Just in time for baseball season Sony is releasing a minor league double-header, two mild but entertaining baseball comedies. Though neither film is likely to top anyone's list of the all-time best sports movies, in packaging them together with good transfers the label has created a fairly appealing release.
The lesser of the two films, Kill the Umpire's (1950) main claim to fame is that it was written by Frank Tashlin, the innovative Warner Bros. cartoon director who by this time was transitioning into feature films. Though the picture was directed by jack-of-all-trades Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street, Action in the North Atlantic), Tashlin's touch is frequently apparent: throughout the film are sight gags and other bits of business that resemble his cartoons.
The film otherwise is pretty tepid. Ex-ballplayer Bill Johnson (William Bendix) is an incorrigible, highly emotional baseball fan constantly getting fired from various jobs because of his bad habit of skipping work to go to the local stadium. In one such job, as a lineman for the phone company, Bill is easily distracted by a nearby bar running the game on its television. He gets drunk and in a funny montage messes up everyone's phone lines.
Bill's wife, Betty (Una Merkel), has just about had it but her father, Jonah Evans (Ray Collins), has an idea: he's a retired umpire, and reasons the best way to keep Bill employed is to combine work with pleasure. Jonah secures Bill a spot in Jimmy O'Brien's (William Frawley) umpire school. This would seem an ideal solution, but Bill is outraged: to him umpires are the lowest of the low.
Nevertheless, with his wife threatening to leave him, Bill has little choice but to make the best of it, and eventually Bill is assigned to the Texas Interstate League, where hatred for all umpires is at a fever pitch during the pennant race, and where Bill encounters crooked gamblers trying to fix the Big Game.
Beyond Tashlin's sight gags, including an elaborate chase finale and far too much schtick involving wacky eye drops, Kill the Umpire is pretty innocuous. Bendix's character-star status aside, Bill comes off more pig-headed and irresponsible than loveable, and the idea of finding Bill a job as an umpire comes off rather like handing an alcoholic work as a bartender. His extreme dislike of umpires and attempts to get thrown out of umpire school only serve to make the character obnoxious, and his eventual respect for the profession comes too late in the film to make any real impact.
In its defense Kill the Umpire is crammed with familiar, welcome faces, including Gloria Henry (Dennis the Menace) and child star Connie Marshall as Bill's daughters, Jeff York and Bob Wilke as the crooked gamblers, while Three Stooges veterans Vernon Dent, Stanley Blystone, and Emil Sitka have bit parts (as the head of the phone company, a policeman, and an overzealous fan, respectively)**. Alan Hale, Jr. (Gilligan's Island) turns up in a small but important role as an injured catcher
"Mickey Mantle! Roger Maris! Gosh! Gee!"
Safe at Home (1962) is a routine but fitfully charming kiddie film featuring the two legendary Yankees. Ten-year-old Hutch Lawton (Bryan Russell) lives with his widower father Ken (Don Collier) on a charter boat based in Palms, Florida. Recently relocated from New York, Ken struggles to make ends meet taking vacationers out fishing while Hutch, when he's not helping out on the boat, spends most of his free time fending for himself.
Ken's job prevents him from attending Hutch's Little League games, and when one of Hutch's obnoxious teammates, Henry (effectively played with freckle-faced nastiness by Flip Mark) accuses Hutch's Dad of being both neglectful and ignorant about baseball, Hutch lies and says that he and his pop are best of friends with M & M. Hutch really gets into hot water when his coach, overhearing their conversation, asks Hutch to invite his Yankee pals to the team's banquet the following Saturday.
With his Pop away on a three-day charter, Hutch - armed with 11 peanut butter sandwiches and $1.87 in cold hard cash - high-tails it to the Yankee's spring training camp in Ft. Lauderdale, only to find both the Stadium and the Yankee Clipper Hotel swarming with mobs of other 10-year-olds equally desperate to meet their idols.
Apparently shot entirely on location in Florida, Safe at Home works as a time capsule with fascinating glimpses at both the Yankee Camp (just as Mantle and Maris were chasing Babe Ruth's single season home run record) and South Florida vacation spots during the time of the Kennedy Administration and NASA's Mercury Program.
Though generally predictable, the film's story is reasonably compelling though overly padded with Yankee training montages and fantasy sequences. Bryan Russell (Bye Bye Birdie, Emil and the Detectives) is appealing and believable even when the dialogue sometimes veers from the way real children talk to one another. He's one of the best child performers to appear in this kind of film, closer in style to Peter Ostrum's Charlie (in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) than, say, precocious Kevin Corcoran in his many Disney appearances.
Robert Dillon and Tom Naud's screenplay deserves special credit for its completely unexpected yet sensible and honest reaction by Mickey and Roger to Hutch's plea to help him out of his jam. (See the film.) Their response probably shook up small fry audiences back in 1962 and it still plays effectively today.
Less effective are Mantle and Maris. Training footage aside, they're less convincing as themselves than Tommy and Jimmy were in The Fabulous Dorseys (1947). Mantle's agreeable Oklahoman drawl does a lot to cover up his inexperience on-camera, but Maris is like a deer caught in the headlights. Still, to complain about their acting ability is beside the point and in any case except for that climatic scene little emoting is expected of them. Most of Hutch's interaction with the Yankee players is funneled through cantankerous coach Bill Turner, played with understated grandfatherly charm by William Frawley (again).
Video & Audio
Kill the Umpire and Safe at Home! are presented on a single-sided, dual-layered disc. Kill the Umpire is near-flawless, a crisp black and white full-frame transfer that's razor sharp with good contrast. The black and white Safe at Home! is 16:9 enhanced, in a 1.77:1 widescreen presentation that approximates its original 1.85:1 release. The first reel is a bit "overcooked" in the transfer, with the movie's clear skies especially exhibiting very subtle, grill-like shadows during the first reel. Fortunately, this disappears after about 10 minutes and the rest of the film looks just fine. The mono sound is adequate; optional (yellow) English and French subtitles are included on both films. There are no Extra Features.
Though both films are pretty minor, Kill the Umpire and especially Safe at Home! are reasonably enjoyable, and a good way to kill a Saturday afternoon when the ballgame is rained out. Recommended.
** "Three Blind Mice," the Stooges' theme music, is used here as well.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.