The Great American Pastime: IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH (20th Century-Fox 1942)

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day has finally arrived! It’s a tradition as American as Apple Pie, and so is IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, a baseball movie about a lousy team in Brooklyn whose new manager takes them to the top of the heap. The team’s not explicitly called the Dodgers and the manager’s not named Leo Durocher, but their improbable 1941 pennant winning season is exactly what inspired this charmingly nostalgic little movie.

When Brooklyn’s manager quits the team, dowager team owner Mrs. McAvoy seeks out ex-player Frank Maguire, who seven years earlier was run out of town when an unfortunate error cost the team the pennant. She finds him running a club out in the sticks, and convinces him to come back to the Big Leagues. He does, bringing along his faithful bat boy/sidekick ‘Squint’, and just before the season’s about to begin, Mrs. McAvoy abruptly dies. Her family members, led by majority owning niece Kathryn Baker, know absolutely nothing about baseball and want to sell, but Frank woos and wins Kathryn over.

Ownership spends big money to bring in new players, and the Brooklyn nine go on an incredible hot streak. But when Frank stands Kathryn up on a date to accept a speaking engagement, their romance hits a bump. Further turmoil is caused when Frank starts his rookie phenom pitcher in a crucial game, and the rook gets shellacked. Poison pen sports columnist Danny Mitchell, who led the charge to run Frank out of town all those years ago, dips his venomous pen in ink once again, and things fall apart, with the players petitioning to have Frank removed. Will Frank and Kathryn get back together? Will Brooklyn rally and win the pennant? Will there be a happy ending? (I know, silly questions, right?!)

The criminally underrated Lloyd Nolan is convincing as baseball lifer Frank Maguire, and gives a passionate performance. Carole Landis also shines as socialite Kathryn, and the two have good screen chemistry. They made one other film together, the WWII drama MANILA CALLING, and it’s a shame they didn’t make more. Sara Allgood’s role of feisty Mrs. McAvoy is brief but memorable, Robert Armstrong plays the hissable columnist, William Frawley the sarcastic Brooklyn GM, Scotty Beckett the irrepressible ‘Squint’, Jane Darwell is Nolan’s Irish mum, and there’s more Familiar Faces than you can wave a bat at: James Burke, Gino Corrado, Mary Gordon, Matt McHugh, Jed Prouty, and many, many more.

Dodgers vs Reds at Ebbets Field: Umpire George Magerkurth takes a pummeling from overwrought Brooklyn Dodgers fan Frank Germano who objected to some of his calls. (Photo by Hank Olen/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)My favorite scene is based on a true-life incident that occurred during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1940 season, as Nolan goes out to argue with the umpire over a bad call, and a fan runs out of the stands, slugging the ump and causing a riot! Actual footage of the incident is spliced into the scene, and a courtroom coda features Nolan giving an impassioned, patriotic plea on the fan’s behalf (gotta get that WWII angle in the film somehow!). Director Ray McCarey handles the material well; like his more successful, Oscar-winning older brother Leo McCarey, Ray got his start at the Hal Roach fun factory, directing Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy shorts. He guided The Three Stooges in two of their best at Columbia, the Oscar-nominated MEN IN BLACK and the football spoof THREE LITTLE PIGSKINS (featuring a young Lucille Ball), and though his feature film career consists mainly of little ‘B’ films like IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, his body of work deserves to be rediscovered.

So grab your peanuts and Cracker Jacks, the frosty beverage of your choice, and get ready, because baseball season has begun at last! Let’s root, root, root for the home team, and you know what’s coming next, right?…


LET’S GO, RED SOX!!

 

 

 

Screwball Comedian: Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE (Warner Brothers 1935)

We’re about a quarter of the way through the baseball season, so let’s take a trip to the ballpark with Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE, a 1935 comedy based on a story by Ring Lardner, one of the best baseball writers of the early 20th Century. Brown, known for his wide mouth and comical yell, is an admittedly acquired taste; his “gosh, golly” country bumpkin persona is not exactly what modern audiences go for these days.  But back in the 30’s he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, specializing in sports themed comedies  revolving around wrestling (SIT TIGHT), track and field (LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD), swimming (YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL), polo (POLO JOE), football ($1,000 A TOUCHDOWN), and racing (boats in TOP SPEED, airplanes in GOING WILD, bicycles in SIX DAY BIKE RACE).

ALIBI IKE is the final chapter in Brown’s “baseball trilogy”. The first, 1932’s FIREMAN, SAVE MY CHILD, found him as a player for the St. Louis Cardinals who doubles as a fireman and part-time inventor. 1933’s ELMER THE GREAT has Brown as an egotistical rookie for the Chicago Cubs. In ALIBI IKE, he’s back in a Cubs uniform as Frank X. Farrell, a hick-from-the-sticks with an unorthodox pitching style and a blazing fastball. His teammates nickname him “Alibi Ike” for his proclivity to come up with an outrageous excuse for everything, but his raw talent sets the league abuzz, raising the hopes of the Cubs long-suffering manager Cap (played by Fred Mertz himself, cranky William Frawley).

The rube’s never been interested in women until he meets Cap’s sister-in-law Dolly, who thinks he’s “cute”. This was movie audiences first glimpse at a 19-year-old actress who definitely had a future before her… Olivia de Havilland ! Olivia had already filmed A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM (also featuring Brown) and THE IRISH IN US, but ALIBI IKE was released first. She’s pretty darn “cute” herself as Dolly, and has great chemistry with Brown. Later that year, Olivia would costar with Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD , becoming half of one of the screen’s most romantic couples.

Ike is paid a visit by the president of “The Young Men’s High Ideals Club”, which he soon finds out is a front for a gambling ring that threatens him to throw some games or else! When Dolly breaks up with him over a misunderstanding, the lovestruck hurler loses his first game. Through circumstances, Cap and the team’s president think he’s in with the gamblers, and on the night of the big pennant deciding game against the Giants, Ike is kidnapped! Of course, you just know he’ll escape and wind up winning both the game and the girl, right?

The only quibble I have with ALIBI IKE is the big night game is played on the Cubs’ home field, which as all us baseball fans know didn’t get lights for night games until 1988! Otherwise, this is one of the all-time great baseball comedies, with actors that actually look like ball players for a change. The cast includes Familiar Faces Ruth Donnelly (as Frawley’s wife), Roscoe Karns, Jack Norton  (sober for a change, as a reporter!), Frank Coghlin Jr (Billy Batson in the serial CAPTAIN MARVEL), and Fred “Snowflake” Toones. Hard-core baseball enthusiasts may recognize former old-time players Gump Cantrell, Cedric Durst, Mike Gazella, Don Hurst, and Bob Meusel, as well as Jim Thorpe, whose life story was made into a 1951 biofilm starring Burt Lancaster.

William Wister Haines adapted his screenplay from Lardner’s story, giving Brown plenty of comic opportunities, and director Ray Enright ( PLAY-GIRL , ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES, GUNG HO!) keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. ALIBI IKE is a wonderful place to start if you’re not familiar with Brown’s work, classic movie lovers will want to catch it for Olivia’s screen debut, and baseball fans for the sheer joy of it. Honestly, I think even non-baseball fans will get a kick out of ALIBI IKE. Now let’s play ball!