Multi-millionaire Thaddeus J. (“TJ”) Banner is enjoying watching the antics of a mangy alley cat who delights in swiping golf balls off a country club golf course, and instructs his press agent Eric Yeager (Ray Milland) to capture the feline because he thinks the animal is full of spirit and spunk—unlike the broken-down ball team he owns, the Brooklyn Loons. After a few agonizing attempts, Yeager succeeds in putting the snatch on the tabby, whom Banner names “Rhubarb” after the term used to describe a fight that’s broken out on the baseball field. When Banner passes on, his will stipulates that the team and all his other enterprises are to be left to the cat…with Yeager as legal guardian. This turn of events doesn’t sit well with the team’s players (who have to be convinced that Rhubarb is a “good luck charm”), Banner’s daughter Elsie (understandably put out about being left out of the will) or Yeager’s fiancée Polly Sickles (Jan Sterling)…who soon discovers she’s allergic to Eric’s “ward.”
This 1951 film adaptation of American journalist-humorist H. Allen Smith’s bestselling novel (published in 1946, with two sequels in 1967 and 1971) has just been released to DVD by Legend Films, who announces with a big gold sticker on the front that it’s the movie’s “first time on DVD.” To be more accurate, I don’t believe Rhubarb has ever been made available in any home video format (not even videocassette); I’d only seen the picture on one other occasion and that was during the early days of The Comedy Channel—when it was possible to catch comedy rarities like It Ain’t Hay (see below post) and Bob Hope’s Nothing But the Truth (1941). Hopefully its DVD debut will find an audience, particularly among kids since it’s a great example of a film that’s “fun for the whole family.” I can’t believe that the Disney people never thought of updating this one (as they did with a similar baseball comedy-fantasy, Angels in the Outfield ); perhaps its inaccessibility over these many years has something to do with it.
Even though I’m not overly fond of felines (if you ever see any instances of “Friday Cat Blogging” at TDOY, call the authorities because the blog’s been hijacked) it’s mighty hard to resist Rhubarb…particularly since the plot takes some definitely wacky turns—my favorite involves the “seeding” of a cloud in order to create a rain delay during the baseball championship series. (Author Smith was a crony of Fred Allen’s—Allen wrote the foreword to Smith’s successful Low Man on a Totem Pole—and several of the offbeat bits in the film could have been lifted from some of Fred’s radio scripts.) The script, written by Francis M. Cockrell and Dorothy Davenport, contains some choice one-liners and pot shots at television (an identified cop can be heard muttering: “I hope you look good on television, ‘cause the Senator is gonna ask you a few questions”) and overall the picture is so well cast, featuring TDOY faves Jan Sterling and William Frawley—even Ray Milland isn’t bad (though I think Milland’s other baseball comedy, It Happens Every Spring  is much funnier.) There are the usual fine supporting performances from Gene Lockhart (as Banner), Elsie Holmes, Taylor Holmes (no relation to Elsie; he plays a funny Brooklynese butler), Donald McBride and Willard Waterman (The Great Gildersleeve!) as an opportunistic lawyer, and uncredited bits from the likes of Billie Bird, Madge Blake, Tristram Coffin, Sandra Gould, Paul Maxey, Frank Sully and Ben Welden. Strother Martin and Leonard Nimoy can be seen as two of the ball team’s players…and there’s a great gag cameo at the film’s conclusion that I won’t give away for those who haven’t seen it (but trust me, it’s a pip).