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Remember the scene in Sunset Blvd. where William Holden pitches a movie about a girl's baseball team, and the studio producer asks if it could be adapted to take place on a Navy warship? Or was it the other way around? Sports movies with gimmicks were popular after the war, even a fantasy about a scientist who invents a formula that makes baseballs un-hit-able.
MGM under Dore Schary needed low-cost pictures, so writer Herbert Baker's screenplay Big Leaguer went into production. Not much in the way of production value was needed, as the whole show took place at a Florida "Winter Instructional School" for the New York Giants. Most of the cast was either contracted to or owed MGM a picture; it's possible that star Edward G. Robinson was cheaper because of his gray-listed status. The movie should be of special interest to baseball fans because of the presence of a number of real sports personalities in the cast.
Big Leaguer is the first feature film of Robert Aldrich, who would later make the sports-oriented hit The Longest Yard. Aldrich had a sterling reputation as a no-nonsense assistant director and had directed a number of TV episodes. He would later be noted for keeping powerful, volatile actors on task: Vera Cruz, The Big Knife, The Last Sunset, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen.
This small baseball story is not typical of films Aldrich would later pick for himself -- it's a low-key story of hopeful young ball players trying to get hired by the Giants. The winter session begins when players begin arriving by bus. Each has a distinct background or theme and deals with his ambition in a different way. Pitcher Bobby Bronson (Richard Jaeckel) sells his considerable talents hard; he tends to boast. Slick outfielder Julie Davis (William Campbell) is overly competitive and high strung, and prone to smart remarks. Tippy Mitchell (Bill Crandall) is the son of a famous player (Frank Ferguson) and knows that he's not as committed to the sport as his dad thinks he is. The personable Chuy Aguilar (Lalo Rios of The Lawless) has a language barrier to overcome. And loner Adam Polachuk (Jeff Richards) is shy and unassuming. He's hiding a shameful secret: his first-generation immigrant father (Mario Siletti) thinks he's gone to college.
"Hans" Lobert (Edward G. Robinson) is an ex-catcher and the school's personable manager. After many years on the job he's feeling pressure from the front office. If he doesn't identify and sign a significant number of good players in this session, Lobert might be fired or the whole program shut down. Sports writer Brian McLennan (Paul Langton) is on hand to observe, comment and ask Lobert about how he does his work. Lobert encourages the players to do their best but must be ruthless when he sees applicants that don't have the Right Stuff for the game. He also plays the traditional role of a coach, finding out what his boys are like and looking after their problems. Every year Lobert's daughter Christy (dancing star Vera-Ellen) comes down to help out, and this time she falls in love with the handsome Adam Polachuk. He feels the same way, but romance only makes his personal dilemma stand out all the more -- if his father finds out, he'll have to quit.
Big Leaguer is a nice alternative to glamorous baseball movies about big stars, and its basic story of young players starting out seems more than credible, at least to this outsider. There is no attempt to exaggerate anything: nobody is wanted by the law or slips out of the dorms to run wild after hours. We instead are given seventy minutes of baseball detail and honest small-scale drama. Considering how much baseball has changed in the last half-century, the idea of players actually being loyal to a specific team is especially endearing.
The dramatics are suitably restrained. Edward G. Robinson does a great job convincing us that he's a sports-oriented fellow -- the antithesis of his real personality. At one point Robinson's Lobert is at bat and is almost hit by a wild pitch. He charges right up to the pitcher (the camera) and barks out his words: "Were you trying to dust me off?!" He seems very much like an in-your-face pro.
In what may be her only non-dancing role, Vera-Ellen plays the daughter in a low key and naturalistic. If anything seems a bit off, its that the aspirants all seem a bit long in the tooth. They're supposed to range from 17 to 23 years of age. Jeff Richards (pictured) has the kind of problem that would seem right for a mixed-up 18 year-old, but the actor was 31 at the time. Richards was once a real pro ball player however, and it shows.
In a movie like this we expect all the featured players to prevail while the bit players are the ones to be cut from the team. The script has some fun with this expectation when one of our main characters unaccountably stops performing well. Pressured to start cutting the deadwood, Lobert has no choice but to let the fellow go. "This may be the one that got away", Lobert says, even as the player is leaving --- the kid was so good at first that he seemed the best prospect Lobert had. Nobody's perfect. Chuy Aguilar is perhaps used for one too many 'can't speak English' jokes, but the character is granted equal respect. I credit Robert Aldrich in part for this, as it would be easy to make Chuy more of a clown, for comedy relief.
Adam Polachek's twin problems are also nicely handled, in good scenes. His stubborn father attends the big final practice game, and learns from Tippy Mitchell's father, the professional player, that being a pro athlete is just as respectable as any other job. Christy does not pull some stunt to get Jeff to make the right decision, nor does some irrelevant disaster provide a dramatic finish. What we get is really good ball playing action and some interesting personality interaction. At its best the film captures the spirit of baseball in simpler times, before all was ruined by big money. It's a relaxing pleasure.
Robert Aldrich jokingly faulted MGM on the fact that the film was not a major box office winner: the studio took their movie about the New York Giants, and opened it in Brooklyn.
Alain Silver and Jim Ursini, Limelight Editions 1995.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Big Leaguer is a perfect encoding of this minor film with major graces. Made the year before widescreen came in, the flat image is perfectly balanced and William Mellor's camerawork naturalistic. It's one of these films shot predominantly in broad daylight, that fills shadows without giving us the idea that big lights are working. The music score appears to be made up of MGM library cues. Yes, these were the days when every picture didn't have to be a major event just to find a place on the production schedule.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Big Leaguer rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.