October 11, 2011

big leaguer

Major League Baseball is in the midst of a preposterously entertaining postseason, with major upsets and wild finishes happening almost every night. As I typed that, Nelson Cruz hit a walk-off grand slam, the first in playoff history, to give the Rangers a victory over the Tigers in the ALCS. Even better for MLB’s image (if not the ratings) is the success of small market teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers, the latter of which has surged into the National League Championship Series, quieting the yearly calls for an NFL-style salary cap. With that and the cheap-team strategizing of Moneyball still in theaters, I thought I’d highlight two scrappy low-budget baseball movies which deserve more attention (read: a home video release): It Happened in Flatbush (1942) and Big Leaguer (1953).

The recent history of baseball on film is not a particularly inspiring one, with screenwriters as prone to mawkish inspirational cliché as their sports-writing brethren. The established “classics” of the genre,  like the The Natural or Field of Dreams, are unendurable parades of New Age philosophical claptrap, which make Moneyball seem as austere as Bresson in comparison. Michael Lewis’ book about the 2002 Oakland A’s described how the team utilized advanced statistical analysis to massage their low-cost club into the playoffs. It’s the first baseball-themed movie to become a substantial hit since The Rookie in 2002. Which is not to say it’s terribly good. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin take this absorbing, but essentially undramatic, tale of market inefficiencies and pump it up into an inspirational tear-jerker. Brad Pitt gives a finely detailed performance – see the multifarious ways in which he spits out sunflower seeds – but he’s stuck in the iron maiden of the dispiritingly conventional plot, complete with invented family drama and wise cracking sidekick (Jonah Hill). To see how it also gets the history wrong, see Kevin Goldstein’s review at Baseball Prospectus.

The best baseball films seem to be loose and episodic, as unconcerned with structure as an extra inning game. That’s part of the reason I have a fondness for It Happened in Flatbush (1942), a modest, jokey trifle about an unpopular managerial change by the Brooklyn team (the Dodgers were not cooperative with the shoot, even forbidding use of their name). It was directed by Ray McCarey, who like his brilliant brother Leo, started his career as a gag man for Hal Roach, and later worked his way over to Three Stooges shorts. Some of the slap-happiness from the Roach shorts is retained in this squirrely film, in which battle-ax owner Ms. “Mac” Mcavoy (Sara Allgood) hires disgraced former shortstop Frank “Butterfingers” Maguire (Lloyd Nolan), who cost the team the pennant years before, to take over as head coach. The script was loosely based on the 1940 season of the Cleveland Indians, during which the players agitated for manager Oscar Vitt to get canned because of his constant criticisms. It opens with an on-screen title joke that could have come from a Fatty Arbuckle short. Over a shot of crashing breakers, the text reads:

“This story is fictional but anything might happen, and usually does, on a strange island just off the eastern coast of the United States. It’s people are friendly…could even be taken for Americans, but they have a language, customs, and a tradition all their own… the name of this island is–BROOKLYN!”

The movie hums with clashing working class accents and a relatably insane obsessiveness about the game. Maguire was coaching a semi-pro league in a rural nowhere called Clovertown when McAvoy came calling. Maguire rattled off the Dodgers’s schedule with ease, saying, “I haven’t missed a box score in 7 years.” Then there is the depiction of the fan-base, animalistic and near-rabid. After a disputed call at home plate, a particularly aggressive Irish fan tumbles onto the field and decks the ump just because he can (real game footage from Ebbets Field is intercut with studio inserts). When the team has a successful road trip, they are greeted by mobs at the train station eager for a winner. The movie sparks with unbridled passion perhaps because of technical advisor Johnny Butler, who, according to the AFI catalog,  “was a veteran of twenty-three seasons of major league baseball, including two season as shortstop for the Dodgers. According to studio publicity, at the time of the film’s production, he was working as a studio policeman.”

Another laid back baseball movie is Big Leaguer (1953) the directorial debut of Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly). This amiable drama concerns a summer training camp for amateur talent in Florida, put on by the New York Giants. Edward G. Robinson stars as Hans Lobert, the director of the camp and former third-baseman for the team (Lobert was a real player, who hit .274/.337/.366 over 14 seasons for five teams). Unlike It Happened in FlatbushBig Leaguer was granted full access to the Giants franchise, and was filmed on their actual training camp in Melbourne, FL, and offers cameos by legendary pitcher Carl Hubbell and head scout (and former 2B) Al Campanis. It is airier than Flatbush’s succession of busy interiors, but is granted a hackneyed script, with constant clichéd voice-over by invented sportswriter Brian McLennan (Paul Langton). Not a lot of Aldrich’s acidic personality comes through in his first venture, although the presence of combative male friendship is present, to be fuller fleshed out in his more despairing war films (Attack, The Dirty Dozen).

Aldrich gets a joyous performance out of Edward G. Robinson, who huffs and puffs his way through like an over-agitated uncle, repressing his love of his boys through hoarse-voiced criticisms. There is one shockingly funny sequence in which Richard Jaeckel, who would appear in Aldrich films until the last one in 1981 (…All The Marbles), brushes Robinson back off the plate with a high fastball. Robinson tumbles backwards with the grace of a frozen turkey. He then rages towards the camera, and in extreme close-up his hair is standing on-end, his eyes flared, ready to brawl like a hot-headed 18 year-old. Robinson brings this childishness to bear throughout, even doing a twirling jig to one of the big band tunes the kids play relentlessly.

I prefer both of these raggedly entertaining items to Moneyball’s slick insularity, and wish Pitt had as much space to play (and dance) around as Robinson does in Big Leaguer. Now if only MGM would release the 1953 film in their on-demand “Limited Edition Collection”, or if the Twilight Time label would poach  It Happened in Flatbush from the Fox library for a future DVD, this MLB postseason would truly be one for the ages.

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