Short Baseball Movies: Opening Day

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It doesn’t yet feel like Opening Day in Pennsylvania, since this is roughly the 45th of a forecast 60 straight days with a high in the mid-40s, but that’s what it is. Time to wing that ceremonial ball into the Allegheny and inspect the comic short Opening Day (Roy Rowland, 1938).

I saw a couple of Robert Benchley’s short films in my youth, but have always thought of him as a writer only. My parents had a trove of old humor collections, and Benchley was my favorite, aside of course from Dave Barry, the Benchley of his day. Thurber — too sad. S.J. Perelman — too cynical, and usually requires familiarity with the things he’s spoofing. Jean Kerr — hilarious, but at age 11 I didn’t identify with her struggles to keep up with other wealthy mothers in the early sixties. Erma Bombeck — kind of repetitive. Or as I now realize, extremely repetitive, though she made me hope strongly that the E.R.A. would be ratified soon. Clarence Day — too corny. Will Rogers — basically a bunch of obviously true statements, similar to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. E.F. Benson — hilarious and may have introduced me to the concept of the “unreliable narrator”.

Benchley — perfect. Why? Because of the silliness. The roundups of scientific findings are written in the kind of baffled style that suggested little of either intellectual ambition or anti-intellectualism. Parodies of The Good Earth, Wagnerian opera synopses, and travel writing about the childlike natives of Spain may not be spot-on like Perelman’s stuff, but they have endless randomness for the delight of all. The offhand names he comes up with for things stick with me. Minerals called “nergium” and “philutium”, a typical flower called “MacNerty’s Fields-Awash”, a bestselling book called “How to Decorate Your Mergenthaler Linotype Machine”, go-getting businessmen named “Kleek” and “Billigs”. The brilliant business start-up slogan “MacGregor and Benchley: Fine Frogs for Fussy Folk”. Dampfboot, tinsmith to the gods. Brilliant poet Lingard M. Lilacs.

Now the winter wore on, and it was still the birthday of Whang the Gong, for Whang the Gong liked birthdays, for birthdays are holidays and holidays are good. And Rum Blossom, his wife, came to him and said, lowering her eyes as she pulled the stump of an old tree and threw it into the wood-box, “I am going to have another baby.” And Whang the Gong said, “That is up to you.” And he rolled over and shut another eye, which was his third, kept especially for shutting. So Rum Blossom went into the library and had another baby. And it was a woman, or slave, baby, which, in China, is not so hot.

Benchley’s persona in his short essays is the typical middle-aged middle-class white-collar New Yorker between the World Wars, or he thinks he’s typical. A man who went to college, but not an Ivy League, maybe Hobart College or Bucknell [Benchley himself was a Harvard Lampoon alum]. A man who came to New York from a provincial city, enjoys the theater, is bemused by opera, and doesn’t see the appeal of motion pictures. He prefers an old-fashioned Christmas with ice-skating and sleigh rides to any vacation involving palm trees or a swimming pool. He follows college football, goes to horse races because his friends do, and looks down on baseball somewhat. His wife is educated and might be an editor or something. His frustrations include unbearably hot vacation trains, his sons’ bratty wealthier boarding-school chums, and the chaos of trying to meet friends arriving on a transatlantic steam liner.

Most of Benchley’s short films were made for MGM, some based on his columns and almost all written by him. Most or all are 8 to 11 minutes long. In the typical Benchley short [How to Sleep, How to Eat, A Night At the Movies, That Inferior Feeling], he’s the wry, faux-instructional narrator, describing the activities of a bumbling everyman [e.g. Joe Doakes] played by himself.

Then there’s the ones where he addresses the camera. The Romance of Digestion and The Courtship of the Newt are nonsensicalist spoofs of the science/nature documentary in which an expert uses charts and exhibits to lead the viewer through the basics of some subject. And occasionally he’s the pompous figure of fun, a Michael Scott type who blathers on with a combination of unintentional comedy and unctuous failed jokes. This describes his first theatrical appearance, The Treasurer’s Report [made for Fox], a filmed version of a comedy routine done for friends. What about Opening Day? Just as his early Fox film The Sex Life of the Polyp was adapted by MGM as The Courtship of the Newt with better production values, this is a repackaging of The Treasurer’s Report.

The plot: It’s the grand opening of the City of Sneeversport Municipal Park, with the hometown team about to start the season against Center Rusk. Mr. Benchley, city treasurer, is drafted to throw out the first pitch, in the absence of the honorable mayor George X. Peebles. But first, he’d like to deliver some words of welcome.

The speech: He bloviates in dry terms about the budget and the community. His vague and distracted comments are unpredictable, yet fall short of captivating. He uses the business buzzwords of the time, like the Babbitts Benchley parodied in his columns.

The response: A mass deadpan display of fidgeting that I found hilarious. At one point everyone applauds to get him to stop talking*. Players on the field sleep, do invisible-bicycle aerobics and play Hot Hands. There are three speaking characters — Benchley, a local grandee who introduces him [the team owner?], and a heckler played by the flinty John Butler of a billion other MGM shorts fame. [Here’s a piece about one of their “Crime Does Not Pay” two-reelers.]

Benchley: There is just one point that I would like to make, though, before we get on with this baseball game, which I suppose some of you are more interested in than in the condition of the city’s finances. But that one point is this. that for every cent you pay in taxes, you get an equivalent return in civic improvements.


Benchley: Thank you, my friend.

What are players like? Playful. The Sneeversport logo is a big “S”, and they wear multi-striped stirrups like today’s Cardinals or the 1956 Beavers. [Thanks, Uni Watch.]

What are managers like? N/A

What are umpires like? N/A

Is “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played over the credits? Strangely, no.

Any cameos from big-leaguers? You know, I wouldn’t be surprised. But not even John Butler is listed in the credits, so it’ll remain a mystery.

Climactic game? No, but there’s an exciting surprise at the end.

Was it filmed at Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field? It was! It has that pilaster-studded LF wall you can see in the top photo here, and also visible are the “345” and “412” markings in left center and deep center. Add it to the list.

Will it wow me, the modern viewer, with its documentation of a bygone age, and if so, how? Well, he throws the pitch while standing in the front row of the crowd, instead of shambling over to the mound to bounce one over the plate. Somewhere along the decades this became accepted practice only for ceremonial hurlers who are superannuated or enfeebled.

We chose Friday April 11th because that was the anniversary, or rather is the anniversary, of the acquisition of Sneeversport from the Indians. I don’t think many of us here know the actual conditions surrounding the deal made with the Indians at that time. The Indians, as you know, held most of the land between what is now Main and Elm Streets. They weren’t very large Indians — would you mind standing up, Dr. Detweiler? — About the size of Dr. Detweiler, I should say, ha ha ha — but they did hold this land, and there seemed to be no way of getting them off it. Their chief was a man named Ekstrom, or Bergquist, or something like that — which being translated means “Chief Big So-and-so”. And he was a very good businessman, for such a small Indian.

* This happened repeatedly at my college graduation. Why? Nobody could hear the speaker. Literally, nobody could hear him. At the beginning, people less than fifty feet away could hear him. There were about 15,000 people there. Most couldn’t hear him from the start, and once a few started talking, nobody at all could hear him. It was a real shame.

Baseball Movies: Kill the Umpire

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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.

Baseball Movies: Death on the Diamond


Death on the Diamond [Edward Sedgwick, 1934] is unique among baseball movies.  It isn’t about a rookie’s struggles fitting in.  It isn’t about underdogs struggling to win the pennant.  It isn’t about the struggles of a veteran losing his skills.  It isn’t about the relationship between different generations of men.  Is it about baseball?  Every bit of it takes place at baseball facilities.  But this is 100% a murder mystery, and the baseball workplace is the setting.  Part of a gimmicky series of whodunits by Cortland Fitzsimmons [tremble with fear as your mind’s eye envisions the inanity of The Girl in the Cage, co-written with a consulting magician, and Crimson Ice: A Hockey Mystery!], the original book probably handicapped the filmmakers quite a bit.  The movie’s plot is significantly LESS complex and preposterous than the original story, which involved more than one woman, more than one team, and a protagonist who’s different in every way except for being named “Larry”.  Even so, it’s hard to successfully adapt a book whose only positive quality is its breakneck pace and unputdownability.

The preposterosity of the whodunit genre is highlighted when you see it taking place in a non-classical setting like this.  Maybe at an isolated country house in Shropshire people would keep going about their business as one of them gets murdered every three days.  Maybe that would happen at a small-town theater company or at an idyllic fishing town in the Thumb of Michigan.  But I refuse to believe a baseball game would resume ten minutes after a baserunner was killed by a sniper.  And after the second or third attempted murder, if the team just continued with its schedule, the local paper’s headline would be “CARDINALS DEFY KILLERS!” as it is in Death on the Diamond, but there would be plenty of subheads* asking what the hell they are thinking, or maybe asking who the killers are, instead of treating a spate of murders like a spate of injuries.

* The next words below that headline are “LIVER’S HEALTH DETERMINED BY GLYCINE TEST” and “POLICE TO ENFORCE CLOSING LAW FOR BEER PARLORS“.  Not quite as big, but big news.

After every horrifying incident, the players grit their teeth and say they’re not going to give in to terrorism.  Manager Pop Clark gives an impassioned speech at one point about how the American people simply cannot be asked to do without baseball, and he doesn’t want to think about the effect it would have on the average joe if the Cardinals postponed a few games.  The plot of this movie literally is the following. Baseball team is bad investment that loses money, crime lord wants to take over team, first he tries to get team’s new ace Larry Kelly to throw a game, and then he starts ordering hits on their players.  Basically everyone knows he is doing this because he’s the only mob figure in the movie and the only other potential owner, so the mystery is more about  who he’s hiring to do the killings.  The movie’s universe also has exactly one reporter, one umpire, and one woman.

For more details, I’ll turn to synopses from a beloved figure at Baseball Think Factory who has recommended this movie regularly and vociferously.

A sniper kills a St. Looie Cardinal as he rounds third base in Sportsman’s Park (it was filmed on location)—and the game goes on!

A pitcher is called into the clubhouse just as the first batter of the game is stepping up to the plate. He doesn’t come out, and they find his dead body stuffed in a locker—and the game goes on!

And a lovable catcher is poisoned by a hot dog—and the game goes on!

And the Cardinals win the pennant! The Cardinals win the pennant!

Now how in the f*ck can anyone not love a movie like that?

Death on the Diamond blows every other cheesy Hollywood baseball flick out of the water. Forget your stupidly sentimental Field of Dreams and your ####### literary stretches. This is the Reefer Madness of baseball movies, with three murders, an aborted scheme by the mob to take over the St. Louis Cardinals (filmed in part in Sportsman’s Park), and with perhaps the greatest character actor of all time in one of the leading roles. Of course I can only be referring to the mighty Nat Pendleton, recognizable from The Thin Man and an infinite number of other movies. Nat Pendleton alone makes any film worth watching.

And he doesn’t even mention the non-fatal plots, including Medea/Creusa-style poisoned gloves, and mobsters shooting out the tires leading to Larry’s minor wrist injury and estrangement from the team (Pop: “Costs money to carry disabled men on this trip”).

"When it comes to the hot dogs, I'm an epigram!"

Being in the whodunit genre, Death on the Diamond doesn’t move along at a rapid clip, since the audience needs to be confident that every potential piece of evidence was clearly presented.  There’s multiple opportunities for dramatic actors to really ham it up [see the end of this post for examples].  For comic relief, the aforementioned Pendleton plays a really dumb guy who feuds obsessively with the umpire who apparently travels with the team, played by legendary Three Stooges impresario Ted Healy (see picture at right).

When Larry Kelly shows up to lead the team he has some “first they hate each other, then they love each other” snappy banter with the woman, Pop Clark’s daughter and the team secretary.  This snappy banter is utterly cringeworthy, the “then they love each other” part of the equation is more like “then she loses enough brain cells that her revulsion turns to indulgent fondness”, in the effervescent romantic tradition of Mr. Deeds and Me, Myself and Irene, and I really didn’t like the guy.  He’s played by Robert Young, future titular protagonist of Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.  All I know about either of those shows is that the Robert Young character was kind, trustworthy and beloved by all, so he shows some range as the cocky airhead Larry Kelly.

Is it a period piece? Oh, no.  Ripped from the headlines.  At least the teams’ uniforms are.  According to the Hall of Fame, 1934 was the ONLY year that the Reds had an odd little touch on their tops — the word “REDS” written at the end of the sleeve parallel to the cuff.  If you want to see every detail of the Cardinals’ flannel bird-on-bat jerseys and red-white-and-blue striped stirrups from the Gashouse Gang era, this movie is for you.  Also if you want to see the Reds wearing weird hats with “CR” on them, which the Hall of Fame denies ever happened.

Cameos from big-leaguers? Several Cardinals are extras and stand-ins, including Ernie Orsatti [father of legendary TV stunt coordinator Ernie Orsatti] as the baserunner who gets shot.  But the spotlight is on a big-league stadium, not a player.  In an unusual move for the time, especially for a cheapo genre movie like this one, some of it was shot at the Cardinals’ home field, Sportsman’s Park.  You can see the St. Louis Globe-Democrat ad on the centerfield wall.  In fact, during the first Reds-Cardinals game, you can see the brick building advertising Lackner signs behind left-center, indicating that it’s Cincinnati’s Crosley Field…although that may be from stock footage.

Shooting was divided between Sportsman’s Park and, of course, L.A.’s Wrigley Field.  I wonder which one had the “THEY CAN’T BEAT US” sign above a doorway in the locker room — that’s a nice little detail.

What are ballplayers like? There’s a couple really dumb guys who say goofy stuff.  Otherwise, they’re smug bastards who have fake smiles all the time and try to one-up each other in front of girls. Larry Kelly is particularly smug, and the reporter played by Paul Kelly is even worse.  Even the brim of his reporter hat looks like a smirk.  This creates tension and brings more heat to the obligatory “Someone in this room is a murderer.  We’re all suspects.” scenes than you would get from a jovial bunch of buddies.

Can the star play baseball? No.  On some of his pitches the film is clearly sped up at the moment when he releases the ball.  For a 27-year-old in 1934 this is not impressive.  Ex-Olympic wrestler Nat Pendleton looks like a ballplayer, though.  The Hack Wilson type.

What are managers like? Pop Clark is sort of a Jimmy Stewart type, with a hangdog look and a paternal, ever-patient demeanor.  He looks like Jesse Haines, whose nickname was “Pop” at this stage of his career, and who was in his 15th of 18 seasons with the Cardinals in 1934.  Actually the team owner, Pop is running out of money and had to fire the coach and take over himself.  The players admire and adore him.  They were really bad last year, they got worse except for adding Larry Kelly, their stars keep getting murdered, but they’re intent on winning the pennant so Pop stays afloat and doesn’t need to sell the team to someone with money.

David Landau, seen here in Union Depot (1932). As Pop Clark he looks just like this but with a baseball cap.

One of the most dignified and humorless managers I’ve seen in a baseball movie, Pop is played by the tall, sonorous stage actor David Landau, who was the villain in Horse Feathers, Wallace Beery’s frustrated rival in She Done Him Wrong, and the warden in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.  Unlike a lot of the actors, both he and Madge Evans as his daughter look like they’d rather be in a less ridiculous movie.

What are umpires like? I didn’t think this question would be needed.  Aren’t all movie umpires the same?  Gruff and impatient?  But in this movie the umpire has some odd emotional weaknesses.  Basically he spends all his time arguing with Nat Pendleton.  He is ALWAYS in the Cardinals’ clubhouse.  He flies off the handle when someone calls him “Crawfish”, which is all the time.  His name is Terry O’Toole!  Terence Cartwright O’Toole!  And then…oh boy…at a crucial moment he says “I’ll go to the commission, as sure as my name is Crawfish!”

Is William Frawley involved? No.  He was probably insulted by the lack of verisimilude, and by the suggestion that L.A.’s Wrigley Field wasn’t sufficient to film every baseball movie imaginable.

Climactic game? Of course.  And this time…not just pride is at stake.

Will it wow me, the modern viewer, with its documentation of a bygone age, and if so, how? Getting a look into Sportsman’s Park and Crosley Field, and that’s about all.  The players spend some time doing fielding drills, and they casually do bare-handed grabs that everyone would use a glove for nowadays.  You’ll enjoy the scene-stealing attempts of Nat Pendleton, DeWitt Jennings, and as the unhinged umpire, Ted Healy, who was best known for things other than acting.  Click here to read the monologue he declaims after the poisoned mustard attack.

Click here [SPOILER ALERT] to read the monologue by which the murderer confesses, when he regains consciousness after being spotted skulking around in the dugout by Larry Kelly, who then knocked him out with a fastball thrown from the mound.

And here’s some amazing repartee between Pendleton and Healy early in the film.

– [To a batboy] Now you run along and don’t bother us ballplayers.
– Ballplayer! [chuckling] Get him!
– Don’t tell me they’re lettin’ you empire again this year!
– Whad’ya mean, lettin’ me?  They begged me to empire.
– About time this league got some empires what’s got eyesight.
– What’s the matter with my eyesight?
– Nuttin’.  Only you can’t see.
– Oh…
– A man’s gotta settle down on first base and raise a family before you call him safe.
– How do you know?  When did you ever get to first base?
– What?…Everytime you wasn’t empiring, that’s when.  Every time.
– Ya know, they don’t call you Truck Hogan for nothin’.  You couldn’t run out a two-bagger without slipping your gears. [chuckling]
– Hey, listen.  Let me tell you something, Crawfish.
– Now wait a minute.  Get this straight!  My name is not Crawfish, you hear me?  My name is Terry O’Toole!
– Yeah, and mine’s Santa Claus.  Listen, your name’s Crawfish.  K. R. A. W. F. I. Ish.  Crawfish.  And no credit to the Crawfish family.
– Keep it up, keep it up.  I guarantee I’ll fine you fifty dollars.
You fine me fifty dollars?  What are you talking about?  Say, you ain’t empirin’ yet!  Besides,[gesturing aggressively] your name is Crawfish, see –
– That’s all I want you to do, hit me.  Do me a favor, will ya!  Do me a favor! Hit me!  That’s all I want you to do!
– [smiling] Aw, no.  It’ll never be said of Truck Hogan that he ever struck a blind man.  But I’ll drop ya a hint!  [he drops a bat on umpire’s foot]
[they start shouting incoherently]

Rating? 3 Jesse Haineses out of 5.

Baseball Movies: Alibi Ike


"Malaria, eh? Where can I send the rest of my pitchers to get it?"

Alibi Ike [Ray Enright, 1935] is the third baseball movie to star Joe E. Brown, and like the second [Elmer the Great], it’s based on a Ring Lardner story.  The first was called Fireman Save My Child, and I don’t think TCM ever shows it.  There were about five other movies called Fireman Save My Child between 1915 and 1945, and the horning in of a baseball subplot into that stock story probably did not make for a good film.

Alibi Ike is a bit of a classic and it’s a delight to watch.  I say that as someone who’s usually disappointed by the old-timey slapstick comedies.  Laurel + Hardy, Wheeler + Woolsey, and Abbott + Costello made a lot of movies quickly, and they tend to contain a bunch of routines which have so little to do with the plot that, much like certain animated comedies on the Fox Network, it’s impossible to remember which movie has the sight gag sequence with the car engine being used to cook breakfast or whatever.  Alibi Ike looks great and has sharp editing, good character actors everywhere, and [of course] a professional script.

I only knew Joe E. Brown as the foolish millionaire in Some Like It Hot — until I got familiar with the TCM capsule descriptions, because Joe E. Brown is up there with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and Loretta Young as a fixture of the forgotten films they show between midnight and noon on weekdays.  His heyday was really 25 years before Some Like It Hot, and in this film he reminds me of early Jim Carrey more than any other black-and-white comedian does.  He’s a wacky weirdo surrounded by a functioning society of normal people, but he has such confidence and is improbably capable at what he does, so everyone deals with him on his terms and then scratches their heads in confusion when he leaves.

Here, he plays Frank Farrell, a star pitcher and star hitter for Sauk Center who’s now a rookie for the Chicago Cubs.  He’s their only hope now that Pennock has been sent to the Yankees, and he gets on the nerves of the manager [“Cap”] because of his frankly inexplicable behavior.  There’s the massive overconfidence that makes him lose games after taking dumb risks, there’s his hick naivete, and then there’s the fact that he’s a pathological liar.

The premise here is that he makes up “alibis” [what we would now call “excuses” — really, the word “alibi” is no longer used AT ALL in the way Alibi Ike uses it] for everything he does.  But he makes up an alibi for sneezing, he makes up an alibi for receiving a letter, he makes up an alibi for eating peanuts, he makes up an alibi for being great at billiards.  This last one he does in the way your stereotypical pool shark does, being self-effacing and then blowing people away, but he’s not trying to trick anyone.  He’s just being weird.

This quirk is maintained consistently throughout the movie, to an admirable extent which is a bit worrying at times.  Also, I do not know why they were calling him “Ike”.  Someone asks why they call him “Ike” when his name is Frank, and the answer is “‘Cause he’s got an alibi for everything.  Alibi Ike.”  Lardner’s story is no help either.

With this premise, there could be tons of conversations where his insistence on making things up gets funnier and funnier, but the movie falls short in that respect.  They kept some of the story’s dialogue, but could have used more [it’s less than 7,000 words and almost all dialogue].  Instead, there’s a lot of one-liners which leave his interlocutor flummoxed and silent.  It makes you appreciate the craft of the Marx Brothers’ scripts.

The movie follows Lardner’s story pretty precisely, except that the hometown sweetheart of the story is now also the manager’s sister-in-law, and they threw in a “gamblers want him to throw the game” subplot which is ignored in every other scene, though it does lead to a great car chase.  The scene where they put him wise to the scheme is classic.

Alibi Ike: “Hey, what is this, anyway?”
Gangster boss: “This is a Christmas party, Farrell, and we’re playin’ Santa Claus.”
Alibi Ike: “Whaddya mean, Santa Claus?”
Gangster boss: “Now, quit kiddin’.  We’re giving you a choice.  We’re either gonna fill your stocking or your coffin, understand?”
Gangster: “Now, we’re giving you a big opportunity!  You can be a rich young man if you’re smart.”

The slapstick is sparse, but funny [an out-of-control car, an elevator, and a baggy jersey].  A lot of the comedy comes from Joe E. Brown’s face [his thin eyebrows and mouth remind me of Bob Hope, but when he makes a face it’s more like Jim Carrey], and his vocal tics.  I want to see him in something else now, to see if the goofy hick accent is his trademark or if it was put on for this movie.

Since it’s easier to write by asking oneself questions and then writing free-form answers, that’ll be our format for baseball movies, for which many of the questions will be the same.

Is it a period piece? I can’t tell.  The headlines at the beginning place us in a world where the major baseball news is PENNOCK TRADED FROM CUBS TO N.Y., CINCINNATI TO BUILD ATTACK AROUND POOLE, and RUTH SIGNS CONTRACT AS TRAINING SEASON OPENS. *

When Alibi Ike was made, Babe Ruth was 39, about to retire, and trying to get the Yankees managerial job before going to the Braves for a final season.  Herb Pennock was 40.  This puts the story in maybe 1925, at the height of those two guys’ stardom.  However, Pennock never played for the Cubs, and the only Poole the Reds ever had was in 1902-03, placing us in a parallel universe.

The uniforms we see mostly have a big C [not “Chicago” or “Cubs”] on the hat, and a C surrounding a bear on the jersey.  It’s the pointy C that we now see in the Reds, Bears, and Hiroshima Carp logos.  They’re probably Cubs uniforms from the early 30s, which means they’re white with blue and red designs.

The plot involves a pioneering night game, a 1935-specific detail**.  But the crime/throwing-games plotline seems like a throwback to the Ty Cobb/Joe Jackson era.  I think we’re operating in an idealized 1935 with Lardnerian characteristics.

Cameos from big-leaguers? Yes, but none are mentioned by name, none have any lines, and they aren’t really stars.  Out of 18 listed as “Major League Baseball Player (uncredited)” on IMDB, I’ve only heard of Don Hurst, Smead Jolley, Bob Meusel, and Jim Thorpe.  Most were washed up from the major leagues as of 1934 and playing for the Hollywood Stars [later partially owned by William Frawley] or some other PCL team.  Hiring restaurant-quality players like this as extras makes the film a lot better, and I’m surprised that they got no credit.

Is William Frawley involved? Yes.  He’s the manager.  They call him “Cap”, or “the Captain”, although he’s retired from playing.  At 47 he seems about 60.  Just as he seemed about 60 on I Love Lucy, when he was almost 70.  His wife wears a very weird floppy hat to a game at Minute 15.  Her sister is the rookie’s love interest and wears a horrible ruffled peignoir at Minute 20.

The age structure in this movie is all over the place, and I thought a table would be the best way to present the results. [Click it for a better view.] Note particularly that the data is homoscedastic with respect to age, but female gender is correlated with low variance across the three age variables.

Can the star play baseball? He played the game a lot and was a famous fan.  In this film I think we see him swing the bat once and connect with a slow pitch.  As a pitcher he has a great exaggerated windup, but we don’t see the ball leave his hand and go all the way to the plate, except in the scene where he’s intentionally walking everyone so he can look like more of a badass later on.  He makes a couple of very athletic plays in the climactic game.  I give him a 7, considering that he was 42 at the time.

What are ballplayers like? Jovial, competitive, but sincere.  Constant low-stakes pranks.  Basically princes of guys.  Which reflects the happy-go-lucky flow of Ring Lardner’s stories, less exaggerated and less nostalgic than Damon Runyon’s.  They get pretty mad when Ike embarrasses them with trick pool shots.

What are managers like? Gruff.  Obviously William Frawley is gruff, but the “Giants'” manager is gruff too.  Frawley’s wife Bess is bluff, approaching gruff.

Climactic game? Yes.  It seems like the movie covers about a month in the characters’ lives [albeit a month in which Ike and Dolly meet, fall in love, get separated by travel, get engaged, get separated by a quarrel, and then get back together], but it goes from the first day of spring training to the pennant-clinching game.  This game is against the Giants, who are clearly wearing Cardinals uniforms.  Bird on bat, classic.

The climactic game is ALSO the first night game at the Cubs’ field, which seems like an unnecessary risk.  It certainly was not filmed at Wrigley Field in Chicago, though the outfield fence is a brick wall which figures in the plot.  Like a ton of other baseball movies, it was filmed at the other Wrigley Field.

Will it wow me, the modern viewer, with its documentation of a bygone age, and if so, how? Occasionally – like the car chase, the footage of night baseball which must have been a real struggle to film, and the scene when he gets arrested for acting like a moron in a jewel store.  There’s not much baseball footage, but it’s realistic and involves players whose stature at the time was akin to that of Sal Fasano and Doug Glanville today.

* One of the sports pages also has the tantalizing headline “COLLEGES BATTLE IN LEAGUE“.  Now that’s lazy writing.

** The first MLB night game was in 1935, at the Reds’ Crosley Field.

Rating? 5 Ruthvens out of 6.

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