Gentleman Jim (1942): Biopic by Marquess of Queensberry Rules

Gentleman_Jim_-_Poster.jpgBoxing movies and biopics are a mainstay of Hollywood. It’s an established fact so naming names is all but unnecessary. The affable brilliance of Gentleman Jim is its agile footwork allowing it to sidestep a myriad of tropes attached to biopics and the schmaltz that Old Hollywood was always capable of serving up.

Certainly, a great deal of credit must be heaped upon Errol Flynn who seems to relish the very opportunity to portray such a magnetic man as James J. Corbett — always perceptive and driven with a bevy of tricks at his disposal to get ahead. I can’t help but hear Butch Cassidy’s words in my ears, “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals. Corbett could live by that credo too.

Authenticity is to be trodden upon softly and so there is a sense Flynn has taken the “gentleman” moniker of his namesake and fashioned the role around his own roguish charm, good looks, and irrefutable charisma. Thus, it becomes almost second nature for him to play the part because there’s this sense that he’s playing what he knows best, and loving every minute of it.

He’s meant to come from hardy Irish stock with a jovial father (Alan Hale), two boisterous older brothers, an awestruck sister, and the ever maternal mother figure. Around all these types Flynn and Jim feel like outliers. They’re not meant to fit into this family and yet it somehow manages to work — Marty McFly anyone?

The script, co-written by Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy, begins by drawing up the story in a most agreeable fashion that takes into account our hero’s life but also considers any number of stray antecedents that led to his rise in the boxing world.

Boxing in its most barbaric forms is being outlawed across the nation. Jim and his hapless buddy Walter (Jack Carson) spy the prominent higher-up from their bank at a fight only to have the police raid the event. Soon they’re all in prison with their prominent friend and Jim sees it as the perfect opportunity to earn some favor. Soon Judge Geary has brought on his young protege as a new brand of fighter: one with class.

Being a fast worker, Jim gets himself into the elitist Olympic Club doing his best to look the part of a  well-to-do gentleman, despite hardly having a dollar to his name. Concurrently he begins annoying the gentleman around him with his constant stream of boys sent around paging him.

It becomes quickly apparent that Gentleman Jim exists in a world, not unlike that of Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde (1941), where America seemed to have acquired a newfound propriety. Nasty pugilism had been replaced with marquess Queensberry Rules and someone like Jim Corbett was able to become something.

He soon is acquainted with Ms. Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith) who along with her family are members of the social elite and patrons of the bank. I must admit that the Canadian actress has all but slunk under my radar aside from her part in Conflict opposite Bogart.

But I have rectified the oversight because she gives a lovely turn opposite Flynn allowing the sparks to fly in the most vehement way possible. High-class respectability can only get you so far. Sometimes you just want to see someone get wailed on for their own good.

She has just about enough of his conceited ways finding him utterly infuriating with his faux polished manners and overblown head. He has the gall to criticize her idol worshipping of such an eminent legend as John L. Sullivan. Corbett being an utter nobody himself. But he’s got ideas and the fancy feet to go someplace.

Upon leaving their little tiff, he dances his way back down the street zigzagging through oncoming passerby. He’s got John L. Sullivan (an impeccably cast Ward Bond) on the mind now. Because there was no bigger national hero, icon, and legend than John L. Sullivan. The film even evokes the famous phrase, “I just shook the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan!” He was that big of a celebrity.

Backed by William Frawley in his corner, Corbett is soon on the rise taking on anyone who will get him some visibility. In the ring, the suave-looking Irishman is a model of agility and impeccable footwork. Though Flynn, to his credit, stood in for most of the scenes his flying feet were spotted by world-class former welterweight Mushy Callahan.

Many of the sequences capture the immersive even suffocating atmosphere of a boxing match through fairly furious cutting, especially for an old film. Inserting shots of the ring, mincing feet, and a flurry of audience reactions throwing together a swirling experience.

The most frenzied is a back and forth river barge slugfest with haymaker after haymaker flying through the air. Corbett and his hulking opponent wind up decking each other flat again and again.  Flynn takes a plunge into the water only to lay out his competitor for good minutes later.

The victor is finally raised as the police arrive on the scene to crash the proceedings and all the spectators jump ship in the most tumultuous and mayhem-filled denouements to a fight you’ve ever witnessed. The beauty is we get an almost birdseye view of the madness from the cheap seats and we see on what a large scale everyone is frantically escaping. Jumping into the drink. Screaming and shouting. It’s the kind of bedlam that’s contagious and a real enjoyment from reel to reel for some inexplicable reason.

Surely the fight to top them all is Jim Corbett against John L. Sullivan. But just as important as the actual bout is the skirmish going on outside the ropes. As the telegraph lines are flooding the country with news round after round, Corbett’s clandestine backer watches expectantly for him to get clobbered.

Meanwhile, Ms. Ware’s father with a glint in his eye eggs her on very tenderly toward the most antagonistic man in her life and subsequently the most important. In the movies at least, the people who detest each other the most wind up making the most passionate romances.

Aside from love, Gentleman Jim is refreshingly light on heart-wrenching drama or needless sentiment for that matter. It slips up in one solitary moment where a gracious Sullivan looks back wistfully at an illustrious career and pays his respects to Gentleman Jim. If anything it shows that Flynn can play genuine just as he can slather on the charm.

For contemporary audiences, it no doubt carried a sardonic edge as the actor was simultaneously embroiled in a scurrilous court trial that all but ruined his reputation for months on end.

Regardless, standing on its own merit, Gentleman Jim might just be one of my new favorite boxing exhibitions and the key is that there’s seemingly no agenda. It ebbs and flows around a life and characters without concerted realism or a need for continual heightened drama. And yet we still find it compelling and jovial with all sorts of moments worth telling the folks at home about.

In fact, that might just be Raoul Walsh’s finest attributes making every scene, action, brawl, what-have-you, totally immersive, effectively involving the audience through his array of shots. While Flynn and Smith are finally in each other’s arms, Jack Carson makes one final call straight to the camera shouting that the Corbett boys are at it again, duking it out in the parlor. Some things never change and the beauty is that we’re in on the joke as much as anyone within the frame. What a delightful biopic. Shamelessly fun to the very last word.

4.5/5 Stars

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

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The opening images of The Cincinnati Kid are nearly inexplicable but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. Steve McQueen brushes past a funeral procession of African-Americans complete with a groovin’ brass band. Then there’s a bit of a needless opening gambit where he’s tossing pennies with a precocious shoeshine boy. If the sequence serves a purpose it’s to indicate the world we find ourselves in — New Orleans during the Depression — and it also says something about our protagonist: He’s a winner.

This was Norman Jewison’s first promising picture to follow up a trio of frothy 60s comedies. As far as star power goes, he couldn’t do much better than Steve McQueen as the up-and-coming “Kid” even if the established star might be a bit old for the role. He’s got the prerequisites, confidence and an emotionless poker face, making him a believable big stakes stud. In fact, he’s one of the best around.

We get our first actual taste of the Kid’s talents when he walks off with the pot after challenging a smug nobody in his bluff and flying out a window before sauntering across the nearby railroad tracks after a washroom altercation. Steve McQueen takes it all in cool breezy stride like he does it every day. In truth, he had an action scene written into his contract for every picture and so the film gets the obligation out of the way early.

Afterward, it settles into its happy equilibrium. Edward G. Robinson is stately with beard and silver hair as Mr. Howard, the veteran of the poker-playing world who has seen a great deal and has remained the best of the best even after all these years. It’s all but inevitable The Kid will have to face him. There is no glory, no true ascension to the top of the pantheon of the greats if he cannot topple the old guard.

The Kid has a girl (Tuesday Weld) who he’s intent to keep around even as she goes back to her hometown for some space. He’s not much for talk and that serves McQueen as an actor just fine, but he does show her that she still means something to him.

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Meanwhile, his buddy Shooter (Karl Malden) lines up a date with The Man himself, Lancey Howard. Though I love Malden to death as an actor, he seems slightly miscast as the veteran card sharp. His wife is another story entirely. We meet Melda (Ann-Margret) as she cuts puzzle pieces to size when they don’t fit together. She cheats at everything. Ann-Margret proves as frisky as a calico cat and provocative as ever; the fire blazes between her and Steve McQueen and never stops burning. The camera seems to love them both. But Melda’s overt advances and The Kid’s passive acceptance do have repercussions. It never reaches the notes of melodrama but it’s no question that feelings are hurt and relations are strained.

What the Cincinnati Kid can’t put out as far as substance, it more than makes up for with an abundance of stylized cool instigated by McQueen. It is rendered through a Depression-era palette by way of the 60s, coquettish dames, and a stunning range of impressive personalities, including a boisterous Joan Blondell, who all help fill out the hazy backroom poker joints.

The steely, unblinking eyes of McQueen are made for the poker table. Then again, the same might be said of Robinson, his face never flinching or wavering, with an air of disinterest to match The Kid’s quiet confidence. They’re two sides of the same deck, both winners.

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The last 40 odd minutes or so are admittedly stagnant though having McQueen and Robinson around a table together actually does have the pretense of drama thanks to the stakes and the characters that have been brought to the fore.

It’s hardly an expositional movie but we know the archetypes. The young buck out to prove he can be the best. The old white wizard who’s looking to prove he’s not quite ready to call it quits as he attempts to go out on his own terms. Likewise, we have cocky card players who get taken to the cleaners and card dealers who’ve been around but that can’t always keep them out of a bind.

The film benefits by downplaying most of its dialogue-heavy scenes for the more cinematic moments, which essentially get carried by the faces of McQueen and Robinson alone with a room full of hushed onlookers. McQueen was by pedigree an action star and he reveled in those environments but there’s no question he has a certain mettle that makes his battle going toe-to-toe with Robinson equally compelling. And of course, the older man still carries his same self-assured confidence even if his days of being a Warner Bros. gangster have long since passed. It makes The Cincinnati Kid a cinch to be a winner no matter the outcome.

It’s true the picture went through substantial personnel changes including Spencer Tracy dropping out due to his failing health and Sam Peckinpah was also fired as director paving the way for Jewison. Tuesday Weld also ended up in the project instead of Sharon Tate. She’s a meeker performer but perhaps it works better in contrast with Margret’s character because even though they are friends, they also serve as obvious foils for the Kid’s affections.

Watching the beats the story goes through, one cannot help but think we already have The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman playing much the same role facing off against Jackie Gleason in what proves to be a stellar black and white classic. While that doesn’t nullify The Cincinnati Kid, it does feel like a similar framework. Thankfully, it still manages to be delectable entertainment in its own right. The closing credits are sung by none other than Ray Charles and a relatively downbeat ending, ironically, provides a breath of fresh air.

3.5/5 Stars

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 ditty, “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