Wild Pitch: THE PRIDE OF ST. LOUIS (20th Century-Fox 1952)

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Jerome Herman “Dizzy” Dean, ace pitcher of the St. Louis Cardinals’ famed “Gashouse Gang” in the 1930’s, gets the Hollywood biopic treatment in this pleasant little film. The malaprop prone Dizzy was one of the game’s greats before an unfortunate injury, leading to him becoming a well-loved broadcaster. The film sticks fairly close to the facts, as Dean was a colorful enough character to need little embellishment.

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THE PRIDE OF ST. LOUIS follows Dean’s career as he’s discovered pitching in his Arkansas hometown, through the minors, and finally to big league success with the Cardinals. Along the way he woos and wins the love of his life, Patricia. Soon his brother Paul joins the team, and the pair become as well-known for their off-field antics as for their pitching prowess.

The movie takes a turn when Dizzy is injured during an All Star Game and tries to come back too soon. His arm is ruined, but Dizzy can’t accept the fact his baseball career is over. He begins to gamble and drink heavily, and Pat leaves him, telling him he needs to grow up. A friend offers him a job as a radio broadcaster, and Dizzy becomes an overnight sensation. The local PTA group disapproves of the effect his mangled English is having on children, and seeks to have him banned. But overwhelming fan support gets them to relent, and Dizzy, back with Pat, goes on to a long and prosperous new career.

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Dan Dailey is “pitch” perfect as Dizzy Dean. He looks like a ballplayer, and his dancer’s background enables him to gracefully convey a pitcher’s moves. Dailey’s quite charming as the loveable country bumpkin turned Major League star. Equally charming is Joanne Dru as wife Pat. More well-known for her work in Westerns (RED RIVER, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON), Dru shines as Dizzy’s patient, loving wife. A VERY young Richard Crenna takes the part of Paul “Daffy” Dean, a far cry from Col. Troutman in the RAMBO series. Familiar Faces you’ll encounter are James Brown (not the singer, the actor who starred on TV’s THE ADVENTURES OF RIN TIN TIN), Jack Rice, John Doucette, Phillip Van Zandt, and Johnny Duncan, the Boy Wonder of the 1949 serial BATMAN & ROBIN. Old timers (like me) will recognize Chet Huntley, newscaster of NBC’s HUNTLEY/BRINKLEY REPORT, as Dizzy’s radio broadcasting partner.

Behind the scenes, Harmon Jones provides able direction, balancing the baseball action with the melodramatics. Jones was a workhorse in the 20th Century Fox editing department, on films like 13 RUE MADELEINE, ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, YELLOW SKY, and SITTING PRETTY.  Jones’ career as director was undistinguished, consisting mostly of second feature programmers. He was more successful in television, where his resume includes numerous episodes of RAWHIDE, PERRY MASON, TARZAN, and DEATH VALLEY DAYS. The screenplay for THE PRIDE OF ST. LOUIS was written by the same man who wrote 1942’s THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, the Lou Gehrig story. That man was Herman J. Mankiewicz, Oscar winner for CITIZEN KANE, and classics like DINNER AT EIGHT, SAN FRANCISCO, and THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE. Brother of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and grandfather of TCM host Ben, Herman also produced many of the early Marx Brothers movies at Paramount.

The Real Dizzy Dean
                                                                               The Real Dizzy Dean

Sentimental and schmaltzy, but not in a bad way, THE PRIDE OF ST. LOUIS will leave you smiling. It’s a good little film that gives the viewer a realistic look at the old ball game. While not in the classic category, baseball fans will enjoy it. Even if you’re not a baseball buff, it’s worth your time. And if you are a baseball buff, here’s some of Dizzy Dean’s accomplishments:

DIZZY DEAN CAREER STATS

150-83 win-loss record

3.02 ERA

154 complete games

1,163 K’s

4 time All Star

30 game winner in 1934

2 time 20 game winner

Struck out 17 Cubs in a game, a record broken by Bob Feller in 1938 (18), then shattered by Roger Clemens twice with the Boston Red Sox (20, in 1986, 1996)

National League MVP

Hall of Famer

 

Batter Up!: TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (MGM 1949)

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The National Pastime is just a frame for TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME to hang its picture in. That’s okay though, because producer Arthur Freed and the MGM Musical Dream Factory put together a rollicking, colorful romp with turn of the (20th) century baseball as an excuse to let Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra , Esther Williams, Betty Garrett, and company razzle-dazzle us with plenty of songs, dancing, romancing, and comedy.

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There’s not much of a plot in this outing. The World Champion Wolves are at spring training, awaiting the arrival of star diamond duo Eddie O’Brien and Denny Ryan, who’re off on a vaudeville tour. Eddie (Kelly) is a skirt chaser with Broadway dreams, while Denny’s (Sinatra) a shy, geeky guy who lives and breathes baseball. They get to camp just in time to hear the Wolves’ owner has died and left the club to his only relative, K.C. Higgins (Williams), who happens to be (gasp!) a girl! Eddie makes a poor first impression on K.C., so you just know they’ll end up together. Denny’s being chased by fan Shirley Delwyn (Garrett), who’s involved with a crooked gambler (Edward Arnold). Romantic complications and skullduggery ensue, but everything works out in the end, with Kelly, Sinatra, Williams, and Garrett breaking the Fourth Wall to reprise the rousing tune “Strictly USA”.

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Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen wrote the story for the film as a bullpen session for their later collaborations (ON THE TOWN, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN). Freed wasn’t ready to let the duo bat as directors, so he hired pinch hitter Busby Berkeley, the crafty veteran responsible for early hits like 42ND STREET, DAMES, and the GOLDDIGGERS series. This was Berkeley’s last credited film as director, though he did choreograph a handful of others in the 50’s. Kelly and Donen did handle the dance numbers here though, showcasing Kelly’s physical style. I especially enjoyed his exuberant tap number celebrating his Irish heritage on “The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore”:

There are nine musical numbers in all, including the rip-roaring “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg”, featuring third banana Jules Munshin, who costarred with Kelly and Sinatra in ON THE TOWN, along with Garrett. Esther Williams even gets some brief pool time, swimming along while singing the title tune. Besides those I’ve already mentioned, Richard Lane and Tom Dugan lend able support as the team manager and his coach. Familiar Face spotters will note Murray Alper, Douglas Fowley , Henry Kulky, Gordon Jones, and Sally Forrest . And yes, that’s Danny Kaye in a cameo as a train passenger sitting behind Kelly and Sinatra.

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If you like classic musicals and baseball (and I do), then TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME is a solid, bases-clearing triple. Filled with toe tapping songs and silly slapstick bits (thanks to uncredited gagman Buster Keaton), it’s as American as apple pie and “Strictly USA”. And who can argue with that?

PREVIEWS OF COMING ATTRACTIONS

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 13: General view as the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Nationals stand on the field for the National Anthem before the game at Fenway Park on April 13, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA – APRIL 13: General view as the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Nationals stand on the field for the National Anthem before the game at Fenway Park on April 13, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Baseball fans rejoice! Opening Day is on it’s way (GO RED SOX!), and this week Cracked Rear Viewer will celebrating the return of America’s Pastime! Play Ball!

TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME (1949)

THE PRIDE OF ST. LOUIS (1952)

SQUEEZE PLAY (1979)

Devil in Disguise: ANGEL FACE (RKO 1952)

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I saved ANGEL FACE for last in this week’s look at RKO/Robert Mitchum films because it’s been  hailed as a near-classic by many film noir fans. It’s certainly different from HIS KIND OF WOMAN and MACAO; much darker in tone, and features an unsympathetic performance by Mitchum. It’s more in the noir tradition of bleak films like DETOUR and BORN TO KILL. But better than the other two? That depends on your point of view. Let’s take a look:

An ambulance screams its way to the Tremayne home in ritzy Beverly Hills. The wealthy Mrs. Catherine Tremayne has been subjected to a gas leak of unknown origin. One of the ambulance drivers, Frank Jessup, comes across beautiful Diane playing the piano. She bursts into hysterics, and Frank smacks her, receiving one in return.  After she calms down, Frank and his partner Bill head home. Frank has a date with his girl Mary tonight. But Diane has followed him, and he blows Mary off as the two end up going out for a night of dinner and dancing. Diane tells him her father was a novelist, and remarried after her mother was killed in the London blitz. She asks a lot of questions about Frank, who confesses he was once a race driver before the war, dreaming of the day he can open his own garage to work on sports cars like Diane’s fancy Jaguar XK.

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Next day, Diane meets Mary for lunch. She tries to play coy, offering Mary a grand to help Frank achieve his dream of opening a  garage. But Mary ends up fighting with Frank, and he takes a job as the Tremayne family chauffeur. Catherine pans on investing in Frank’s garage, but before she can, she and her husband are killed in a suspicious auto accident. Frank is questioned by the police and before you know it, the two are on trial for murder.

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To go any further would spoil the plot for those of you who’ve not seen ANGEL FACE. I’ll just say there are lots of twists and turns to come, and that the ending will hit you with full force! It took me by surprise, which is pretty hard to do. Writers Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) crafted a marvelous screenplay, and Otto Preminger directs with style. Preminger was one of film noir’s top directors, having lensed the classic LAURA, as well as WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS and WHIRLPOOL (all of which are sitting in my DVR, waiting to be reviewed!) The director was responsible for the controversial (at the time) THE MOON IS BLUE, and top-notch films like RIVER OF NO RETURN (with Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (one of the first mainstream movies to deal with heroin addiction), and ANATOMY OF A MURDER. But by the Sixties it seemed Preminger’s time had passed, and films like HURRY SUNDOWN and the excruciating SKIDOO bombed t the box office. Preminger also acted in film and TV, most notably as the Commandant in STALAG 17 and as the chilling villain Mr. Freeze on BATMAN. Preminger died at age 80 in 1986, no longer a Hollywood A-lister. His film work is worth rediscovering for anyone unfamiliar with it.

Jean Simmons plays Diane, the ANGEL FACE of the title. Her character, like the best femmes fatale, is both beautiful and deeply disturbed. Diane’s a scheming, pathological liar, willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. Simmons is one of the screen’s great beauties, a talented actress whose films include David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Olivier’s HAMLET, THE ROBE, GUYS AND DOLLS, and SPARTACUS. Robert Mitchum’s Frank isn’t very likable here, easily seduced by Diane. It’s to Mitchum’s credit that he does manage to elicit some sympathy for Frank, considering how he dumps Mary so unceremoniously, then expects her to take him back with open arms. It’s a tricky role, but our boy Bob is more than up to the task.

The supporting cast features solid actors like Leon Ames, Herbert Marshall, Barbara O’Neil, Kenneth Tobey, Mona Freeman, and Jim Backus. A special Cracked Rear Viewer shout out goes to Bess Flowers in the tiny role of Ames’ secretary. Miss Flowers didn’t do many speaking parts; she was known as “Queen of the Hollywood Extras”, appearing mainly in background scenes in over 800 film and TV appearances! Her list of credits is WAY too extensive to go over here. Her best known and largest role is probably as the rich wife who hires Moe, Larry, and Curly as interior decorators in the 1938 Three Stooges short TASSELS IN THE AIR.

Bess Flower with The Stooges
Bess Flowers with The Stooges

So is ANGEL FACE better than the two previous Robert Mitchum films I’ve reviewed this week? As a film noir, the answer is yes. It’s dark and downbeat, like the best of the noirs, with that foreboding sense of doom inherent in the genre, right up to the powerful ending. But for me personally, I prefer the anarchic spirit of HIS KIND OF WOMAN, which takes the genre and turns it on its ear. Like I said earlier, it depends on your point of view.

Meet and Greet Weekend @ Dream Big: 3/25/16

It’s an Easter Weekend Meet and Greet at Dream Big Dream Often! BYOEE (bring your own Easter Eggs!)

Dream Big, Dream Often

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It’s the Meet and Greet weekend at Dream Big!!

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Double Dynamite: Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in MACAO (RKO 1952)

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Even though 1951’s HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money (mainly due to studio boss Howard Hughes’ meddling), Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell were reteamed the following year in MACAO. The film was actually sitting on the RKO shelf, having been completed in 1950. Once again, the autocratic Hughes wasn’t pleased with the original version, and fired credited director Josef von Sternberg, replacing him with Nicholas Ray. Mitchum himself even contributed to rewriting some scenes. The result is an entertaining noir that, while not quite as good as HIS KIND OF WOMAN, still manages to hold your interest.

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On a boat from Hong Kong, drifter Nick Cochran (Mitchum) meets grifter Julie Benson (Russell), who lifts his wallet. The pair also meet Lawrence C. Trumble (William Bendix), a salesman specializing in “nylons, pearl buttons, coconut oil, and fertilizer”.  The three are headed to Macao, “The Monte Carlo of the Orient” (actually the RKO backlot), for various reasons. Julie gets a job as a singer working for crime lord Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter):

Halloran’s got the local cops (led by Thomas Gomez) in his hip pocket. He’s also got a moll named Margie (the always welcome Gloria Grahame ), who’s jealous of his attention to Julie. Nick’s looking for work, too, but Halloran doesn’t trust him. He thinks Nick’s a New York cop trying to extradite him. Salesman Trumble has a deal for Nick to make some dough: he’s got a hot diamond necklace stashed in Hing Kong, and will cut Nick in on the deal if Nick can arrange for Halloran to buy it. This sets in motion plenty of trouble for all involved, but have no fear! Things turn out well in the end, and Nick winds up with Julie (like you just knew he would!)

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I liked MACAO, but not as much as HIS KIND OF WOMAN. The team of Mitchum and Russell still crackles with sexual heat, the supporting cast is good, and the movie’s exciting enough. There’s a reason it sat on the shelf for two years, and I think I know what it is: the movie feels like they just lost interest and gave up on it about halfway through. Kind of like I’m doing here with this review.  It’s not the best, not the worst either. It’s kind of an average RKO/Mitchum entry, but that’s still better than a lot of films of that era. I’d watch it again, and if you get the chance, give it a try. You can do a lot worse than seeing Mitchum and Russell go at it again!

Pounded to Death by Gorillas: HIS KIND OF WOMAN (RKO 1951)

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People don’t go to the movies to see how miserable the world is; they go there to eat popcorn, be happy“- Wynton (Jim Backus) in HIS KIND OF WOMAN

Right you are, Mr. Howell, err Backus. There’s an abundance of fun to be had in HIS KIND OF WOMAN, the quintessential RKO/Robert Mitchum movie. Big Bob costars with sexy Jane Russell in a convoluted tale that’s part film noir, part Monty Python, with an outstanding all-star cast led by Vincent Price serving up big slices of ham as a self-obsessed movie star. And the backstory behind HIS KIND OF WOMAN is as entertaining as the picture itself!

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But we’ll go behind the scenes later. First, let’s look at the movie’s plot. We meet down on his luck gambler Dan Milner (Mitchum) in a bar…. drinking milk! Dan just got done doing a 30 day stretch in a Palm Springs jail “for nothin'” (an in-joke reference to Mitchum’s 1948 pot bust ). He returns to his apartment only to be greeted by three goons, who promptly beat the crap out of him. He’s made an offer he can’t refuse to clear his debt: accept $50,000 and move to Mexico for a year, no questions asked. Dan’s no dummy; he takes the offer.

What he doesn’t know is that deported vice lord and “upper crust crumb” Nick Ferraro (bulky Raymond Burr) plans to hijack Dan’s identity and return to the states. While Dan waits for his plane at a crummy cantina, he meets songbird Leonore Brent (Russell):

The heat is on between Dan and Leonore, and their sexually charged banter crackles throughout the film. Leonore is heading to the same place as Dan: Morro’s Lodge, a swanky hotspot for the idle rich. It’s here we meet our cast of characters, none of whom are what they seem. There’s Morro (Phillip Van Zandt), who’s comfortable on both sides of the fence,  Krafft (John Mylong) a chess playing writer with a past, Wynton (Backus) a cheery sort who likes to play cards and hustle young women, and Thompson (Charles McGraw ), who’s mixed up in Dan’s deal.

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Then there’s Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan, played by the one and only Vincent Price, and he’s a hoot. Price has a field day as the vain blowhard in the Errol Flynn mold (when his latest swashbuckler is screened, a wag says, “It has a message no pigeon would carry”). His Cardigan has a thing going on with Leonore, that is until his wife (Marjorie Reynolds) shows up to put a halt to it. Whether spouting Shakespeare or rousing up a rescue party, Price shamelessly steals every scene he’s in. It’s probably his best non-horror role, and he plays it up for all he’s worth.

Back to the story: Dan’s biding his time, waiting to get paid off, while Krafft and Thompson are always lurking in the background. A hurricane is brewing, and a drunken pilot (Tim Holt) barrels through it. But he’s not really a lush, he’s Federal agent Lusk, and he spills the beans to Dan about Ferraro’s scheme to make a patsy out of Dan. Lusk is killed by Thompson, Dan’s kidnapped by Ferraro’s goons, and taken to the gangster’s yacht to await certain doom.  Macho man Cardigan leads the Mexican police on a raid, and a battle ensues. Dan finally breaks free in time to save Cardigan from Ferraro, and the good guys are victorious! Dan and Leonore get together at last and have the final say in a memorably STEAMY ending!

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That ending wasn’t the one concocted by credited writers Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard and director John Farrow. They weren’t even involved in it. RKO studio boss Howard Hughes wasn’t satisfied with the conclusion, feeling it wasn’t exciting enough. Hughes hired director Richard Fleischer and writer Earl Fenton, who’d just wrapped up filming on another RKO noir, THE NARROW MARGIN. The three brainstormed a new ending, building a replica of Ferraro’s yacht inside the studio’s water tank for the added action. This put the film way behind schedule, but there was more to come. When Hughes viewed the footage, he decided the actor playing Ferraro (Robert J. Wilke, later Captain Nemo’s first mate in Fleischer’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA ) wasn’t appropriately menacing enough. Recalling seeing Raymond Burr in another film, Hughes recast the role, and Fleischer had to reshoot all the scenes featuring Ferraro!

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Hopelessly over budget due to Hughes’ tinkering, HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money at the box office. Today aficionados see it as a camp classic, a romp through film noir territory unlike any other of its day. Mitchum and Russell make an attractive screen team, Price is a riot, and the rest of the cast is more than up to par. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Tol Avery, Danny Borzage, Anthony Caruso, Robert Cornthwaite, King Donovan, Paul Frees, and Carlton Young, not to mention a very young Mamie Van Doren. There’s no other film in the noir canon quite like HIS KIND OF WOMAN, so put it on your must-watch list today.