Review: Horse Feathers (1932)

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At Paramount Pictures The Marx Brothers released a row of comedies with seemingly arbitrary names evoking fauna like Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and of course Duck Soup.  The phrase  “Horse Feathers” is essentially a variation on “Nonsense” though it sounds rather archaic by today’s standards. That hardly detracts from any of its charms as a film.

There must be a location — a place for the brothers to be unleashed upon the world where they can belittle and bash heads all at the same time. What better place than a university campus that pantheon of learning dating all the way back to the Greeks? It commences with a perfect opening ceremony that’s quintessential Groucho.

He accepts his new post by badmouthing his eminent predecessor, pulling on the facial hair of all his eminent faculty, besmirching the reputation of his eminent institution and singing a typically cheeky diddy, “I’m Against It.”

His son played by none other than his younger brother Zeppo has been spending his idle hours outside of the classroom and off the football field in the company of a College Widow (Thelma Todd). Much like “Horse Feathers,” this might come as another antiquated term or at the very least euphemistic. It usually denotes a woman who lived near college campuses to romance male students. She was commonly known to be easy pickings. But that’s enough context. Watch the film and you’ll probably have all the context you need because Groucho wants to get in on the action too — not to mention the other brothers.

However, there’s more important business at hand. Namely the fact that Huxley hasn’t had a good football team since 1888. Even in 1932 that was still a very long time ago. As Groucho notes they’re neglecting football for education. At the behest of his son, he personally heads down to the Speakeasy to dig up some talent. It isn’t the least bit ethical so obviously, the school’s new head promptly heads straight there.

Before he can enter, however, he needs to provide the password and you guessed it the gatekeeper is the bootlegger Baravelli (Chico). Getting inside is more convoluted than you ever imagined. Of course, the actual joint is then Harpo’s personal playground and overflowing slot machine. His hat runneth over so to speak. The steady stream of gags keeps on flowing.

I was genuinely cracking up whilst Harpo stokes the fire with books in Wagstaff’s office Groucho remarks that Baravelli has the brain of a four-year-old boy, and “I bet he was glad to get rid of it.” Classic Marx Brothers.

Follow that up with an invasion of a lecture hall with Chico and Harpo taking up seats in the front row after their typical fisticuffs while Groucho stands by making snide remarks over the professor’s shoulder. Another perfect scenario capped off by Groucho taking over and getting caught in a spitball war with his two most unruly students.

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Next, it becomes grand central station in the promiscuous college widow’s pad with slabs of ice getting repeatedly chucked out the window and Groucho repeatedly breaking up the action and the fourth wall by talking to the audience. He even invites them to go out to the lobby during  Chico’s piano playing. To be honest, I was never that big of a fan. Each of the brothers pays the dame a visit as does her other beau backing Darwin while Groucho constantly makes a chore of carrying out his umbrella and rubbers before exiting the busy room.

We have the resulting romantic date on the lake with the dame conspiring to steal Huxley’s signals. Groucho’s serenade of “I Love You” is the kicker. In fact, it’s very true that everyone says I love you — including each of the brothers — each in a very different way. Meanwhile, Todd assaults Groucho with baby talk and he all but tosses her out of their dingy (in case you didn’t realize, they had Life Savers candy back in 1932).

But the finale comes on the football field and there’s no doubt that Chico and Harpo liven things up. The most storied gags are courtesy of Harpo including a football yo-yo and laying down a minefield of banana peels, and of course chariots. They have no respect for the game. What better way to sum it up than marriage Marx Brothers style. They have no respect for that institution either.

Whether or not its second tier to the likes of Duck Soup (1933) or Night at the Opera (1935) is beside the point aside from being purely dismissive. Watching the boys at work here is arguably as wild and deliriously funny as anything they ever put to film. Here is a comedy that wonderfully condenses all that these brothers stood for as far as comic hooliganism was concerned in a gag reel that never has time to run out of steam. A wonderful summation of what college might be like if the Brothers had ever had the good fortune of making it there. Regardless, it’s a joy to the very last hike and the very last frame of chaos.

4/5 Stars

It Happens Every Spring (1949)

It_Happens_Every_Spring_VHSDoes this film glorify those who cheat and deceive taking advantage of others through the advances of modern science? Certainly not! Well, maybe a little but this is one of those ludicrous stories that never makes a pretense of being real life or a moral tale for that matter. It’s just a zany story that’s actually quite rewarding to be a part of.

At its core is a middling college researcher. He’s in love with a girl but not rich enough to offer her much of anything. What’s more intimidating is that her father is the dean of the school and Vernon’s tireless amount of research is getting him nowhere fast. Another seemingly trivial detail remains that every spring he gets obsessed with baseball and becomes distracted in his lectures, in his lab, and in life in general.

If you want to think about one of Disneys live-action classics, it’s easy to draw some similarities between this film and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). In the latter film, flubber is used for an advantage on the basketball court. Here it’s all about baseball.

Vernon Simpson (Ray Milland) discovers the extraordinary characteristics of his new substance methylethylpropylbutyl quite by accident when he rolls a dampened baseball by a block of wood only to have the two repel. His eyes almost pop out of their sockets when it works time after time. The implications are simple. He can harness this discovery to make it in the MLB and S.T. Louis has aspirations for a pennant but needs pitching. This is his chance to realize his dreams.

The film admittedly doesn’t explain much about why Vernon is infatuated with baseball. Perhaps it was enough that most Americans still were taken with it since it was “The National Pastime.” Regardless, he hurriedly gets a leave of absence from work and provides a cryptic message to his girl not to worry about him.

His baseball career as chronicled by the film is a meteoric rise that totally revels in its completely ludicrous nature. He walks into the clubhouse talks with the manager (Ted De Corsia) and the teams head executive (Ed Begley) who doubt this adamant thick-headed nobody who brags he can win 30 games. Boy, does he shut them up and they’re glad he did.

Most everything is textbook as far as a film about a science researcher playing major league baseball and using a miracle substance to win ballgames can be. His girlfriend thinks he’s involved with the mob. He tries to keep his true identity a secret under the pseudonym King Kelly, and he begins to form a bond with his veteran bunkmate and backstop Monk Lanigan (Paul Douglas). I’ve always been a fan of Paul Douglas as an actor because he plays his characters straight with a gruff yet palpable sincerity. It’s little different here. Milland though hardly an American bred on stickball nevertheless is a charmingly scatterbrained lead.

I didn’t realize it until now but I’m rather fond of science fiction baseball comedies. It breaks every rule of baseball. It’s absurd. There’s so much to call into question and yet I don’t want to. But just for the fun of it all, let’s look at a few obvious inaccuracies from It Happens Every Spring.

King Kelly would never get a win if he came into a game that his team was already winning and yet he asks for $1,000 in compensation for such an appearance. Furthermore, it looks like he’s committing a balk about everytime he winds up. And if he’s not then baserunners would be stealing on him all day because he never pitches from the stretch. He’d be an easy target.

Believe it or not, Kelly actually doctoring the baseball, secret formula aside, definitely is not all that ludicrous. Pitches such as the spitball and scuffball were famously used in the games early days. Pitchers like Burleigh Grimes, a personal favorite of mine, made a living off the pitch and though the spitball, in particular, was outlawed in 1920, pitchers like Grimes were grandfathered in. He continued throwing it until 1934.

Still, that didn’t completely deter later pitchers from using it like another Dodger great Preacher Roe and then Gaylord Perry in the modern era. As long as you didn’t get caught there was no recompense and the same can be said of Kelly. Again, we’re not glorifying cheating. Don’t get any ideas.

3.5/5 Stars

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

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I can’t think of another actor more apt to play this version of Jimmy Piersall’s story than Anthony Perkins. History reflects a more multifaceted even complicated individual.  By other accounts Piersall could be a real cut-up; here the story is very singular-minded in how it portrays its protagonist. It’s played for the drama which it no doubt was but you get to wondering if Piersall had written the script it might have turned out to be more of a comedy.

Robert Mulligan’s film suggests there are arguably the two most important people in Piersall’s life. The first is his father (Karl Malden) who from an early age instills his boy with the onus of making it to the big leagues. That’s the goal and his father watches proudly as his boy becomes a high school star while never letting his son rest on his laurels or let down his guard. He must be constantly vigilant, continually thinking ahead, all in an effort to land a contract with the Red Sox.

He starts out in the minor leagues and there he meets a pretty nurse, the relatively unknown Norma Moore playing the ingenue and his first wife Mary. She makes him deliriously happy and vice versa as they begin to build a life together.

But the conflict at the core of the biopic is Piersall’s own bouts with undiagnosed nervous breakdowns which would be now categorized as bipolar disorder. Put in the context of the era where mental disorders were more often than not left stigmatized and misunderstood, this is actually a fairly fearless film for taking on such source material. But, of course, much of the credit must begin with Piersall himself for being willing to acknowledge it all, to begin with.

Particularly foundational to this film is Jimmy’s ongoing relationship with his father. The scenario happens so often it seems like a cinematic trope but sadly it’s also very close to the truth. It occurs between a parent and their child when they get so vicariously invested and demanding and controlling of their child’s life that they heap so much pressure on them that it becomes nearly an unbearable weight to succeed. Compounded by the fact that these parents are usually trying to realize their own failed talent and never seem to find it within themselves to give their children a pat on the back or a word of encouragement.

You get the sense it was a vicious cycle. Their father never did it for them and so they wind up having a hard time showing any amount of their affection to their kids. It’s something, in this case, that must be earned on the ballfield or in Brian Wilson’s case earned with how many hit records he churned out and composed. Maybe it’s why a parent a la LaVar Ball seems to cherish the spotlight, commanding the media’s attention even more than his boy. Whatever the outcome is, it never seems enough.

It’s purely a testament to Karl Malden’s quality as an actor that he makes Piersall’s father into a nuanced man who is not a holy terror. In fact, even when he doesn’t say it outright we know full well he is proud of his son and he even loves him. He’s not a bad man by any means. That doesn’t make measuring up to his standards any less daunting or his behavior any less damaging.

Though tender and tortured in the everyday moments, Perkins performance on the ballfield feels artificial but you can hardly blame him for lacking the posture or the swagger of a ballplayer where hitting and fielding come as second nature. He looks too much like he’s playing at it — he’s too wooden — not like he’s actually played it his entire life.

Almost uncannily it seems that I find myself at certain movies only after the subjects are gone. Piersall was still a young man in the midst of a baseball career when his story and the subsequent film was made. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 87.

Whether this story is completely true or sensationalized, there’s still an essence of something meaningful here. That we should not be ashamed of our fears and we cannot live life in pursuit of what will earn us the affection of others. It will only succeed in running us into the ground.

That’s why the moment at the end of the film is so fitting, showing Piersall playing a lazy game of catch with his dad. There’s no agenda. No pressure. You simply get the joy of throwing that ball rhythmically again and again perfectly in sync with the person across from you. I’ve done it many a time with my own father and I permanently retired from the game after being little league champions in middle school. Still, I love baseball for those very simple pleasures that it offers.

3.5/5 Stars

The Stratton Story (1949)

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If you’ve never heard of the baseball player Monty Stratton, you’re not alone. In my days of wanting to be a ballplayer myself, I knew quite a bit about baseball Hall of Famers going back to the genesis of the game. But Stratton was not a Hall of Famer like Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb, George Sisler or Rogers Hornsby or even the members of the Bronx Bombers including Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio. Though famed Yankee Bill Dickey does makes a cameo in this one.

Stratton was not in the same category as these men and there is a reason for that. Tragedy struck his life. Interestingly enough, Hollywood looked to make a movie out of it calling on the talents of Jimmy Stewart as well as director Sam Wood. It’s Wood’s association with the picture which causes me to surmise it was meant to be another Pride of the Yankees (1942) with Wood taking up duties again and one All-American in Gary Cooper being traded out for another in Jimmy Stewart.

No disrespect to Monty Stratton or anything that he went through but at face value, his story is hardly that of Lou Gehrig. Still, maybe that’s the point and we can learn something from that. Generalizing and putting all baseball biopics together is in error and in this case, it feels callous. This is a film that makes Monty Stratton’s story into his own and it’s at times winsome in its simplicity and still equally moving.

Watching this picture anchored by James Stewart in another everyman role is as charming as ever. Equally enjoyable is Frank Morgan or even the budding romance with June Allyson coming to fruition within its frames. His brusque mother (Agnes Moorehead) who only knows the tough life of a farm woman even has her affectionate side; you simply need to get to know her. Also, having an old pro like Jimmy Dyke playing the big league manager is yet another touch of authenticity that might be easily overlooked in the modern day.

Through and through, this is Stewart and Allyson’s film as we watch Monty make a name for himself going from being an indefatigable farm boy with a cannon to the minors in Omaha, and finally to the big leagues where dreams are made. Equally important to his career trajectory is the parallel story of how a potentially disastrous first date turned into a lifelong romance with his girl Ethel.

She sees him through a great deal both the highs like the birth of their son to the lows, a fatal event that will change Stratton’s life forever. It’s in this portion where we could criticize the film for stalling but it does rightfully so as Stewart must make a decision whether or not he’s going to fight back to regain his life.

Eventually, he does, going further than any naysayer might give him credit for. Then again, you get the sense that Monty Stratton was the kind of ballplayer that most folks found it in their heart to cheer for. Part of that appeal is Stewart’s typical geniality certainly but the man he was portraying had to be fairly special too.

The spectator in the movie theater might remark Gable and Turner are better kissers on screen but I’d truthfully rather watch Stewart and Allyson. They’re more my type of people.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would have liked Monty Stratton too. He seemed like a humble fellow who lived his life with everyday dignity. They don’t always make them like that now. The same could be said for this movie.

The film closes with the prototypical “The End” credit but that really was not quite right. Because Monty Stratton was still pitching and had a long life ahead of him just waiting to be lived. That’s the power of this story. It recognizes a man who did not let circumstance deter him from continuing to live a full life.

Stratton died on September 29th, 1982 and within that time he made a second comeback to baseball, moved back to Texas to start a farm team, and was deeply invested in his community until his final days both in promoting Little League and attending his local church.

3.5/5 Stars

National Velvet (1944)

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“Everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly, once in his life.” ~ Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown

There’s been many a boxing and a ball sport movie and so it seems only fair that there be room for at least one more Technicolor horse drama, especially one with the breathtaking and gloriously unbridled energy of National Velvet.

It showcases the lofty aspirations riding on the back of a horse and carrying the effervescent hopes of a young girl. I’m certain we could use more movies like this — ones done with this amount of candor and geared toward a broad audience — namely the entire family.

True, Clarence Brown is a director mostly lost to time and perhaps understandably so. This isn’t so much of a technical marvel as it is a story that wraps up its audience with some amount of vigor.

Nor was it a film shot abroad in some exotic location. But that is hardly a criticism, mind you. This was Hollywood’s rendition of the British Isles created in Pebble Beach, California much in the same category of other such period classics like How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Lassie Come Home (1943) — the most obvious point of connection being the always admirable Donald Crisp.

Featured front and center is Elizabeth Taylor in the days when she hadn’t yet been propelled to iconic sex symbol status and still remained the sweet precocious little girl who made the screen sparkle with her adorableness.

Here she is as Velvet Brown. Other girls, namely her big sister (Angela Lansbury) are boy struck but Velvet can best be described as horse struck. She dreams about them in her sleep, thinks about them in her waking hours, and must stop the moment she sees one of her favorite thoroughbreds in the fields on the road home to her town of Sewells.

From the first time she sees “The Pie” in all his majesty, she’s absolutely enchanted by him. It was a love story meant to be. Stirred up by her mother’s own past forays in sport, Velvet begins to entertain thoughts of entering her beloved horse in the Grand Nationals which she believes he is capable of winning with the right training and a rider who knows him.

With the guidance of Mi (Mickey Rooney), a young nomad hired on by the family, they get the horse trained up for competition. But of course, the only one who truly can ride “The Pie” and believes he cannot put a foot wrong is Velvet herself.

Perhaps it’s not as epic as a Ben Hur chariot race or a pod race but there’s still somehow such investment in Velvet and her horse and we feel the same urgency that’s coursing through Mi as he’s watching the race. It’s an infectious moment that catches us up in its swelling emotions to the very last leg.

Far more important than the outcome of the race, however, is how Velvet remains true what she deems to be right. She never lets her pure love of horses — or this particular horse — be muddied by any amount of press or potential fame that might come out of the partnership. Because she’s not seeking any of that. Her intentions are very sincere. She’s doing it all for the sheer joy of getting to gallop across country with her best friend. That’s reward enough for her.

It’s true that Velvet’s parents prove to constantly upend our typical expectations and there’s a pleasure in finding out more about their true character bit by bit. They are folks of hardy stock who are plain but not without their unostentatious charm that comes from being bred in a world of hard work and no doubt Christian charity.

Anne Revere gives one of the most enjoyable performances of her career, start to finish, imbued with an impeccably dry wit that also comes with being a mother who loves her family dearly and aspires for them to have hopes and dreams to carry them through life. You get a sense that she desires they might be decent people who never weary of doing the right thing. There’s a sublime nuance to her turn that would be lacking from the film’s frames otherwise. She is the moral heartbeat and the counterbalance to every other character.

Fiction also mirrored reality in that Elizabeth Taylor truly became the tenderhearted horse whisperer as one of the few people who could actually handle and ride her horse. There’s no sense of parlor tricks and if it’s possible to say this, there’s almost a visible chemistry between her and her steed. They seem meant to be together. Fittingly, on her 13th birthday after the filming was done she was bequeathed her four-legged friend and they remained together for his entire lifetime.

The only rather odd performance or casting choice might seem to be Mickey Rooney who was still a major star in 1944 but sometimes his role doesn’t feel the most authentic. It feels like he’s playing at his part. Meanwhile, Taylor continually bowls us over with every drop of cheerfulness she has in her being.

Maybe I am unfairly prejudiced against Mickey Rooney but he always seemed more like a personality than a true actor. Here as Mi he more or less looks like a tragic story waiting to happen but now thanks to a girl and a horse, he’s getting his shot at redemption. Thankfully for us, this is not wholly his story but more so the story of the horse and its girl.

It’s a wonderfully forward-thinking message for its day that a young girl with ambition can succeed in a man’s world even on the racetrack. Fantasy or not this is a story that uplifts with sheer climactic euphoria.

To all the future teachers, doctors, lawyers, explorers, scientists, and jockeys, this film gives its message loud and clear. Dare to dream. You can’t worry about what others might say. Just go out and pursue whatever it is with all the passion you can muster. No matter the outcome, there will be little to regret.

4/5 Stars

Take Me out to The Ball Game (1949)

Take_Me_Out_To_The_Ballgame_(MGM_film).jpgThere’s something perfectly in sync between Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor so I could never choose another duo over them but Kelly and Frank Sinatra are such wonderful entertainers that they help make this period baseball number a real musical classic even if it has to fall in line behind a row of other quality contenders.

It’s easy to half expect to see Stanley Donen’s name on the marquee as director in part because of his prestigious partnership with Kelly but instead, we get an equally renowned name in Busby Berkeley. In fact, at this time Berkeley was a veteran of musicals. However, it’s true that Donen did help with crafting the narrative on this one with Kelly and would pick up directing duties with On the Town (1949).

America’s original Pasttime (before being challenged by Basketball and Football) is ripe for a musical homage as MGM seemed to take aim at all the popular arenas of entertainment. Set during the golden years of baseball, this story, in particular, takes interest in the fictional Wolves who share some resemblance to the famed Cubs of the early 1900s with the double-play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. In this film, the archetypal slogan, “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” is adapted into a giddy tune “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” with the trio of Kelly, Sinatra, and Jules Munshin taking the leads.

Esther Williams even gets her obligatory dip in the pool while still showing her prowess as a baseball player, a desirable heartthrob, and a club owner with a certain amount of business acumen. Because she really is at the core of the story’s plot.

You see the boys, O’Brien and Ryan, are having a grand old time coming off a stint in vaudeville during the offseason and now spring training is upon them and they are reunited with their clubmates along with the scintillating prospect of another league pennant. That is until they find out that they’re under new ownership, and they suspect it’s a stuffy nobody named K.C. Higgins.

Are they surprised with what meets their eyes? K.C. Higgins turns out to be a “she” instead of a “he” and a very attractive one at that. But that doesn’t detract from the bottom line. She’s a woman who expects that she knows the game better than they do. Thus, it’s a slight musical riff on the old battle of the sexes dilemma.

Their plan of action entails setting up their buddy Denny (Sinatra) with Ms. Catherine so they can keep her occupied and off their backs. Kelly is the fast-moving playboy ballplayer who also has a complicated relationship with Katherine Catherine (that’s what K.C. stands for). While the forward Shirley Delwyn (Betty Garret) is out to snag herself a man and sets her sights on poor helpless Dennis.

There’s a bit of a black sox scandal type thread that’s grafted in at the end with Edward Arnold playing his usual corrupt businessman who is looking to ruin O’Brien’s reputation and make a killing off betting against the Wolves. Thank goodness in this case Kenesaw Mountain Landis does not come in and expulse Gene Kelly who instead is allowed to dance another day this time with all his costars.

Aside from singing the game’s most revered song on screen, (which is a relief given its name), the film also has adequate room for some of the other important aspects of baseball namely antagonizing umpires, trash talk, clowning, and brawls. After all, what would America’s game be without those finer points?

Gene Kelly even gets around to putting another feather in his dancing cap with an Irish jig proving him to be yet again a master showman and virtuoso performer on taps. He’s also probably the first baseball player in history who carried two careers as a ballplayer by day and a hoofer by night. All in all, this was the kind of Technicolor spectacle that MGM was accustomed to offering up in the 40s and 50s and it’s satisfying stuff, if not quite their best.

3.5/5 Stars

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Battle_of_the_Sexes_(film).pngEmma Stone portraying Billie Jean King was an idea that I had never entertained before but there’s a certain resilience to her coupled with that winsome go-getter attitude which shines through her brunette locks and iconic frames. Simultaneously Steve Carell feels like just about the perfect person to embody Bobby Riggs a man I know very little about thanks only to hearsay and one caricature of a performance on The Odd Couple. Admittedly that’s not a lot to go on but Carell’s comedic background does it justice.

However, despite enjoying Battle of the Sexes thanks to its leads and it’s subject matter, there’s still something inside of me that can’t help but desire a documentary instead. Because it’s one thing for a film to graft in references to the cultural moment and quite another to be a cultural phenomenon in itself.

The Battle of The Sexes between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs was that type of event being televised and publicized like nothing before it in professional tennis. In the film, we have moments like Howard Cosell delivering coverage with Natalie Morales edited in. The lines between the real and the fictitious are so closely tied together.

It’s all so well documented. Billie Jean King is still with us and it seems more ripe for documentation than a dramatized biopic because with such a project there’s a questioning of how the story is being framed. Have certain things been repurposed or reimagined or are the majority of the facts delivered to us as they originally were?

For instance, it’s easy to read the relationship of Billie Jean King and Margaret Court through the lens of the present day and where they fall across the social spectrum now. Would that have been so cut and dry in 1973? I don’t know.

However, what is undeniable are the statements made by the likes of Rosie Grier and Ricardo Montalban commenting on the match. Those things particularly interested me because the words were pulled directly from the moment they came out of. They are as close to reality as we can get.

As a young boy, I had enough wherewithal to know about this event but the gravity of the moment never hit me until years later because I could not quite comprehend why it mattered. It was just one of the greatest tennis players in the world facing off against some old guy who used to play tennis.

Perhaps that might be selling Bobby Riggs a bit short because though he was in his 50s, he was already a member of the tennis hall of fame and won quite a few majors in his prime. But that completely misses the point of the argument.

As put so crucially by Billie Jean in the film, she was never trying to prove that women were better at tennis than men or even equals necessarily. What she was trying to show was that they deserved the serious respect and attention paid their male counterparts.

Because the inequality of pay alone seemed ludicrous given the number of ticket sales for both circuits. Billie Jean King had pioneered a new Woman’s Tennis League in protest only to be pushed out of the Lawn Tennis Association for those very reasons. The old guard represented by Jack Kramer was not yet ready to concede women’s tennis as a major draw and Billie Jean and the rest of her contemporaries were fighting up an uphill battle. They needed a major victory to turn the tides.

The stage had been set with Court, another preeminent star, getting fairly trounced by Riggs on Mother’s Day. It all but confirmed Riggs continued assertion that men were the dominant sex.

You could make the case that Billie Jean King was hardly just doing battle against Riggs because he was simply a gambler, a showman, and a clown who made the event into a media circus. It was the majority that sided with him that she was after. The men who would never concede that women deserved to be thought of in more multidimensional terms than housewives and marital companions. They could play tennis too and play it well.

So in its most gratifying moments, Battle of the Sexes suggests the import of what Billie Jean King accomplished for the sport of tennis turning the final match into a true cinematic showdown between Riggs and King. A singular event that has so much riding on it. Thus, I’m less inclined to be interested when it attempts to become didactic. The history speaks for itself.

3.5/5 Stars

Bull Durham (1988)

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Bull Durham is actually a fairly religious film. The only catch is the fact that the religion in question is baseball with its multitude of superstitions, curses, annual rituals, and rites of passage performed daily by all those playing in the games or sitting in the bleachers cheering on their club. There’s even a shrine set up to late-great Yankee backstop Thurman Munson. The other religious sects, namely Christians and adherents to voodoo, are shown as real airheads but really everyone in this film is a bit of a laugh.

I personally found the contemporary comedy Major Leagues (1989) a fairly nasty sports film but what sets Bull Durham apart is that good sense of fun while still truly finding the joy in baseball. Because it truly is a joy. I will stand by that as a lifelong lover of the game even if I hung up my spikes in middle school.

There are still very few feelings so exhilarating as throwing a baseball and hearing the crack (or ping) of the bat as the ball goes soaring into the outfield for a base hit. Or that great moment when you make that diving catch or get that winning hit and everyone cheers you on. Whenever the ball comes down the pipe in slo-mo and it feels like you can crush it to kingdom come. I experienced each of these wonderful sensations at least once in my middling career as a kid.

But most of the time, the experience is made up of a lot of strikeouts, errors, getting hit by pitches, and that’s just as much a part of the game as all those previously mentioned aspects. In such a way, it seems like baseball has always been wrapped up in the human experience and that what allows it connect all people.

This film, in particular, is a bit of a love triangle. Baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is annually immersed in the baseball culture of the Single-A, Minor League team The Durham Bulls. Each season she takes a young player under her wing, teaching them about the game, and holding court with them until they move on.

Her latest protege is the big strapping, bubbleheaded, heat-throwing pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Though Nuke has a big league arm he also can’t throw a strike. It’s the veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) who is brought in by the management to refine their young talent. They meet in a local bar for the first time only to almost get into a fist fight until Crash cooly asserts, “You couldn’t hit water if you were falling in it!” And it’s true. But under the tutelage of Anne and the wry experience of Crash, Nuke turns into something. Someone who actually has a chance at “The Show.”

Crash was there once for 21 days but he never had the talent of this young kid. So he must watch others move on to their big chance as he stays behind and grinds out his career away from the scrutiny of the bright lights and big contracts. And it’s in Bull Durham where something becomes increasingly clear.

We so often think of sports as glamorous shows of skill by superstars with million dollar paychecks which is in one sense true. But for every one of those stories, there are probably a thousand more who will never be known. No one cares if Crash winds up with the most career home runs in Single-A, except Anne that is. He ends up scrounging around for another job. Maybe a catcher for a different club or a small time management position. In fact, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the Annies and the Crashes because their whole life is baseball and yet in sporting terms, they’re past their prime. Thankfully they can have each other to dance through life together.

Bull Durham has it’s profane moments, it’s slow patches, and some good ones too but it’s the goods ones that usually stand out and the very fact that this film genuinely seems to care about baseball — but that does not mean there’s simply reverence — there’s enough respect to show the inane stuff too. It’s treated as American’s Pastime. But even that past time had the “Clown Prince of Baseball” (Max Patkin) who is also fittingly featured in this one.

Some of the best moments happen on the diamond with our two ballplayers giving themselves mental pep talks whether it’s predicting the next pitch in the batter’s box or going through the signs. When they’re gathered around the mound not to talk strategy but to discuss what wedding present they should get for their newly hitched teammate. And of course, every time Nuke shakes off one of his catcher’s signals, Crash proceeds to tell the opposing hitter what’s coming as payback. That’s when baseball is fun. Because it is a game. When you lose sight of that it ceases to evoke the same pleasures.

3.5/5 Stars

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

The_Fortune_Cookie_(1966)_poster.jpg“You can fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” ~ Inscription in the Fortune Cookie

For some inexplicable reason, I expected The Fortune Cookie to be in color. Maybe in some subliminal way, I assumed it would be like a dry run for the zany Odd Couple (1968), pairing the two stars who would make the most delightful comedic coupling in years. But once you get into the nitty-gritty and The Fortune Cookie is less of an intangible idea floating up in the sky, it’s very obvious that this is more akin to The Apartment (1960) and the obvious reason is Billy Wilder.

Once more he lets Jack Lemmon do his sympathetic role, that guy that we all know who is a bit of a loser but not a bad sort of fellow. From such a characterization Lemmon’s scintillating skill at both physical comedy and verbal jokes come off like they always seem to. You can’t help but smile. But Wilder places that same man — that sorry individual — a simple cameraman named Harry Hinkle, into a very cynical world indeed. It’s Wilder’s version of America.

While he unequivocally loves the country that welcomed him when he was an immigrant, that by no means suggests that Wilder is unwilling to satirize its very flaws. In fact, he relishes doing just that. Sometimes it feels like that was what Billy Wilder was put on this earth to do. Make people laugh and do it with a biting style that forces us to look a little closer at the incongruities around us.

You can easily make the case that the main attraction here are two noteworthy dynamic duos (although it’s slightly dependent on how you want to draw them up). First Billy Wilder paired with his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond yet again after their string of successes with Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), and One, Two, Three (1961) among others.

But perhaps just as importantly we have the genesis of the longstanding comedic collaboration between Lemmon and Walter Matthau. It just works. It’s easy to see why they continued starring together because when they’re in the same room wonderfully hilarious things come into being.

Otherwise, the film takes a wacky premise involving a Cleveland Brown’s punt returner leveling a CBS cameraman and draws them out as far as they can possibly go. It’s actually rather impressive that this single spark of an idea gave way to a fairly substantial picture. Because all kidding aside, and without consideration of its title, the film is not unsurprisingly cut out of Billy Wilder’s cynical worldview as already acknowledged.

Yet again he finds his perspective of America derived from some combination of screwball comedy and a more downbeat, melancholy tone. True, he made some delightfully dark films-noir but this same malaise somehow worked fairly well in his comedies too.

Here it’s perfectly enhanced by world-class shyster Whiplash Willie (Walter Matthau) the conniving ambulance chaser who takes great interest in his brother-in-law’s purported injuries on the football field — even if they wind up being next to nothing. The insurance company doesn’t know that and that’s the key.

The periphery is complicated by a private investigator (Cliff Osmond) staked out across the way who has their room bugged and under surveillance. Harry’s mother is constantly bawling. The wife (Judi West) that he once loved and who ran off with another man is tantalizingly close to returning to him. Meanwhile, the soft-hearted football superstar who bulldozed him, Boom Boom Jackson (Ron Rich), looks for any way to make his little buddy’s life more comfortable and it’s taken a major toll on his success on the field.

It’s these very relationships that have Harry seesawing back and forth as his wily brother-in-law coaxes him to keep working the angle so they can nab their $200,000 in recompense. Watching Lemmon pirouette in his electric wheelchair, stiff-necked in a brace is priceless. Concurrently, Matthau seems to be limbering up for all his greatest roles from The Odd Couple to the Bad News Bears (1976) showing off his own impeccable adroitness with curmudgeon comedy — delivering dialogue in such a tone with such a way about him that’s at the same time devious and terribly hilarious. He even answers the phone like nobody’s business.

Lemmon owns the final scenes, however, as he must try and reconcile this lie he has been made to live — this charade he has been playing for the sake of $200,000. Perhaps even more troubling than Harry’s lie and less funny is what happens to Boom Boom. Because he’s such a kind soul even dangerously subservient in how he follows cinematic precedence. But we can make the case that this is part of what Wilder is poking at.

The one moment his protagonist shows any integrity, the one moment he stands up, literally, is in the face of a supposed bigot. Even if it says little, there’s no denying that it says something. Sometimes we don’t need comedies to win the big battles. A film called The Fortune Cookie is not going to garner a lot of respect (nor should it necessarily) but it can at least get us to stop and think. Maybe the utter absurdity in some ways isn’t all that far away from our own existence. That’s part of its charm. Crack it open if you’re so inclined.

3.5/5 Stars

Hoosiers (1986)

hoosiers_movie_poster_copyright_fairuseThe last time I saw Hoosiers it was on VHS and I was only a boy and I hardly remember anything. Gene Hackman yelling. Dennis Hopper as a drunk. Jimmy the boy wonder, “The Picket Fence”, and of course Indiana basketball at its finest. But in those opening moments, as he drives into town and walks through the halls of his new home, I realized just how much I miss Gene Hackman. Yes, he’s still with us but the moment he decided to step out of the limelight and retire from his illustrious career as an actor, films got a little less exciting. His passionate often fiery charisma is dearly missed.

Norman Dale is a character who precisely reflects those very inclinations. He’s a man who had a long stint in the Navy following a lifetime ban from collegiate basketball. Supposedly he punched out some kid. The particulars aren’t all that important but what the town of Hickory represents for him is a second chance, a clean slate to leave his mark on.

And through a no-nonsense philosophy coupled with tough love he looks to get his pistons firing on all cylinders, the ultimate goal to lead his team to a winning season. However, his tactics early on receive the ire of most of the local fan base as well as many of his players who willfully walk out on his new regime.

Barbara Hershey is the skeptical love interest who is nevertheless a cut above most of the other locals. She went away for college and returned home in an effort to care for her family. She has the coach pegged early on but he is an individual who meets the pressure of the town’s expectations and combats them the only way he knows how, by coaching hard, fundamentally sound basketball.

Certainly, at first, his boys have their misgivings but once they buy into his system and realize that he will fight for them to the end, they really do become a team–the very word that they chant every time they leave their huddle. It’s meant to define them in every game they play. Hackman’s screaming tirades are just as good as I remember as he berates referees about every call imaginable, all in an effort to intercede on behalf of his players. Meanwhile. Dennis Hopper falls into the role of disgraced father catapulted to redemption with tremendous ease showcasing his typical savvy as a character actor.

Sometimes I consider the 1980s (rather unfairly) an era devoid of quality filmmaking but a film like The Hoosiers in its goodness, as sentimental as it is, feels so utterly sincere in all of its endeavors that it hard not to be won over. The rhythms of the plot are all there to develop one of the lasting feel-good stories of a generation and Hoosiers simultaneously set the groundwork for numerous subsequent and, more often than not, lesser sports films.

There’s one scene in particular that resonated with me. It’s not necessarily crucial but it’s poignant speaking to the character of the man before us. A young man comes to not only his teacher but to his coach questioning why Dale is giving the boy’s drunken, ostracized father a chance as an assistant coach. And essentially the answer has to do with grace. No one else will give the man a second chance. No one. But doesn’t he deserve it? Maybe not at all but Coach Dale is willing to give it to him. You get the sneaking suspicion he feels precisely this way because no one ever offered him any grace when he faltered. Small towns can often be rigid, set strictly in the ways of tradition. There’s no room for errancy or disgrace of any type but then coach comes to town and changes things. Redemption is possible.

As was commonplace at the time, every day is rife with Biblical imagery no more practical than an illusion to David versus Goliath in the State Championship. Because coach Dale and his boys are big fish in a small pond transported to a veritable ocean. But he says it all when with hands together in one final huddle he says proudly, “I love you guys.” At this point, the results really don’t matter though they play a good game. Something to be proud of, reflective of everything they’ve done the entire season, one last final exhibition of what they are — a team — first and last.

I was never a gifted basketball player hailing from the Kurt Rambis school of hustle and hard knocks and that makes me thoroughly appreciate this film. It’s fundamentally sound on and off the court. It also helps that I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia. Whether they like it or not Indiana basketball will always be defined by Hoosiers.

4/5 Stars