Base-Brawl: William Bendix in KILL THE UMPIRE (Columbia 1950)

Ahh, spring is in the air, that magical time of year, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of… baseball!! That’s right, Dear Readers, Opening Day is upon us once again, and what better way to celebrate the return of America’s National Pastime than taking a look back at KILL THE UMPIRE, a 1950 comedy conceived in the warped mind of former animator Frank Tashlin and directed by ex-Warners vet Lloyd Bacon.

Big lug William Bendix stars as Bill Johnson, an ex-major leaguer whose passion for the game keeps him from holding a regular job because he keeps playing hooky to go to the ballpark. Bill hates only one thing more than missing a game – umpires! But when his exasperated wife threatens to leave him, his ex-ump father-in-law suggests he go to umpire school to save his marriage. Bill balks at first, but then reluctantly agrees, not wishing to lose his spouse. He does everything in his power to get ejected out of the school, including donning a pair of thick “Coke-bottle’ glasses, but eventually comes around. Bill and his roomie Roscoe are sent to the Texas League, where he finds Texans hate umpires even more than he does, at one point getting knocked out by a tossed cowboy boot! Some gamblers attempt to bribe Bill, but he causes them to lose by having their team forfeit, causing a Texas-sized riot at the old ball game! Fans want Bill’s head on a platter, and it all culminates in a wild chase with Bendix in drag, pursued by an angry mob and angrier gamblers. But as you probably can guess by now, all’s well that ends well.

Tashlin’s loony screenplay features many of his trademark cartoony sight gags, like Bendix wearing an over-inflated chest protector, then getting his spikes stuck in a wooden floor, with hilarious results. The chase is a riot too, with our hero being dragged water-skiing style on a piece of fence behind an ambulance. Tashlin strikes the right balance of situation comedy and slapstick hijinks, aided by Bacon’s deft direction. Bacon was adept at any type movie, but got his start with Chaplin and Mack Sennett; his comedy bona fides include GOLD DUST GERTIE, THE IRISH IN US , A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER, and MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND.

“This ballpark has sho’ gone crazy!”

William Bendix plays it broad as baseball nut Bill. He was no stranger to baseball pictures, having starred two years earlier in THE BABE RUTH STORY. No stranger to comedy, either: Bendix starred in radio’s THE LIFE OF RILEY sitcom, later bringing it to television (in fact, his RILEY TV costar Tom D’Andrea plays roommate Roscoe). It’s nice to see Una Merkel get a substantial part here as Bendix’s beleaguered wife. Ray Collins , of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and TV’s PERRY MASON, plays father-in-law Jonah. Three Stooges fans will get a kick out of seeing many Columbia Short Subject Players in small roles: Murray Alper, Stanley Blystone, Vernon Dent, Dudley Dickerson (“This house has sho’ gone crazy!”), Emil Sitka, Dick Wessel, and Jean Willes appear, and the familiar strains of “Three Blind Mice” play over the opening credits! You’ll also find Familiar Faces like William Frawley , Billy Gray, Frank Hagney, Alan Hale Jr. , and others in the mix.

Some may find KILL THE UMPIRE a bit dated, but it’s still got plenty of laughs in it to make it worth your time. And it’s available on YouTube for your convenience! Makes a good pre-game warm-up…. now let’s Play Ball!

Oh, and one other thing…. Let’s Go Red Sox!!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: THE IRISH IN US (Warner Brothers 1935)

Faith and begorrah! You can’t get much more Irish than a film featuring Jimmy Cagney , Pat O’Brien , and Frank McHugh all together. THE IRISH IN US is sentimental as an Irish lullaby, formulaic as a limerick, and full of blarney, but saints preserve us it sure is a whole lot of fun! The story concerns three Irish-American brothers, the O’Hara’s, living with their Irish mum in a cramped NYC apartment. There’s sensible, levelheaded cop Pat (O’Brien), dimwitted fireman Michael (McHugh), and ‘black sheep’ Danny (Cagney), who’s a fight promoter.

O’Brien, Cagney, and McHugh

Pat announces his intention to marry pretty Lucille Jackson (19-year-old Olivia de Havilland in an early role), while Danny’s got a new fighter named Carbarn Hammerschlog ( Allen Jenkins , who’s a riot), a punchy pug who “every time he hears a bell ring, he starts sluggin”! Danny and Lucille ‘meet cute’ while he’s out doing roadwork with his charge, not knowing Pat’s invited her over for dinner later to meet the family. Being the red-blooded Irish boyos they are, chaos ensues, especially after Carbarn hears a bell ring outside and “starts sluggin'”!

Cagney’s ready to rumble!

The O’Hara’s attend the annual Fireman’s Ball, but when Pat catches Danny and Lucille kissing in the moonlight, he gets his Irish up and slugs his brother, causing Danny to leave the family home. Lucille confesses to Ma that she loves Danny, not Pat, but the fences still aren’t mended. Middleweight champ Joe Delaney agrees to a charity bout for the Policeman’s Benefit, and Pat suggests palooka Carbarn. The night of the big fight finds Carbarn with a bad toothache, which Michael tries to fix with a bottle of gin, leaving both men swacked! A phone rings in the dressing room as the champ meets Carbarn, and the plug takes a wild swing at Delaney, whom promptly knocks his scheduled opponent out cold. Danny subs for his fighter and takes a pummeling, until Lucille pleads with Pat to help his brother. Pat joins Danny in his corner, and tells him he’s stepping out of the way with Lucille. Danny rallies to win the match, and they all live happily ever after!

A meeting of the “Irish Mafia”: Spencer Tracy, O’Brien, McHugh, and Cagney

The three leads appeared together in HERE COMES THE NAVY, DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR, BOY MEETS GIRL, THE FIGHTING 69TH, and in various combinations for Warners over the years. Cagney, O’Brien, and McHugh were members in good standing of Hollywood’s “Irish Mafia”, a group of actors who’d known each other since their struggling days that met once a week for dinner and cocktails (presumably, LOTS of cocktails!). Besides those three distinguished gentleman, the club included Jenkins, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy, Louis Calhern, James Gleason, Bert Lahr, and Lynne Overman. Later in life, Cagney said, “Those were the finest and dearest men I ever knew. How honored and privileged I was to know them”.

Wonderful Mary Gordon, ‘the ultimate Irish mum’

Mary Gordon (1882-1963) is the ultimate Irish mum as the widowed Mrs. O’Hara. The Scottish born actress is usually seen in smaller roles, but she gets the chance to really shine here. Miss Gordon is best remembered for playing Sherlock Holmes’ landlady Mrs. Hudson in all those great Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce mysteries. Olivia makes a fine ingénue, and the cast includes former welterweight boxer-turner-actor/stuntman Mushy Callahan as the referee in the big bout. THE IRISH IN US, directed by Lloyd Bacon (42ND STREET, THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS ), was one of many programmers churned out by the Brothers Warner back in the 30’s, a very likeable film with a top-notch cast that’s perfect for your St. Patrick’s Day viewing. Slainte!

Gangsters On Horseback: James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in THE OKLAHOMA KID (Warner Bros, 1939)

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James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart traded in their tommy guns for six-shooters in THE OKLAHOMA KID.  The film moves like a serial, going swiftly from one set-piece to the next. The plot’s your standard cowboy outing, but what makes THE OKLAHOMA KID so much fun is seeing the two great gangster stars going through their paces in a Western setting.

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When the Oklahoma land rush is opened, Whip McCall (Bogart) and his gang decide to rob the stagecoach carrying newly minted silver to pay the Cherokee Nation. The Oklahoma Kid (Cagney), a free-spirited rascal, beats them to the punch. The Kid enters a camp where he meets Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and his pretty daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane). Jane’s beau, Ned Kincaid (Harvey Stephens), knows something about the Kid’s mysterious past. McCall then puts a “sooner” claim on a parcel of land that becomes Tulsa. The town is wide open thanks to McCall, now running the saloon and gambling joint. The concerned citizens decide to take on the racketeers, I mean outlaws, by running Ned’s dad John Kincaid (Hugh Southern) for mayor. McCall frames Kincaid for murder, then tricks Judge Hardwick into going to Kansas City, setting up his own corrupt judge to preside at the trial. Jane sends The Kid to fetch him back, but it’s too late. The hand-picked jury has found Kincaid guilty.

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The Kid decides he’s going to bust Kincaid out of jail, but the old man won’t go with him, preferring law and order over anarchy. McCall incites a lynch mob to grab Kincaid and they hang him high. The truth is now revealed: The Kid is Kincaid’s son! He tracks down and kills McCall’s gang except for Doolin (Edward Pawley), who confesses McCall gave the order for the frame-up and lynching. Meanwhile, Ned has been named U.S. Marshall and goes to arrest McCall. The villain gut-shoots Ned, then engages in a wild brawl with The Kid. McCall’s about to finish The Kid off when Ned, in a last desperate act, shoots the bad guy down, thus saving his wayward brother before he dies.

Cagney’s Oklahoma Kid is a smiling, swaggering maverick who has no use for “civilization” (and he explains why in a well-written, libertarian speech to Judge Hardwick). He’s a charming rogue of an outlaw, and his portrayal of The Kid is fun to watch. Cagney even gets to sing a tune (“I Don’t Want To Play In Your Yard”) during the course of the action. Bogart plays his usual slimy bad guy as McCall, dressed all in black and ordering around his minions. The cast is full of Western veterans (Ward Bond, George Chesebro, Bob Kortman, Al Bridge), and director Lloyd Bacon keeps things moving along. Max Steiner’s music helps set the mood, and the cinematography of legendary James Wong Howe adds greatly to the overall atmosphere. THE OKLAHOMA KID is a fun movie to watch, made even more fun by the presence of Cagney and Bogart out of their gangster element.

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