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Bendix had been the star of The Life of Riley on radio and in its 1949 film adaptation, but for contractual reasons had been replaced by Jackie Gleason in the new TV Riley.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: Alibi Ike

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"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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