[13 April 2007]
America must have been a wonderful place in the ‘50s. Sure, people faced the problems prevalent in modern society: pride, fear, and financial insecurity, to name just a few. The difference is that in the ‘50s, people somehow managed to dodge the consequences of their actions, ignore constrictions of logic, devise ludicrous solutions to their problems, and pull off all these feats in tidy, 30-minute segments.
At least, this is the version of the ‘50s that reigns supreme in popular film and television from that era. In this American utopia, children were rambunctious but loving, parents reciprocated that love, and whole families indulged in the pleasures of the national pastime, baseball. The Baseball Double Feature, a new DVD containing two films, the ‘50 comedy Kill the Umpire and the 1962 heartwarmer Safe at Home, is notable not because it is likely to appeal to any conceivable modern audience, but because it presents such a vivid document of life in this America that never was.
Kill the Umpire features Academy Award nominee William Bendix playing the main role of Bill Johnson. The DVD case proudly announces Bendix’s Oscar nomination, but if Sony really wanted to celebrate the actor’s legacy, it might have released a Bendix film in which acting is actually important. In Kill the Umpire, characters and emotion take a back seat to ridiculous plot events and slapstick shenanigans. Of course, this type of movie can be entertaining and worthwhile, but Kill the Umpire has a preachy undertone that becomes grating as the film wears on.
In the film, Johnson, an ex-baseball player and ardent critic of umpires’ visual abilities, loses his job when he skips work to watch games at his local ballpark. Johnson’s father-in-law recommends that he become an umpire in order to incorporate his baseball passion into his career. Johnson initially refuses, but after watching an umpireless children’s ball game that erupts into chaos, he reaches the “Gee, ain’t that swell” epiphany that umpires are a necessary and even beneficial part of baseball. The idea that a grown man and ex-player could sincerely doubt the significance of umpires is ludicrous, but no more so than the series of events that erupts after Johnson makes a controversial call at home plate in a professional game. The movie ends with a wacky chase scene and, of course, a clean resolution to Johnson’s dilemma.
Safe at Home, the second film on the DVD set, stands out not because of any Oscar nominees in the cast but because it features the acting “talents” of two of baseball’s greatest heroes: Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. These two superstars provide the main reason to watch what is otherwise a pleasant but predictable film. The movie plays like a 90-minute episode of Leave it to Beaver with no mother and a more resourceful protagonist.
Safe at Home is the story of Hutch Lawton, a 10-year old, baseball-loving boy who lives with his father on a boat he rents out to make a livelihood. Mr. Lawton never comes to his son’s baseball games, so the other neighborhood children mock Hutch, who attempts to mitigate his humiliation by lying that he knows Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. When his peers call his bluff, Hutch must go to Yankees Spring Training and try to earn an audience with his heroes.
Eventually, the preposterous circumstances in Safe at Home overshadow the plot. Hutch’s boast becomes tied to his father’s ability to afford his boat. Midway through the film, Hutch finds a stray cat that seems to be oblivious of its need for food and follows the boy around Fort Lauderdale. Managers and players respond to Hutch not with anger but with patient amusement. Despite these unbelievable events, the section of the movie most likely to elicit eye rolls from viewers is the ending, in which Maris and Mantle teach Hutch a tidy moral lesson.
Of the two films, Safe at Home is much more likely to attract the attention of baseball fans. In addition to Mantle and Maris, the movie includes appearances by pitcher Whitey Ford and manager Ralph Houk. It also contains footage of the Yankees’ Spring Training stadium and the players in action that will appeal to avid baseball fans.
Other than these features, the Baseball Double Feature has little to recommend itself to any audience. Some moments are enjoyable, but, on the whole, the movies just aren’t very exciting. Modern viewers will find these films too didactic and ludicrous. Older fans might be put off by the film’s overly specific subject matter. Perhaps this collection will appeal to baseball fans who lived through the ‘50s and are experiencing nostalgia for the cinematic footnotes of half a century ago. Surely, though, this demographic is not very large.
The timing of the Baseball Double Feature release coincides nicely with the Opening Day of Major League Baseball. Only the most generous consumers would identify this release as anything but a clever ploy to capitalize on America’s annual baseball frenzy. The extras included on the disc, which are limited to scene selection and subtitles, reinforce the notion that Sony is only releasing these films to make a quick buck.
But even if the intention behind this collection is suspect, the release is not completely worthless. The films might not provide great entertainment, but they are helpful historical documents. They introduce viewers to a safe, idealized America and transport them to a time when such a saccharine vision (for some, anyway) was part of mainstream culture.