Just Inside the Foul Pole: Kill the Umpire! (1950)

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Columbia, 1:17, b/w
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

I am constantly surprised by just how many small, hidden gems there are in the vaults of the major movie studios. They aren’t the films that will have nights devoted to or built around them, nor are many of these films, unless they develop a substantial cult following, likely to appear on DVD in the future. For the most part, they are forgotten except by the hardiest of film historians; for the most part, you will be lucky to run into a showing of one of these films unless you haunt the cable listings, scouring them hour by hour to see what strangeness one can encounter if you are just willing to take a little time and give an unloved, untamed thing a little attention. It also helps to check for these films in the wee, wee hours.

I found Kill the Umpire (which, as it turns out, is on DVD), a William Bendix baseball comedy released by Columbia Pictures in 1950, in just this manner. I’m not a huge Bendix fan, but I’ve found him pleasant comic relief in the right circumstances, and the prospect of seeing a sports film to which I had never been exposed seemed even more necessary once I read that it would only take me 77 minutes to complete the course. One could watch three sitcoms (sans commercials) of any quality (made even better sans commercials) in that time, or you could catch this knucklehead knuckleballer and get a lesson in how light assembly-line comedy used to be done back in the day, around the same era when the sitcom form was initially getting its legs.

I didn’t get far into the credits, adorned with some swell cartoon-style baseball drawings on the title cards, before I saw a name that provided great comfort to me. Frank Tashlin – “Tish-Tash” from the old Warner Bros. cartoon studios – wrote the screenplay for Kill the Umpire, and even if I hadn’t caught the name at first, I would have gotten the feeling while watching it that his hand was somewhere in the making of this film. The efficiency of the jokes in Kill the Umpire can only be described as “economical” – each joke is not only to the point and never belabored, but also serves to move the story ever forward, rolling the thin plot merrily down the first base line atop a wheelbarrow full of corny baseball gags. It’s a style that Tashlin surely honed in his days in cartoons, where short running times and tight schedules ensure that brevity truly reign as the soul of wit.

Fully aware that his script really doesn’t have a lot to say about even the umpire condition, let alone the human one, Tashlin allows the script to load up with cardboard bookies and tough guys, and some increasingly tired hokum involving some dastardly eye-drops. Director Lloyd Bacon plays through these gimmicks by surrendering the concentration to its lumpen leading man, played with a bulldog’s sad-eyed determination by Bendix. His “Two-Call” Johnson is a lifelong schlub whose home life is being threatened by his almost crippling baseball addiction. Absolutely unable to keep a steady job via a series of game-engendered screw-ups, Johnson is finally talked into attending an umpire school by his father-in-law, himself a retired game-caller. A dyed-in-the-wool baseball fanatic, Johnson hates umpires, and would rather die than even come close to becoming one. The potential loss of his wife and family, though, firms his resolve to prove himself behind the plate. It also turns out that he is pretty damn good at something for the first time in his life.

It’s a shocker, but the film actually gets a little frightening when the fans in the Texas League where Two-Call (his nickname is a result of those wayward eye-drops) eventually gets hired nearly take the title threat a little too much to heart. It’s not a shocker that Texas fans would act in this way, it’s just that the film turns a little more violent than I expected considering how frothy things had been until that particular game. (Of course, since Columbia recycles their Three Stooges' Three Blind Mice theme for this film’s opening credits, maybe I should have sensed how things would turn out from the start.) The resolution to all of these violent threats is also stunning and ridiculous -- using felonies to extract oneself from the implied felonies of others -- but for what is basically a live-action cartoon, short and silly at every turn, it simply had to build to a manic, barely controlled finish. This, too, is something at which Tashlin excelled, and which Bacon pulls off, even though nearly every character in the film should end up doing some form of prison time given their actions. Where the film truly succeeds is never letting the action get very far away from Bendix himself, an actor as committed to bringing a smile as his character is to getting the call right.

If you are looking for Pride of the Yankees here, go back to the Bronx. Kill the Umpire is comedy of the lightest variety, even with the dash of criminality in its plot. But it’s goofy quality is infectious, and I would happily put this on the shelf with some of my favorite black-and-white baseball comedies: Rhubarb, Roogie’s Bump, or my personal national pastime film obsession, another Bacon film called It Happens Every Spring. Or I would put it on the shelf with them, if those films ever did actually come out on DVD. This one comes double-packaged on disc with Safe at Home, notable mainly for some humorously stiff acting by that thespian trio of renown: Mickey, Whitey and Roger of the Yanks. A historical document Safe may be, but outside of this interest, it is exceedingly pedestrian.

For those other better baseball comedies films that have yet to join Kill the Umpire on the DVD racks, I guess I will just have to keep haunting the TV listings…


Carl said…
Lloyd Bacon directed three Tashlin scripts, "The Good Humor Man" and "The Fuller Brush Girl" being the other two. Lloyd's background as a director for Mack Sennett in the 1920s made him a good choice for Tashlin's brand of comedy. Despite that, though, it always amused Tashlin that Bacon would sometimes complain that he didn't know he if was supposed to try to film Tashlin's cartoony sight gags or draw them.

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