Sunday, December 29, 2013

Taking a Short Break

Hi Everyone! Yes, I am still around. My life is good but busy, and the blog unfortunately is an obligation to fulfill rather than an enjoyable hobby that I always meant it to be. 

Last week, I had decided to "retire" the blog. A good blogger must find the time to write interesting content -- in this case, watch a film, do some research and then translate my thoughts into words -- and to read other blogs, commenting on the content and striking up a dialogue with the writer. 

However, I'm just not ready to end Classicfilmboy. I really do love my blog, and it's something I want to continue doing. So, I've decided to take a short break until spring. I make no promises; at that point, I'll determine whether to continue or to stop. 

So, until then, here's a photo of my beloved Audrey with the late, great Peter O'Toole from the set of "How to Steal a Million." My thanks to those who have stopped by over the years and I do hope I will continue to see you in the future if and when I return (I'll be positive and emphasize "when")! 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Audrey and Ginger of the Month

OK, so this isn't a post about a movie starring Ginger Rogers. However, I needed to get something up! My five-film Ginger filmathon will continue in a few weeks. But first, my hectic life comes first. Nothing terrible ... I'm very fortunately that I am well. Work is extremely busy, and when your work includes a lot of writing, you don't feel like writing on your time off, especially when your time off is busy being spent in other ways (volunteering, mentoring).

So ... enjoy Audrey, and for an added bonus, here's a photo of Ginger. I'll see you back here sooner rather than later!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Ginger Rogers: 'Bachelor Mother'

NOTE: Finally, my much-delayed series on Ginger Rogers is here. It took me long enough, right? I’ve always loved Ginger Rogers, and it seemed like a natural progression that, after reviewing all of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films, to look at the very busy period that followed “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.” These five films released in 1939 and 1940 established her as a star in her own right.

Ginger Rogers was eager for a career on her own. While her films with Fred Astaire catapulted her into the box office top 10 during the 1930s, and she in general enjoyed working on them, Rogers was ready to go it alone.
She had already done just that, albeit briefly, when she and Astaire took a break from their series after “Shall We Dance.” Her three films included co-starring roles in “Vivacious Lady” with James Stewart and “Having Wonderful Time” with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and a major supporting role in “Stage Door” with Katharine Hepburn. It was clear that she was ready for more, but she was re-teamed with Astaire for two more films: “Carefree,” which gave her a chance to show her magical comedic flair, and “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” which gave her a more dramatic role to tackle.
When she first received the script for “Bachelor Mother,” Rogers sent a three-page letter of protest to Pan Berman, in charge of production at RKO, feeling the story line was a bit thin. But he reassured her that the main character, Polly Parrish, had enough warmth and humanity and that her fans would enjoy her in the film.
The comedy has a very simple plot. Polly finds out on Christmas Eve that she’s going to be out of work at a department store after Christmas. During the day, she sees a lady leaving a baby on the doorstep of an orphanage and, after the woman runs away, Polly picks up the baby and takes it inside. However, they believe the baby is Polly’s, which she doesn’t realize until after she gives them her name and place of work. When she runs away, they contact the department store, and owner J.B. Merlin (Charles Coburn) tells her she won’t lose her job. Unable to tell the truth despite trying, Polly accepts the job. 

Unfortunately, she cannot keep the baby, and on Christmas Eve, while on her way to a dance contest in order to win some money, she drops the baby off at Merlin’s home, where his playboy son, David (David Niven), chases after her with the baby. This causes people to speculate that David is the father of this child.
Sound ridiculous? It really is. Although the story makes it clear that Polly isn’t from the city and has no relatives or close friends there, it still seems strange that her landlady readily accepts that Polly has given birth. Don’t you think the landlady would have noticed if Polly was pregnant? In addition, the holidays are mentioned only when it’s convenient to the plot. Otherwise, they are nonexistent.
But if you can put logic aside, “Bachelor Mother” is actually a fun movie. The screenplay is by Norman Krasna, who would later write “The Devil and Miss Jones” and “Princess O’Rourke,” among others. The director is Garson Kanin, receiving his first A-movie assignment as a director at RKO. Rogers found him lively and fun and full of spontaneity. 

If the character of Polly doesn’t ask much of Rogers, she provides plenty of charm and uses her gift for comedy to full advantage. Niven is a fine match for Rogers, and the supporting cast is also having fun.
“Bachelor Mother” was a hit for RKO during that great movie year of 1939. By the time it was released, though, Rogers was already working on her next film, “Fifth Avenue Girl.”

Sunday, August 25, 2013

'Take Me Out to the Ball Game'

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is an engaging musical released by MGM in 1949. It’s all in good fun, even if the plot – what little there is of it – offers nothing new and becomes absurd by end.
But what’s significant is the pairing of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen as the film’s choreographers, which would pave the way to greater projects.
As a baseball movie, the film offers little in the way of the great American pastime. Set after the turn of the century, Kelly plays Eddie O’Brien and Frank Sinatra is Dennis Ryan, two men who work the vaudeville circuit during the off-season and play on the infield for the champion baseball team The Wolves. The film’s major thrusts are as follows: Will O’Brien and Ryan show up to play ball? (They do.) Who is the new owner, K.C. Higgins? (Turns out to be a woman, played by Esther Williams, who knows a thing or two about baseball.) Will O’Brien successfully woo Miss Higgins? (Is there any doubt?) 

These minor plot points provide the loose structure that holds plenty of music and dancing – the exuberant “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” featuring Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munshin; the romantic “The Right Girl for Me” crooned by Sinatra; the lively “It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate” with Sinatra and Betty Garrett; and Kelly’s exuberant solo “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick's Day.”
It’s unfortunate that this thoroughly likable film has so little plot, because it needs to all end somehow. What happens is rather silly, involving gambling and corruption that throws away all logic. The final number even breaks free of the plot by naming the actors rather than the characters within the lyrics of the song!
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy, thanks to the cast and the breezy nature of the plot. Kelly is at his roguish best, while Sinatra is winning as a wide-eyed innocent. If Williams lacks the presence of a Judy Garland or a Cyd Charisse, she’s still a charming presence. She appeared in 16 Technicolor extravaganzas for MGM and was one of its biggest stars. In “Ball Game,” she even gets a brief pool scene where she swims and sings the title song.
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game’s” biggest achievement may be the pairing of Kelly and Donen. When Donen was a dancer in the chorus of the Broadway production of “Pal Joey,” Kelly took him under his wing. They continued their association in Hollywood, and when Kelly was loaned out to Columbia for “Cover Girl,” Donen went with him. After a few films at Columbia as dance director, Donen went back to MGM – at Kelly’s request – to work on dance numbers for “Anchors Aweigh.” The two men put together a synopsis for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” that they submitted to famed producer Arthur Freed, who bought it for Kelly, even though he recognized it would not be original or inventive.
Kelly and Donen actually wrote the synopsis with the third ball player identified as Leo Durocher, famed ballplayer-turned-manager who was also married to actress Laraine Day at that time. Munshin would take the role. The duo also wanted Kathryn Grayson for K.C. Higgins, but Freed originally assigned the role to Judy Garland. When she became unpredictable, he gave it to Williams, who reportedly did not get along with Kelly. 

But Kelly and Donen demonstrated such skill that Freed allowed them to co-direct a film for the first time. That movie was “On the Town,” which they began after finishing “Ball Game” and also included Sinatra, Munshin and Garrett, as well as Roger Edens, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote many of the songs in “Ball Game” and would work with Leonard Bernstein on “Town.”
Freed had a phenomenal 1948-49 run, with the success of “Words and Music,” “The Pirate,” “Easter Parade,” “The Barkleys of Broadway,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “On the Town.” One of MGM’s top producers, Freed was one of the overall best because of his ability to assemble a coherent group of talent for both in front of and behind the camera.
I don’t want to forget the director of this film, Busby Berkeley, who was no slouch. It was his films in the early 1930s that resurrected the musical, and he had previously worked at MGM as director of a number of films, including several of the Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals, although his relationship with Freed and MGM would be stormy. “Ball Game” would be Berkeley’s last film as director, but he would return to choreograph musical sequences, memorably for Williams in her favorite film, “Million Dollar Mermaid.”
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was a huge hit for MGM and an example of the studio’s gift for making Technicolor musicals. As a baseball film, there’s not much drama surrounding the game, but it’s really meant to be colorful fun, which it definitely is.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

'Damn Yankees!'

NOTE: I do apologize for not blogging more this summer. I’ve been assigned several major writing projects at work, which leaves me with little enthusiasm to write for fun in my spare time. Also, I’ve been enjoying my free time this summer – the trip to Paris which I mentioned in a previous post, along with some fun outings, most recently to see “The Book of Mormon” in Chicago, which was terrific. I highly recommend it. As for my previously mentioned series on Ginger Rogers, I’ll get to it soon. However, I’m now returning to my baseball theme with a pair of baseball musicals.

I had never seen “Damn Yankees!” in any form until I recently watched the 1958 movie version. Unfortunately, to use a bad baseball metaphor, it’s strictly minor leagues as a film.
As I watched it, I could imagine seeing it on a stage. And with much of the talent from the original Broadway production involved with the film, you would think it would be outstanding. But such is the pitfall of adapting stage to film – something that works on stage doesn’t necessarily work as a movie, and here it was a slew of contrasts, from oversized performances that felt constrained on film to musical numbers that either felt stage-bound or ill-at-ease in a realistic setting.
That’s not to say the film has no merit. Its charms are there; it’s one of those films where certain scenes and performances are more enjoyable than the film as a whole.
It’s a straightforward plot, and one that’s typical of a baseball film – someone helping their favorite losing team win again. This time it’s middle-aged Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) frustrated that his beloved Washington Senators are stuck in seventh place. After his faithful wife Meg (Shannon Bolin) goes to bed one night, Joe wishes he still had the youth and energy to become a slugger and help the Senators break free from their slump.
Enter the devil in the form of Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston), who agrees to make Joe young again in exchange for his soul. Joe, using his good business sense, asks for an escape clause: If he agrees to quit the Senators before they play the final game of the season, he will be allowed to walk away. Otherwise, his soul belongs to the devil. 

Mr. Applegate agrees and turns Joe into Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), becoming his agent and showing off his phenomenal talent to the team, impressing manager Benny Van Buren (Russ Brown). Reporter Gloria Thorpe (Rae Allen) picks up the story of this mysterious yet appealing player and helps turn him into a fan favorite. When Joe begins to miss Meg and even decides to take a room in her house, Mr. Applegate calls in reinforcements: Lola (Gwen Verdon), the best homewrecker he owns, is told to distract Joe away from Meg.
The original Broadway production that opened in 1955 was an immediate hit and cleaned up at the Tonys, with awards for Best Musical, for actors Verdon, Walston and Brown, and for choreography for Bob Fosse, with Allen also nominated. All of this talent is showcased in the movie, with direction by George Abbott, who directed the Broadway version. Stanley Donen helped Abbott with the film direction.
Only Hunter is a newbie for the film, and that’s part of the problem. While the attractive Hunter has the right looks and is extremely likable, he’s not an actor on the level of the others. For example, when Joe Hardy starts to spend time with Meg, who has no idea that this is her husband, there’s no chemistry between the two, and there should be something there so we understand the strong bond these characters share. Hunter and Verdon have great fun but not great chemistry. 

As for Verdon, her “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” number is dynamic, but I can see it working better on the stage, where her caricature of a seductress would play to the rafters but is too much of a caricature within the confines of the movie’s locker room set. She’s actually at her best in a number with Bob Fosse, “Who’s Got the Pain,” a showcase for the two (and a rare opportunity to see Fosse in front of the camera). The number itself has nothing to do with the plot, as it’s performed as part of a show put on for Joe Hardy, but it’s a lot of fun.
Conversely, the exuberant “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” featuring Gloria and the Senators probably flies on stage. But when you see the team dancing on an actual baseball field, it’s a bit ridiculous. Plus I was distracted by the three or four random people each sitting alone in the stands and wondered what that was about. At times there is a theatricality about this film that’s at odds with the realistic settings, and the pacing seems a bit off at times.
 Still, there is enough to enjoy – the strong score, the vibrant and colorful production, Walston’s delectable turn as Mr. Applegate, the only lead movie role (and rare big-screen movie appearance) from Verdon, and a delightful turn from Jean Stapleton in a pre-Edith Bunker appearance as Sister Miller. 
Next up is another baseball musical – “Take Me out to the Ball Game.”

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Me-TV Blogathon: 'The Dick Van Dyke Show'

This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

When I was a boy in the early 1970s, my family had a small portable black and white television that my mother would sometimes keep in the kitchen. Although we were never allowed to watch it at dinnertime, we could on the occasional breakfast and lunch. And while I remember enjoying such fare as “Johnny Quest,” “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” and “Captain Kangaroo,” the two shows I enjoyed most were reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Perhaps I was attracted to them because they felt so … foreign. Life was presented in black and white, both were set (or mostly set) in New York City, and these small families were nothing like my large family/small-town existence.

I wasn’t old enough yet to really focus on the out-of-date hairstyles or clothing. I simply laughed and did so out loud.

It’s ironic that what I’ve been watching on DVD during the past 18 months while on the treadmill has been “I Love Lucy” and “Dick Van Dyke,” and by the time I post this I will have just finished season four of the latter.

What I love about “The Dick Van Dyke Show” is the fact that life isn’t perfect in the Petrie household or in the writers’ office at the “Alan Brady Show.” What is perfect is the writing and casting, with Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore portraying a married couple madly in love and yet they bicker and point out each other’s faults. It’s been said often that Rob and Laura Petrie were the first sexy couple on TV. Despite the separate beds, you knew what was happening off screen. 

And that’s the appeal of this timeless show – it’s real in a way that the squeaky-clean family comedies beforehand were not. Outside of Mary Tyler Moore’s loveliness (and her provocative capri pants), the show isn’t filled with a model-perfect cast. But what a cast! In the pilot, the show’s creator, Carl Reiner, plays Rob. Although the pilot didn’t sell the first time around – family shows were out, Westerns were in – it was producer Sheldon Leonard who liked the pilot but told Reiner he wasn’t right to play the character he created. So the pilot would be reshot, and the candidates to play Rob were narrowed to two actors: Dick Van Dyke and Johnny Carson. Leonard favored Van Dyke, who wasn’t a glamorous movie star whose more “average” looks would play well on TV. Van Dyke was starring on Broadway in “Bye Bye Birdie,” for which he had won a Tony Award, and when Reiner saw the show, he knew Van Dyke would be perfect.

Rose Marie was a veteran performer who was always asking Danny Thomas and Leonard to cast her in a role on TV. When they called her, she thought it was for a guest spot on Thomas’ TV series. Instead, she was offered Sally on the spot. It was Rose Marie who then suggested Morey Amsterdam as Buddy. Richard Deacon was selected from 22 character actors to play Mel. Larry Mathews was “discovered” by his mailman, who knew someone at a talent agency who signed Mathews. When the call went out for Ritchie, Mathews was the only boy sent from that agency and he got the part. 

As for Laura, they couldn’t find the right actress. But Thomas remembered someone who had tried out for the role of his oldest daughter for his show, although he couldn’t remember her name – except that she had three of them. And he thought she was on a show where she only showed her legs (which was “Richard Diamond, Private Detective”).

When she was finally found, they knew she was right. As for the neighbors, Jerry and Millie Helper, Jerry Paris was spotted by Leonard at a baseball game. The two were old acting buddies, and Paris was thrilled to be cast. Paris’ best friend was married to Ann Morgan Guilbert, and while producers originally thought she should have been prettier, Paris and later Moore would be her biggest fans and supporters. Paris, incidentally, would end up directing many episodes of the show, launching a new direction to his career.

The new pilot was shot in January of 1961, but the show didn’t premiere until October of that year. It was not a hit initially, but CBS stuck by it, although the show did move all over the schedule for a while. Over its five years, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” grew its fan base until it was a top 10 hit. Its Emmy win for Best Comedy Series in season two was a shocker, although most agreed it was well-deserved. It would win four consecutive Emmys for best show, as well as multiple wins for Van Dyke and Moore.

The show holds up beautifully, thanks to that combination of sharp writing and a perfect cast. If Van Dyke and Moore were the ideal leads, the rest provided such great comic support, especially Guilbert, that the show rarely missed. Reiner himself would begin playing Alan Brady with his back to the camera, eventually taking on the occasional appearance in full view (“Coast to Coast Big Mouth” reveals Alan’s toupee and is a season five gem).

How many classic episodes are there? Well, my favorites, in no particular order, are when the gang are forced to stay in a cabin and each disappears one by one; the infamous Rob Petrie monster movie-inspired dream where Laura floats out of the closet on a pile of walnuts; Laura unable to resist temptation when a package arrives for Rob; all of the marvelous flashbacks – to Rob and Laura’s wedding, Ritchie’s birth, the purchase of their home, Laura’s pill-induced first meeting with Rob’s parents; Rob’s skiing accident; the giant bird attacking Ritchie; Laura’s toe caught in the bathtub spigot; Rob and Laura eavesdropping on Jerry and Millie which leads to an unfortunate game of charades … as you can tell, there are many. 

But it’s worth pointing out that the show did do some daring stuff. When Rob flashes back to when he and Laura brought Ritchie home from the hospital and Rob thinks they have the wrong baby, they capped the episode with a sight gag that was considered risky in the early 1960s, considering the lack of minorities on television and even in starring roles in films. Van Dyke and Moore say the gag received the longest laugh and ovation of anything they did on the show (which had to be edited for the aired episode), and it broke down racial barriers by showing an interracial encounter between peers as if nothing was wrong.

You also have Sally as a full-time, well-paid professional writer at a time when women didn’t have such positions, in real life or on TV (unless it was typical female jobs, like teachers or nurses or actress). Although a running plot throughout the series is Sally unable to land a guy, there aren’t many guys – then or now – who could match Sally’s vivacity, energy and talent. In fact, it’s the show’s genius to pair her with her opposite, Bill Idelson’s Herman Glimsher. Even his name is funny, but mild-mannered mama’s boy Herman who she keeps going back to because he doesn’t try to outmatch her – he knows he can’t – he simply loves her.

Now throw in Jerry Van Dyke, Dick’s real-life brother playing Rob’s brother Stacey, or Joan Shawlee giving life to Buddy’s wife, Pickles, or Van Dyke’s personal assistant, Frank Adamo, appearing in more than 40 episodes, and you understand how wonderful it all is.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the most famous opening sequences of any TV show, which is Van Dyke tripping over that ill-placed ottoman, and then the sequence showing him sidestepping the ottoman. Apparently bookies used to take bets as to which one of these sequences would open the episode!

While this post barely scratches the surface of this brilliant show, it’s clear that I love it. After five seasons, the cast decided to stop, and frankly it was the right time. Had they continued even one more year, the show would have switched to color, and it would have lost that early ‘60s chic. And for a show that tried hard not to incorporate current events (outside of the Redcoats episode, a takeoff on the British music invasion), I don’t think it could have avoided the cultural and social upheaval of the late ‘60s.

So the five seasons of “The Dick Van Dyke” represent one whole, a single chapter in the life of Rob, Laura, Ritchie, Jerry and Millie, Sally, Buddy, Mel and Alan. A time capsule, if you will, but one filled with a lot of laughs, a great sense of fun and one of the most realistic married couples on TV. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Classic TV Blogathon

Hi Everyone! I'm still trying to get caught up from my trip, and while I have something already lined up, I was invited to be part of the Classic TV Blog Association's MeTV blogathon starting tomorrow. I decided to join in the fun and will be posting on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" this Thursday.

Click here to see the line-up!

In another week I'll get back to regular business -- some more baseball films and a five-film Ginger Rogers series. Until then, catch up on your favorite classic TV shows!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Audrey of the Month and Paris

Hi everyone! Yes, I've been MIA during the month of June, but I'm squeezing out a quick post showing my beloved Audrey in Paris. 

Why Paris? Well, last week I celebrated my 50th birthday, and as a present, we went to Paris. It was an amazing week; we had been there once before 15 years ago and always wanted to return. It finally happened and I can't wait to go back again. 

On my birthday, one of the places we went was Shakespeare and Company, the famed bookstore just across the Seine from Notre Dame. I was determined to find something to buy that was unique, and this is what I came across: 

It's a 1945 movie tie-in edition of the 1943 book "Nobody Lives Forever." The film noir was released by Warner Brothers and starred John Garfield. This book contains photos from the film and was used to help promote the movie upon its release. While I have not seen the film, I now must  search it out since I found this great book. I also had the store stamp the title page so I know where it came from: 

The trip and the book were great birthday gifts to myself. Now, back to reality ... and with luck new postings in July!

Monday, May 27, 2013

'It Happens Every Spring'

Of the four baseball movies I’ve reviewed, “It Happens Every Spring” is the one I had seen previously and, after another viewing, remains the best of the bunch.

There’s something comforting about watching a formula at work. This time it’s a semi-absent-minded professor helping a St. Louis team during the pennant race. Ray Milland plays Vernon Simpson, a college chemistry professor who is admired and respected, except when baseball season begins. Then he becomes distracted and obsessive about the national past-time, even to the point of turning on the radio during a class to listen to a game.

He’s in love with one of his students, Deborah Greenleaf (Jean Peters), and her father happens to be the college’s president (Ray Collins), who sees Vernon as a good catch for his daughter. (Frankly, this is unintentionally amusing as such antics today would probably get the professor fired.)

Vernon has been working on a formula for a company that wants a product that would keep insects away from wood. Unfortunately, an errant baseball from a nearby diamond crashes through the laboratory window, smashing the equipment. A distraught Vernon now believes his research chances are ruined, as well as his opportunity to marry Deborah.

However, a tray in a nearby sink catches some of the fluid from his experiment, as well as the baseball. When Vernon removes the baseball from the tray, it rolls across the counter and jumps away from anything made of wood. A shocked Vernon asks for – and is granted -- immediate leave from the college, with the excuse he’s taking a research opportunity at a nearby lab. Instead, he joins the St. Louis baseball team, in dire need of a pitcher. This allows him to test out this substance and fulfill his desire to play ball. Wanting to avoid scrutiny, he calls himself King Kelly and becomes a pitching sensation.

Once again there are few surprises, but there are few detours as well. Valentine Davies (“Miracle on 34th Street”) received an Oscar nomination for his straightforward story (co-written by Shirley Smith) that keeps the proceedings light and fun. Dependable veteran director Lloyd Bacon keeps everything moving briskly along, while Milland is his charming self. He was such an effective light comedian that when I see him in something more serious or as a villain, it reminds me of his great and perhaps overlooked versatility.

Interestingly enough, Milland and co-star Paul Douglas each starred in other baseball movies that I reviewed. Douglas was enjoying his major breakthrough in 1949, his first year in movies, and here he’s the lovable catcher who defends the mysteriously odd King Kelly. Peters is lovely in one of her early films, and the self-described tomboy seems most comfortable when she’s on the floor looking at newspaper photos of King Kelly to determine if it’s Vernon.

Check out “It Happens Every Spring.” In fact, check out all of the baseball movies I have reviewed so far. They will get you in the mood to cheer for your favorite team (unless you cheer for the Cubs, who once again are already a lost cause). Later this summer I will return with more baseball films, but next up is some love for Ginger Rogers.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

'The Kid From Left Field'

Fictional baseball movies appear to share the same premise: some catalyst turns a hard-luck team in last place into a lovable underdog that makes its way to the pennant race.

“Angels in the Outfield” featured divine intervention, a reformed foul-mouthed manager and a rejuvenated Pittsburgh Pirates. In “Rhubarb,” the fictitious Brooklyn Loons find luck in their new owner, a cat.

In 1953’s “The Kid From Left Field,” it’s a former ballplayer and his son jump-starting the Bisons. If the first two films are comedies, “Left Field” is touching, a heartfelt father-and-son story. The two share a love of the game that ultimately brings them closer together.  

Dan Dailey plays Larry Cooper, a former ballplayer who sells peanuts at Whacker Stadium, home of the Bisons. They are a losing team that sets records for low attendance, and team owner Fred Whacker (Ray Collins) says their new slogan should be “You can lose them all.” This means single father Larry struggles to make ends meet for himself and his son, Christie (Billy Chapin). Christie idolizes his father and believes him to be a former baseball hero, unaware that his dad’s career was not a stellar one.

When Larry loses his job and goes on a bender, Christie manages to get his dad’s job back and then is hired to be one of the team’s batboys despite his small size. While father and son love baseball, Larry is soon telling Christie what is wrong with each of the Bison players, and Christie shares with infielder Pete Haines (Lloyd Bridges) how to get out of his hitting slump. Soon Pete is following Christie’s advice, and it doesn’t take long before other players are asking for the pint-size batboy’s guidance, which irks the team’s manager (Richard Egan), who tries to take all of the credit for the team’s turnaround.

“The Kid From Left Field” may not be great filmmaking, but the simplicity of the narrative works, as does the screenplay by Jack Sher. It’s a straightforward film, one that doesn’t force the emotional moments. Director Harmon Jones previously worked with Dailey on the Dizzy Dean baseball biography “The Pride of St. Louis” the year before. Harmon guides Dailey through a terrific, understated performance of a man who clearly loves his son but lacks self-confidence in his own abilities.

Appearing in one of her first films is Anne Bancroft playing Marian Foley, secretary to Fred Whacker and Pete Haines’ girlfriend. It’s amusing that the poster makes you think Dailey and Bancroft are an item when, in fact, I don’t believe they even share a scene together! She’s playing the usual “girl” role, but she is not the typical starlet and therefore Marian is not the typical love interest, which is a very good thing. Although there’s not much to the role, Bancroft gives Marian intelligence; she’s more than just a pretty face, and a decade later moviegoers would know just how talented she was.

But Dailey and Bancroft take a backseat to Chapin. The youngster may not be a great actor (late in the film he faints and it’s an amateurish effort even by kids’ standards), but he’s earnest and likable, which is all that’s needed for him to carry the film. And the supporting cast – including Bridges, Collins and Egan – does fine work.

Sometimes simple is the best approach, and “The Kid From Left Field” wisely follows this path. Even with a fairly predictable plot, the film is surprisingly touching in its own quiet way.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Last week I wrote about angels in the outfield. This week it’s a cat in the owners box.

“Rhubarb” is another 1951 baseball film, a comedy about an eccentric millionaire who leaves his fortune – and ownership of a major league team – to his cat, Rhubarb. I had never seen this one, but I’m a sucker for films about smart animals with lovably cantankerous owners.

And that owner is Thaddeus J. Banner, played by the wonderful Gene Lockhart. Banner is fixated on a mangy yet feisty cat that steals golf balls at the local golf course. He must have him and orders Eric (Ray Milland), the PR man for his baseball team, the Brooklyn Loons, to catch him.

Eric eventually traps the wild animal, and Banner gives it a home and a name – Rhubarb. In addition to being a plant, “rhubarb” is slang for a baseball altercation (first used on-air by Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber in 1943). Banner and Rhubarb become best friends, a situation that does not sit well with Banner’s exercise-obsessed daughter, Myra (Elsie Holmes).

When Banner dies, he leaves much of his fortune to Rhubarb, who is left in the care of Eric. Myra is enraged and vows revenge. Meanwhile, Eric is trying to marry Polly (Jan Sterling), daughter of the baseball team’s manager, Len (William Frawley). Unfortunately, Polly discovers she’s allergic to cats.

Players for the struggling Loons are not happy with being owned by a cat. They threaten a boycott by feigning various maladies and conditions. But Eric slyly convinces them that Rhubarb will bring them luck. Soon the team is winning, and Rhubarb is the toast of Brooklyn, although all is not well with the scheming Myra, bookies who are loosing a fortune and Polly’s allergy.

The film is based upon a 1946 book by H. Allen Smith, which was so popular that Smith wrote two sequels. Orangey, the film’s feline star, is the only animal to win two Patsy Awards for this film, his cinematic debut, and for playing Cat in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” a decade later. Orangey also appeared as Minerva the Cat on the “Our Miss Brooks” TV show.

 Orangey may be the star, but the human actors are a solid ensemble. Milland is always a dependable player and a relaxed comedian, whether he’s trying to catch a cat or run a baseball team. Sterling is feisty and fun, and Lockhart is always a delight. Plus there’s a fun cameo at the end that should please classic movie lovers.

Director Arthur Lubin was known for light comedies, having directed a number of Abbott and Costello’s biggest comedy hits for Universal. He also did well with animals of all sorts, directing the Francis the Talking Mule series and developing “Mister Ed” for TV. Lubin’s most prestigious work was the 1943 remake of “Phantom of the Opera.”

“Rhubarb” offers no surprises. It’s breezy and fun and a great way to get into baseball spirit.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

'Angels in the Outfield'

The strangest feeling of nostalgia recently hit me like a line drive.

It was about baseball, a sport I don’t follow. As a kid, I went through the requisite baseball phase but because I was never any good playing it, I quickly lost interest. Sometimes my older siblings occasionally reeled me in with their enthusiasm for the game, and I remember playing Wiffle ball, baseball and even softball with them.

With the late arrival of spring just hitting the Chicago area, my thoughts inexplicably turned to baseball. As I fondly remembered a few childhood memories, I also thought about a few great baseball movies I had seen. I also discovered that I had not seen a slew of others.

So, over the summer, I’m going to play ball at Classicfilmboy, periodically mixing some fleeting memories with a review. This week, I’m inspired by the large front yard in which my siblings and I along with the neighbors would play ball. We lived next to the main road through town, and if one of my brothers managed to hit the ball over the road, it was a rare thing – and miraculous that the ball didn’t hit a passing car.

Just as miraculous are the angels seen by Guffy McGovern in “Angels in the Outfield,” a delightful 1951 comedy starring Paul Douglas as the manager of the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates. Guffy’s foul-mouthed tirades (imaginatively presented, due to the Production Code, by garbled, echoing sounds coming from his mouth) and temper-induced scuffles have won him few fans, especially sports announcer Fred Bayles (Keenan Wynn). When Guffy gets him fired, Fred vows vengeance by becoming an announcer for the rival Giants. 

One night alone on the field, Guffy is visited by an angel (voiced by James Whitmore), who tells Guffy if he cleans up his act, the team might start winning with the help of ball players who are now part of the heavenly squad. Guffy begins displaying restraint, and soon enough the team responds by showing signs of life.

Meanwhile, plucky Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh), the local Household Hints editor, has been tracking Guffy and notices the change in his demeanor. Then Bridget (Donna Corcoran), a girl at a Catholic orphanage, claims to see angels in the outfield. Jennifer writes a story about Bridget, and Guffy seeks out Bridget, whose vision validates his own conversations with an angel.

Many of the game scenes were actually played at Forbes Field, home to the Pirates until 1970 when the team moved to Three Rivers Stadium. Two fires struck Forbes Field, and it was demolished in 1971. What may be lost today is the fact that the Pittsburgh Pirates had not finished first since 1927 and had been a sub-par team for years, without a winning season between 1948 and 1958. Pirates fans must have been praying for angels for years after this film was released.

One fun sequence in the movie involves interviews with notables after the Pirates begin winning. These include Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb and Bing Crosby, who was part-owner of the Pirates from 1946 until his death in the 1970s.

The story sags slightly toward the end, when a hearing is called to determine if Guffy is fit to lead the team. The central point comes down to whether angels exist, and it feels like a pale imitation of the debate regarding the existence of Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Otherwise, the film works, in large part to a cast that is clearly having fun. Leigh is as delightful as ever, Corcoran (whose brother Kevin found fame at Disney) is the rare child actor who is charming without trying to be so, and Wynn is a nasty delight. Bruce Bennett, Spring Byington, Ellen Corby and Lewis Stone (not to mention Mrs. Cleaver herself, Barbara Billingsley as a hat-check girl) round out the strong supporting cast.

However, it’s the affable Douglas who is the film’s MVP. Known for playing gruff and belligerent men, especially in his breakout role as Harry Brock in the original Broadway production of “Born Yesterday,” Douglas is the ideal actor to play Guffy. He’s completely believable as a sour baseball manager who loves his steaks more than his players, and he’s just as believable when he softens and begins to let down his defenses.

In 1959, Douglas was finishing up work on an episode of “The Twilight Zone” playing an umpire. The episode was written for Douglas by Rod Serling, who was inspired by his performance in “Angels in the Outfield.” Sadly, Douglas died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 52, and the episode was reshot with actor Jack Warden.

Disney remade the film in 1994, adjusting the story and moving it to Los Angeles. I remember it as pleasant but not quite up to the 1951 version, which was made for MGM and directed by Clarence Brown, known for his sensitive touch behind the camera. The original “Angels in the Outfield” is a charmer. It’s also a great way to kick off the baseball season.