Monday, May 26, 2008

A revoltin’ development

Bill Johnson (William Bendix), ex-baseball player and current working stiff, is such a baseball fanatic that he’s constantly on the unemployment line due to his predilection for skipping work and sneaking out to ballgames. Mrs. Johnson (Una Merkel) is ready to walk out on her hubby when her father (Ray Collins), a retired umpire, suggests the perfect solution: his son-in-law should follow in his footsteps and become “the most hated man in baseball.” Johnson could have the best of all possible worlds: he’ll get to watch ballgames and be paid for the privilege to boot.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the plot of Kill the Umpire (1950); an easy-to-take comedy directed by journeyman Lloyd Bacon with a screenplay by Frank Tashlin—who at this point in his career still hadn’t been entrusted with the director’s reins on a feature film (that would come later with The First Time [1952] even though he did direct most of Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid [1951] uncredited). Umpire follows the same blueprint as many of the other Bacon-Tashlin collaborations (The Good Humor Man, The Fuller Brush Girl): a likeable if slightly wacky protagonist trying to function against a background of menace, supplied with outrageous physical gags and a wild-and-wooly slapstick climax. Umpire is equipped with all this and more, including a first-rate supporting cast that includes Gloria Henry, William Frawley, Connie Marshall, Richard Taylor and Tom D’Andrea.

Seeing D’Andrea in this film was a real treat because he later appeared as neighbor Jim Gillis on Bendix’s TV version of The Life of Riley, and you look fast you’ll also spot Emory Parnell (who played Bendix’s boss) and Henry Kulky (as Riley’s thick-as-a-plank pal Otto Schmidlap), two additional Riley regulars. (Kulky later had supporting roles on series as diverse as Hennesey and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.) As this was a Columbia picture, many members of Columbia’s short subject department’s stock company also make appearances, including Stanley Blystone, Heinie Conklin, Vernon Dent, Dudley Dickerson, Johnny Kascier, Matt McHugh, Emil Sitka, Dick Wessel and Jean Willes. (I also recognized the man who plays the Texas baseball announcer as OTR vet John Wald, who did the announcing chores on shows like The Great Gildersleeve and Fibber McGee & Molly [the fifteen-minute weekday version].)

Just to make sure you’re aware that I’ve not completely reverted to my lowbrow roots, I also viewed Au revoir les enfants (1987), Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical film about a French boarding school that serves as a temporary hiding place for a trio of Jewish students on the lam from the Germans during World War II. I’ve been meaning to see this for a long time and it was worth the wait; it’s a profoundly sad film that does contain moments of joy and delight (my favorite is the scene where the students and teachers treat themselves to a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant [1917]…and in watching the Little Tramp all their disagreements and differences disappear). I caught this movie on IFC, and it made me a little nostalgically wistful in that I wish I could revisit this fine cable channel more often.

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