the Umpire is that everyone is a bit character except Bendix, his family, his pal [roommate from the umpire school], and his boss [the proprietor of the umpire school]. His father-in-law is a retired umpire and he’s the most helpful, staid, reasonable father-in-law you could ever want. Jimmy O’Brien, majordomo of O’Brien’s Umpire School, is the picture of a crusty old gym coach. And Bendix’s pal is the surprisingly non-wacky Roscoe Snooker, played by Tom D’Andrea. Roscoe’s background is unclear, but he tries his best to enhance his physical form for optimum umpirical efficacity. D’Andrea maintains Gary Cooper-like poise while saying ridiculous things, and his rapport with Bendix went beyond this film into a co-starring role as Life of Riley‘s scheming neighbor.
– This is Pligromatic – it relaxes the eye muscles. This is Lensomatic – I use this when I’m out on the field. It strengthens the eye muscles. Use two drops in each eye. Would you hand me my pills?
– Which ones?
– The Vitamin B1 and thiamin pills. They build up my white corpuscles.
– What about your red corpuscles?
– Oh, those I build up in the morning before breakfast.
– I see — white at night, red in the morning.
– For one week, then I switch over. Red at night, and white in the morning.
– That makes a lot of sense.
– Makes a lot of corpuscles, too.
Riley (Bendix) and Gillis (D'Andrea) mired in mild mischievous mayhem
Is William Frawley involved? Why yes, he’s Jimmy O’Brien! The umpire-school sequence is eerily reminiscent of the Simpsons episode where Homer goes to clown college. Frawley fulfils the role of Krusty, telling everyone what to do and getting exasperated by Bendix’s tomfoolery in a rapid-fire series of one-joke scenes. And he’s especially exasperated because Bendix’s anti-umpiric prejudice means he’s trying to get kicked out.
By this point Frawley was a major investor in the PCL’s Hollywood Stars. Although this film might have been a good opportunity to film at the Stars’ Gilmore Field, with its mere 11,000 seats suitable to stand in for the Texas Interstate League, this is yet another movie which employed L.A.’s Wrigley Field [capacity 22,000]. By now the brick outfield wall seen in Alibi Ike is covered with ads [Wildroot Cream Oil, Evans Automatic Lighters, Rayve, Auto-Lite, Ford, Chesterfields, “See Sun Valley”, and the tantalizing “Give her a cedar chest”], which are the same no matter what Texas town we’re in.
Is there an unnecessary subplot in which gamblers try to get our hero to fix games? Yes, just like in Alibi Ike and Death on the Diamond, there is an unnecessary subplot in which gamblers try to get our hero to fix games. I think by 1950 it was pretty implausible that this would be a pervasive threat in the major leagues, but it still makes sense in the Texas Interstate League. Head gambler Panhandle Jones is played by Jeff York, who would gain about 60 pounds over the next five years and portray Mike Fink, King of the River.
Climactic game? Yes, but we don’t care who wins. All we want is for Two-Call Johnson to be redeemed in the eyes of the lynch mob.
Will it wow me, the modern viewer, with its documentation of a bygone age, and if so, how? In addition to being an early glimpse of the sitcom family, Kill the Umpire‘s coverage of baseball obsession in Florida and Texas before expansion is interesting, as are the details of umpires’ equipment. And it’s a reminder that Lee Elia’s famous discourse on the attendees at Cubs games could have applied to any team for the majority of baseball history, when the typical game was played during 9-to-5 working hours and the addict risked economic disaster by feeding his habit.
There are no major league teams involved [the spring training games are between a “St. Louis” and a “New York” with a hideous non-interlocking NY on their caps], so instead of getting a look at authentic uniforms, we get a look at fictional uniforms, in particular the “Stetsons”.
Rating? Three Bendices out of four.