It’s MLB opening day; time finally for our survey post on baseball centered movie comedies. It is meant to a part of a series on sports comedies; we did one on football, and one on golf…I imagine we’ll eventually get around to them all if we live long enough, although you may want to tune out before we get to curling.
Over the Fence (1917)
Harold Lloyd’s first “boy in glasses” comedy. He and co-star Snub Pollard play two store clerks who are butting heads over the same girl (Bebe Daniels). When Snub steals Harold’s baseball tickets and brings Bebe to the game himself, Harold one-ups him by sneaking into the locker room, suiting up, and pitching a winning game. For good measure, he beats up Snub and the entire baseball team, and, needless to say, wins the heart of Bebe.
Harold Lloyd plays a soda jerk and rabid Yankees fan who wants to help save his girlfriend’s dad’s endangered business: the last horse drawn trolley line in New York. Two special highlights: a cameo by the actual Babe Ruth (Harold gets fired from the soda fountain and becomes a tax driver and has to rush Babe to a game).
The Cameraman (1928)
One of the highlights of this Buster Keaton comedy is a scene where news photographer Buster goes to Yankee Stadium to cover a game…but it turns out to be an “away” day. Undaunted, he mimes an entire baseball game by himself, an homage to the famous circus clown Slivers Oakley.
Joe E. Brown‘s “Baseball Trilogy”
Joe E. Brown had actually been a professional baseball player in his youth (in the summer, when vaudeville theatres were closed). It was inevitable when he became a huge comedy star that he do some baseball comedies. The three films he made with baseball settings are informally known as the “trilogy” only because there are three of them; they don’t tie together in any way, and weren’t meant to.
Fireman, Save My Child (1932)
In this one, Brown plays a small town fireman who loves his job. He has invented a new “fire extinguishing bomb” (containing a chemical that smothers fires) and needs dough to manufacture it — and not incidentally to marry his fiancé. He takes a job as a baseball player just so he can better spot fires (the ball field is on top of hill) and becomes quite successful at the sport at the professional level. Meanwhile a femme fatal is working on him so she can take his money. Obviously this makes the girl he really loves unhappy. Anyway, of course he puts everything right in the end. And wins the (right) girl.
Elmer the Great (1933)
This one was based on a stage play by George M. Cohan and Ring Lardner, it stars Brown as a terrific but vain baseball player from rural Indiana. His team-mates get revenge by hiding his hometown sweetheart’s letters, causing him to fool around with a beautiful actress and get involved in gambling. As always, he saves the day in the end. One of his best comedies, with a bast that includes Sterling Holloway, Douglas Dumbrille, Frank McHugh, J. Carrol Naish, George Chandler and Gale Gordon.
Alibi Ike (1935)
Based on a short story written by Ring Lardner. Brown as a terrific bush-league pitcher who joins the Chicago Cubs (coached by William Frawley). His nickname comes from his crazy excuses for foibles like lateness and irresponsibility. A very young Olivia de Havilland, in one of her first roles, plays his exceedingly fetching love interest. The main theme is that he insists he has no time for women but he totally falls for de Havilland – -and the other guys in the club keep razzing him and trying to catch him out. Then some crooks purporting to be the “Young Men’s High Ideals Club” want him to throw the game. The couple are about to get married but then she hears him boasting to the guys that he doesn’t really want to, he’s just doing it because he feels sorry for her. She leaves town in a huff. Unhappy about it, Ike loses a game. The team management is suspicious that he threw it. Being Alibi Ike, he claims that he was alright, so that makes them even more suspicious. Then the crooks hand him money—they think they threw it too. He is fired from the team. Then they relent but now he’s mad and won’t come back. He wants to get his girl back. But he has to play again so people won’t think he’s crooked. Meanwhile the criminals think he’s going to throw another game. Learning that he really doesn’t mean to, they kidnap him. He escapes, and goes to his usual crazy lengths to make it to the field and win the big game. A funny one, and a big hit with audiences in 1935.
One Run Elmer (1935)
Buster Keaton short for Educational Pictures. Buster has a gas station (a pump and a shack) in the middle of the Arizona desert. The crux of the film is Buster and a rival gas station owner (and their respective amateur teams) play an unfriendly game in order to win a girl’s hand. A particularly funny sequence has Buster’s shack become entirely demolished from stray balls as the team practices. Naturally, Buster’s team wins.
“Who’s On First”
Abbott and Costello performed this famous burlesque routine thousands of times on stage, radio and television and in the films One Night in the Tropics (1940) and The Naughty Nineties (1945). It is the teams best known routine, adapted from a pre-existing sketch written by other people.
It Happens Every Spring (1949)
Ray Milland plays a college professor who invents a solution that repels wood. Thus, when a baseball is covered with it, a bat can’t hit it. Naturally, he uses this power to become a big league baseball pitcher! The lovable lummox Paul Douglas plays his coach. Directed by comedy veteran Lloyd Bacon.
Kill the Umpire (1950)
Another one directed by Lloyd Bacon and written by the great Frank Tashlin, this one has the heir of inevitability about it and has a genuinely hilarious premise. William Bendix (who’d plays Babe Ruth a couple of years earlier) is a former baseball player who hates umps so badly he can’t even hold down a jump — of any sort. Then his father-in-law (a former ump) makes him go to umpire school and become an ump! As we all know umpires are among the most irrationally hated people on the planet. There’s something existential about the predicament. Does he learn something about how unfair he was? What do you think? Una Merkel plays his long-suffering wife.
Angels in the Outfield (1951)
A classic of course! Paul Douglas returns to the dugout as a nasty, mean manager — until an angel arrives and gets him to turn his losing streak around by using sugar instead of vinegar. Janet Leigh plays the love interest, a lady sports reporter.
In this wacky family comedy, a cat inherits a professional baseball team and the manager (William Frawley) is allergic to cats! Fortunately, team publicist Ray Milland is around to smooth down Rhubarb’s fur. (Rhubarb is the cat, named after baseball slang for an on-field argument).
Damn Yankees (1958)
I’m afraid I find it pretty irresistible. As an aging male with a spreading paunch it’s hard not to identify with the couch potato who gets a magical chance to be 22 again and a baseball hero to boot. I have to admit I even really like the song “Ya Gotta Have Heart”. I’m not normally a fan of modern musicals but I have a weakness for this one.
Bad News Bears and sequels (1976)
The quintessential Little League comedy. It was an important movie of my childhood; I blogged about it at length here.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976)
A comedy about the Negro Leagues, starring Richard Pryor (just when his career was exploding), James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams. It was co-produced by Berry Gordy’s Motown productions, a fitting follow-up to Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Mahogany (1975).
The Slugger’s Wife (1985)
This one sank like a stone when it first came out and has never been retrieved from the bottom of the lake. Penned by Neil Simon and directed by Hal Ashby (his penultimate feature), it’s a romantic comedy about a baseball player (Michael O’Keefe, best remembered as the unfunny one from Caddyshack) and a singer (Rebecca de Mornay).
Brewster’s Millions (1985)
Crappy eighties comedy made out of a perennial decades-old stage comedy which I blogged about here. For little discernible reason (other than perhaps Richard Pryor’s resemblance to Reggie Jackson) the story has been transferred to a baseball setting in this scenario, and there are several baseball scenes, but it has little to do with the main plot of a dude who looks to inherit a super-bundle if he can spend a regular bundle. The presence of John Candy is always welcome.
Bull Durham (1988)
I saw this one when it came out and have always found it pretty inoffensive. It’s a light romantic comedy about a minor league baseball team and a a love triangle involving Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins butting heads over baseball groupie Susan Sarandon. It’s the film on which the latter two, who later married, met, and it’s also the movie that sort of put Robbins on the map and established his screen persona as an amusing jerk. It’s the first movie I noticed him in, although he had been in the earlier Top Gun (1986), which I’d also seen.
Major League (1989) and sequels
I saw the first one at some point after it came out, and despite the fact that it was a monster office box office success, disliked it pretty strenuously (hence never bothered with the sequels). It’s a film of what I call “the darnedest baseball team ever” genre, about a bunch of misfits going on to win the big game. Such things reply on either/both 1) clever, original gags; and 2) the chemistry of an amazing cast. This has neither. I never wanted to look at Charlie Sheen, and he is the star. If Charlie Sheen is the guy doing the comedy, I’m holding my sides for reasons other than laughter.
A League of Their Own (1992)
I’m glad this movie (about an all-female baseball league) exists, but don’t find it to be the classic that it’s reputed to be, or deserves to be. Despite the all-star cast, Penny Marshall’s direction is mediocre and facile; it doesn’t offend me particularly, but it’s nothing I ever need to see again, and that’s not a ringing endorsement.
Mr. Baseball (1992)
A culture clash comedy in which Tom Selleck is traded to a Japanese professional team and “forced to play” in — gasp — Japan!
The Comrades of Summer (1992)
More baseball culture clash! A tv movie set a few years earlier during the Cold War. Coach Joe Montegna takes a job in the USSR where he coaches the first Soviet baseball team.
The Sandlot (1993) and sequels
David M. Evans wrote, directed and narrated this nostalgic film, set in 1962, about a bunch of kids, their dog and pick-up baseball games. It owes more than a little to Jean Sheperd’s A Christmas Story.
Rookie of the Year (1993)
A fantasy comedy in which a 12 year old kid is hired to be a professional big league pitcher because of a freak situation in which his tendons have healed too tightly after an accident, giving him the ability to throw a ball with amazing speed and power. It’s a remake of 1954 comedy called Roogie’s Bump.
Angels in the Outfield (1994) and sequel
Disney remake of the 1951 classic starring Danny Glover, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, and a then unknown Adrien Brody and Matthew McConaughey.
The Scout (1994)
Albert Brooks is the titular MLB baseball scout in a role originally intended for Rodney Dangerfield. A perfect role for Brooks, though, who helped get it made and contributed to the screenplay. And lots and lots of cameos by real life sports figures. Directed by the one and only Michael Ritchie, who made the original Bad News Bears.
Summer Catch (2001)
Freddy Prince Jr. as a Cape Cod minor league player who has a chance to make it to the big leagues. Despite quite a few big names in the cast, this film has only an 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Mr. 3000 (2004)
Bernie Mac as a vain, selfish baseball pro who retires when he thinks he has achieved a record-breaking 3,000 hits…but has to get back in the game at age 47 when he learns that, due to a counting error he had only hit 2,997.
Fever Pitch (2005)
A Farrelly Brothers comedy, with Jimmy Fallon as a guy who’s such a Red Sox fan that his obsession puts his relationship with ultimate catch (Drew Barrymore) in serious jeopardy.
Bad News Bears (2005)
On the face of it, it sounds promising. Who better than Richard Linklater to make a remake of the Bad News Bears? A whole subplot of his Dazed and Confused (1996) overtly evokes the former film. But then we come back to our first, inevitable question: why attempt to re-make perfection? Nowhere to go but down. So there’s that, and the fact that, in an apparent attempt to update the comedy, Billy Bob Thornton is in his disgusting mode, doing the same gross, objectionable shit he did in Bad Santa (2003). Unaccountably, some people like this kind of thing, but I avoid it all costs.
The Benchwarmers (2006)
Dennis Dugan directed Rob Scheider, David Spade, and Jon Heder in this critically panned comedy about a bunch of adult nerds who are bad at sports yet for some reason feel compelled to play them. Here on planet earth, the beautiful thing about being a grown-up is you don’t have to do that.
For more on the history of film comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.