"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.