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Saturday, June 14, 2008

The National Pastime (originally published 4/02)

With basketball's "March madness" behind us and Spring in the air, our liesure-time attention will soon be turning inexorably back to the baseball diamond. Down through the years, filmmakers have regularly paid hommage to their elder recreational sibling by regularly making movies about baseball and baseball players. The recently released "The Rookie" is only the latest in an unbroken string of baseball titles stretching back to the 1930s and beyond. If "The Rookie" has whetted your appetite for screen interpretations of the national pastime, look for these titles on home video.

"Pride of the Yankees" (1942). The classic biography of Lou Gehrig starring Gary Cooper is the obvious first choice. This movie just couldn't help being exceptional. In addition to telling one of baseball's most inspiring stories with one of Hollywood's top talents in the lead role, it benefitted from an outstanding script by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Jo Swerling. Mankiewicz was co-author of "Citizen Kane," which many people believe to be the greatest film ever made, and Swerling contributed to the scripts of some of director Frank Capra's best films. These guys, in other words, knew their craft, and it shows. And if that weren't enough, the film also features Walter Brennan, the first actor to win three Academy Awards, in a supporting role. If you haven't seen this one, you owe it to yourself.

"Fear Strikes Out" (1957). Director Robert Mulligan's grim portrayal of Boston Red Sox fielder Jimmy Piersall's life is emotionally draining to watch, but also rewarding. Anthony Perkins plays Jimmy as a young man who is desperate for his father's approval. Karl Malden plays the father, for whom no achievement is good enough. Watching these two gifted performers playing off each other is tremendously affecting. The scene in which young Piersall loses control and breaks down right on the field during what should have been a moment of triumph will stay with you for a long time.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956). If you recognize the title but the date looks wrong, you're probably thinking of the 1973 film with Robert DeNiro. Not to take anything away from that film, but I like this earlier live television version better. It stars a young and not yet famous Paul Newman as a major league pitcher whose roommate, a third string catcher, contracts a fatal disease. Despite the plot device of a dying friend, much of writer Arnold Shulman's dialogue is genuinely funny. This is a clever, warm, and humane look at the meaning of friendship and the value of loyalty.

"Damn Yankees" (1958). "Field of Dreams" (1989) wasn't even close to being the first film to combine baseball and fantasy. This film adaptation of a hit Broadway musical is a twist on the Faust theme. A rabid fan of the Washington Senators says he'd sell his soul for one good hitter for the team. Satan, in the person of Ray Walston, promptly shows up to close the deal. The choreographer was Bob Fosse, who went on to direct the film versions of "Sweet Charity" and "Cabaret.

There are also lots of films that aren't primarily about baseball but have key scenes involving the game. Two of my favorites are "Woman of the Year" (1942) and "The Naughty Nineties" (1945). In "Woman of the Year," Spencer Tracy takes Katharine Hepburn to her first baseball game and explains the sport to her. This was their first film together, but it's easy to see from scenes like this one why there would be eight more. "The Naughty Nineties," with Abbott and Costello, qualifies as an honorary baseball movie because it contains their classic "Who's on first" routine.

Finally, I can't resist mentioning an old favorite of mine that I wanted to include here until I discovered to my horror that it still hasn't been released on home video. It's called "Rhubarb" (1951), the story of a pet cat whose deceased millionaire owner bequeaths to the lucky feline ownership of a baseball team. Based on a novel by H. Allen Smith, it's one of Hollywood's most endearing comedies of the 1950s. Maybe the studios will shape up and release it on video soon, but until then we'll just have to settle for the occasional sighting on late night cable TV. [2008 UPDATE: At long last, "Rhubarb" is scheduled to be released on DVD in July of this year.]

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