Friday, August 15, 2008

Kill the Umpire (1950)

When does benign fanaticism finally go too far? When do the passions and obsessions of the individual become so all-consuming as to constitute destructive irresponsibility? (And how can those passions and obsessions be successfully channeled into productive means and attributes?) Like the compulsive gambler in a casino or the dipsomaniac in a bar, some take contests of sports too far, particularly when they attend such an event. Sometimes the fixation becomes specific, as in Tony Scott's abysmal thriller The Fan, which found Robert DeNiro playing his umpteenth introverted and deplorable psychopath, this time to its least potential. Comedy can often get points across with greater ease than any other genre because deep down most people love laughing at things that are true. So when Drew Barrymore finds herself battling her boyfriend's singularly crazed love for the Boston Red Sox in Fever Pitch, many immediately sympathize and enjoy the symmetry the Farrellys created, basing a romantic-comedy's premise in the widespread, commonly shared experience of wrestling with the extremities of rooting for your home team.

Kill the Umpire, directed by the old Warner Brothers work horse, Lloyd Bacon (working for Columbia at this time), and starring William Bendix, is a film about deceptively simple matters that are actually important; in a similar kind of dichotomy, it's a fundamentally congenial movie that skips across some troubling particulars like the proverbial flat stone across the river, though at times a little awkwardly and haphazardly. Bendix plays Bill Johnson, an insatiable baseball fanatic whose devotion to the great game is so tremendous he routinely skips his duties at work. A man with two daughters, his most personal child is not his own but rather his old girl's boyfriend, who plays baseball, and whose games regularly motivate Johnson to shirk all other matters. It all leads to a confrontational scene over the dinner table, with Bill, his daughters, his wife Betty (Una Merkel) and his wife's father, Jonah Evans (Ray Collins). Betty has reached her limit and is threatening to pack her suitcase and leave her husband. If it weren't a Bendix madcap comedy, and if we weren't conditioned to respond to this as we are, we would probably find the entire scenario at least partially disturbing.

Bill's monomania is disturbing, at least in its own way. He becomes embarrassingly drunk on the first day of his new job, which, needless to say, concludes disastrously. His love for baseball has led him to consider umpires to be awful beings, frequently wrong in their on-field judgment calls and generally annoying creatures. His own father-in-law, Jonah, was an umpire. This coupled with the usual in-law grievances ensure that Bill and Jonah are rarely on the same page. Fortunately, the screenplay allows this aspect of the story its due, and proceeds onward. Collins is his usual sturdy, reliably cool self, with that peculiarly authoritative mien he always had, whether in Citizen Kane or episodes of Perry Mason. Betty reasons the one way Bill can provide for his family while somehow partaking in the game of baseball is to become an umpire like her father. For a little while Bill has none of it but he is worn down by his brood.

After an interminable period in which Bill learns how to become an umpire (it is like one of those old army training films made into a baseball umpire picture and played entirely for laughs), the plot becomes superficially more interesting while shifting its focus away from Bill's rather enormous flaws. Bill and his friend have been selected as umpires by the owner of a baseball league in Texas. Soon thuggish gambling operators target Bill, attempting to bribe him so that their team will be victorious in close games. It is here where the plot becomes truly madcap in almost every conceivable way, culminating in a rambunctious chase sequence with unimpressive rear projection.

Bendix's turn is unmistakably charming in that mugging, knowing way that is typically all wrong for any kind of delicate comedy. There are some jokes that work on multiple levels; Bendix sells them for everything he's got. The film heightens Bill's obvious childishness by portraying him as a cuddly buffoon who finds himself most appreciated by a group of children playing sandlot baseball midway through the 78-minute picture. That scene has some quiet poignancy deep within its silliness, even if the script incessantly underlines every thematic point so that everyone even in the vicinity of the movie can completely understand.

Everything about Kill the Umpire is positively cute, harmless and gently endearing, even if it predictably chooses to not follow through with its apparently unintentional early pointedness. Not the most salubrious meal, it's a movie that nonetheless exposes many of the overarching struggles Hollywood has been the unquestionable center of. There is a satirical bite cavernously hidden within the dermis of the work, but it has nothing to do with rote third act mustache-twirling mob villains, no matter how guiltily fun they may be in the most filmically cursory of ways. There's a pain in Merkel's Betty in that dinner scene that is real. Her husband is perpetually immature; he's a pitiable drunk; he's a boorishly inert and rudderless slob when confronting anything outside his precious diamond with its balls and strikes, hits and outs. Comedies are no less comedic because they derive their humor from the corporeal day-to-day lives of people. Bendix makes Bill comprehensively understandable not because of some ungainly (and wholly unnecessary) back-story about the sources of his baseball fervor. Bill is just the way he is because that is who he is. His transformation from ump-loathing baseball nut to the blindfolded symbol of on-field arbiter of justice—a characteristic made all the more lucidly, indeed, overtly, literal with his accidental but self-inflicted temporary condition of seeing double that causes him to make his calls twice over (thus earning the nickname Bill “Two-Call” Johnson)—is rooted in his love of the game, not because he's a changed man. Those kids playing sandlot spell it out for him more than they do for us, and that is why despite the thematic underlining, the dialogue is probably appropriate, at least to a reasonable extent. Bill needed to hear the truth—you need an umpire for the sake of the game. It's obviously a socially applicable truth. Well, for Bill, maybe not so obviously.


Sam Juliano said...

I am not a fan of this film, and I must say I was initially shocked that Alexander is, but after reading yet another spectacular film examination by the talented proprietor of this site, I can understand how it can evince a fair degree of charm and satiric underpinning. Bendix, of course was memorable in Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT and the nifty little film noir called THE GLASS KEY, but most will remember him in THE BABE RUTH STORY and his own involvement with baseball. Hence with KILL THE UMPIRE as Alexander rightly implies, he's in his terrain. This was more of a playful read than your magisterial OUT OF THE PAST, but no less erudite and eloquent. An interesting choice, if unexpected.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sam. As I'm sure is needless to say, all of cinema is fair game here, and while I love diving into the depths of exceptional auteurism, sometimes it's a refreshing breather of sorts to focus on something much more prosaic, and try to wring something interesting out of it all.

Thank you for indicating that it was a fairly successful effort from your viewpoint. Lifeboat and The Glass Key (a fine Hammett) are both terrific, Sam, as you know. His turn in The Babe Ruth Story is, as you note, memorable.

Thanks in general, Sam, as your comments here are always fascinating and illuminating.

Anonymous said...

You almost make me want to see this, Alexander. I have a gap in my Bendix education. What made you pick up this title?

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Christian. No real reason to pick it up; in fact, I merely recorded it off of TCM a little while back and finally sat down and viewed it a couple of hours before tapping this out.

This is a mediocre diversion that I found mildly interesting as something of a leashed movie that could have been more, if only it had dared to be unconventional. Alas, it wasn't to be. You might like it, Christian.

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