Baseball and the Movies

I love baseball. And I love good movies! Regular readers of these articles are aware of both of these passions of mine. So I suppose it’s inevitable that I write about Baseball Movies!

Baseball and movies have been a natural partnership since the early days of both. The oldest known movie dealing with the sport is The Ball Game, an 1898 documentary with highlights from a game between the Reading Phillies and the Newark Bears. There were plenty of silent films about baseball in the “pre-talkie” days, including 1917’s Baseball Madness, a comedy starring Gloria Swanson, and 1920’s Headin’ Home, with Babe Ruth portraying himself. And there were numerous films from the 1930s of every category dealing with baseball – comedies, musicals, dramas, murder mysteries, and more.

But I guess it was during the 1940s that baseball movies really began to become popular, with three movies that stand out to me. The first is Pride of the Yankees from 1942, starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and featuring Babe Ruth again as himself. Even if you haven’t seen the entire movie, you’ve probably seen the clip, based on actual newsreel footage, where Gehrig, dying from the disease that today bears his name, stands before the crowd at Yankee Stadium and declares, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Two other good pictures from that decade, both from 1949, were The Stratton Story, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as ballplayers who – surprise! – sing and dance.

The 1950s through the 1970s was something of a drought for good baseball movies. One that I like is 1958’s Damn Yankees, a musical starring Gwen Verdon and Tab Hunter. It tells the story of a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Don’t miss Ray Walston as the devil. Another good one is Bang the Drum Slowly from 1973. Michael Moriarty (who would later become well-known in the original iteration of “Law and Order”) plays a big-league pitcher dying of cancer; his best friend is his catcher, played by the then-unknown Robert De Niro.

Two of the best recent baseball films are 2012’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, who tries to turn around the fortunes of perennial losers, the Oakland A’s; another is 42, from 2013, starring Chadwick Boseman as the legendary Dodgers infielder, Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42. Don’t miss Harrison Ford as Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, and Christopher Meloni (best known for Law and Order: SVU) as manager Leo Durocher. And it’s not a movie, but if you love the game, be sure to watch Baseball, by acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns – it’s a comprehensive history of the sport, originally produced for PBS.

What are some of my favorite baseball movies? In alphabetical order –

Bull Durham – 1988. A romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Warning: the dialogue is heavily laced with profanity, but if you can tolerate that, this is a great look at life in the minor leagues and players trying to get to “the show.” Have you ever experienced that sense of wonder – the awe – of walking into the stands of a big-league park, coming up the stairs, and there in front of you, is that beautiful green expanse of a baseball field? This movie captures that feeling.

Field of Dreams – 1989. Kevin Costner again, this time as an Iowa farmer who hears voices telling him to build a ballpark out in his corn field. James Earl Jones co-stars as a cynical writer from the 60s; also with Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster, in his final film appearance. “Oh, people will come, Ray; people will most definitely come.” Full of great moments.

A League of Their Own – 1992. A fictionalized account of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. And just in case you were wondering, there’s no crying in baseball.

The Natural – 1984. Robert Redford portrays an aging rookie, trying one last time to break into the bigs. Glenn Close is the lady in white; Kim Basinger is the woman in black. “I believe we have two lives,” says Glenn Close’s character at one point. “The life we learn with, and the life we live with, after that.”

The Sandlot – 1993. A group of mostly unknown child actors, with Karen Allen, Denis Leary, and James Earl Jones as the grown-ups. This is a wonderful movie about kids growing up in the summer of 1962, playing ball and experiencing life together. “You’re not in trouble; you’re dead where you stand!”

Good stuff.

Movies x5, The Sequel

Regular readers of these columns may remember that back in October, I did an article entitled, “The Movies Times Five.” It’s a little game I play with friends of mine who are movie fans, where someone throws out a category, and you have to come up with five good movies in that category. We’ve looked at favorite John Wayne, good war pictures, best Christmas movies, etc.

Are you a movie fan? And especially, are you a fan of the classics? You can play along. And by the way, I heard the other day that with Abilene’s COVID hospitalization rate coming down, the Paramount Theatre was planning to re-open; their first showing is scheduled for this weekend, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Not one of my favorites, but hey, to each his or her own!)

FAVORITE COURTROOM DRAMAS – Courtroom movies deal with life-and-death issues, and always, the search for truth. No wonder they remain such a vehicle for great storytelling! Two other favorites: Inherit the Wind and A Few Good Men.

  • 5. Anatomy of a Murder. Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott face off in a murder trial of an Army officer. Lee Remick somehow manages to be both gorgeous and innocent at the same time.
  • 4. The Caine Mutiny. There has never been a mutiny on board a US Navy vessel. This movie plays, “What if?” Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, and Van Johnson sta
  • 3.  To Kill a Mockingbird. All aspiring actors (and trial lawyers, for that matter) should have to watch Gregory Peck’s closing argument to the jury.  This is how it’s done.
  • 2. Twelve Angry Men. Oh my, what a cast.  A tense, real-time drama of a jury that votes 11-1 for a conviction.  Then Henry Fonda starts asking questions.
  • 1. The Verdict. Paul Newman’s greatest performance, ever. A washed-up, alcoholic, ambulance-chaser has one final chance to do the right thing. James Mason and Jack Warden co-star.

FAVORITE ROBERT REDFORD MOVIES – My wife has had a thing for Redford since before I ever knew her. I really wanted to NOT like the guy, just out of spite, but I have to confess, I’m a fan. Honorable Mentions: The Natural and The Great Waldo Pepper.

  • 5. All the President’s Men. Redford is often at his best when he is co-starring with someone good; Dustin Hoffman more than rises to the occasion. Don’t miss the late Hal Holbrook as Woodward’s secret informer, Deep Throat.
  • 4. The Sting. One of two “buddy” pictures he made with Paul Newman (see #3 on this list for the other). Two con men try to get their revenge on a gangster who murdered a friend of theirs.
  • 3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A very special movie for several reasons: It was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our very first date; also, I’m a big fan of Katherine Ross.
  • 2. The Electric Horseman. Gorgeous scenery of a cowboy trying to “un-screw up his life.” With Jane Fonda and co-starring Willie Nelson, who also supplies several songs for the soundtrack.
  • 1. Three Days of the Condor. He’s a book-reading analyst for the CIA. That’s all he does: read books. Then one day while he’s at lunch, someone murders all of his co-workers. He tries to figure out how to stay alive. And is there anyone he can trust? Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow co-star.

FIVE COMEDIES – Let’s lighten up and have some fun. LOTS of honorable mentions for this category, but especially don’t miss Tootsie, Arsenic & Old Lace, and Bringing Up Baby.

  • 5.  Harvey. Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary friend. Who’s really the crazy one here?
  • 4.  Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks makes fun of westerns, as well as everything else.
  • 3.  Some Like It Hot. Jack Lemmon & Tony Curtis witness a mob hit. Things get a little weird.
  • 2.  What’s Up, Doc? Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in a classic farce about mixed-up luggage.
  • 1.  It Happened One Night. Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. She’s a spoiled heiress. He’s a hard-boiled newspaper man. Time for Joshua to blow his trumpet.

As a preview of coming attractions, in future columns we will look at favorite baseball movies, Bogart’s best, Film Noir, and more. And until then, as Siskel & Ebert used to say, I’ll see you at the movies.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Today – Wednesday, May 16, 2018 – has been declared “National Classic Movie Day.” In that spirit, I want to tell you about my favorite movie, Casablanca, and why I enjoy it so much.

First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had a torrid love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.

What will Rick do? Will he help Lazlo and his former love escape? Or will his passion for Ilsa force him to follow his heart and reclaim his lost love?

Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), to Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and to brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

SPOILER ALERT!!! If you’ve never seen the movie, be aware that the rest of this article will discuss plot points that will give away key aspects of the film.

First – here’s the original trailer for the film.

So, what’s the big deal? Why do I (and so many others) love this movie so much, and consider it among the best ever made? Well, I can’t speak for others, but for myself, here are three things that I appreciate.

The Movie’s Backstory

Casablanca started out as an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” by Murray Bennett and Joan Allison. In the process of turning that into a movie script, the writers couldn’t decide on what to do with the characters. Does Rick help Lazlo escape with his wife? Do he and Ilsa get back together, but send Lazlo on his way? Back and forth the arguments went. Just giving them the documents they needed to get away seems so, well, anti-climactic. And just handing someone a piece of paper is not exactly dazzling filmmaking.

The Epstein brothers had been assigned to handle the screenplay, but then they were called away to another project, so Howard Koch took over. The brothers would later return to help complete the work. All of this further added to the confusion about finding a good ending for the film. Somehow, though, it all works. In spite of the back-and-forth (or perhaps because of it), the movie just works.

The movie also benefitted from the war news. The Allies had invaded North Africa in late 1942, and President Roosevelt went to Casablanca in January, 1943, to meet with Winston Churchill, so the film took advantage of that free publicity. Its initial release was in New York in December, 1942, with the general release in early 1943.

Another factor that I and lots of other fans really appreciate is that many of the extras who were “customers” at Rick’s – including several with speaking parts – were actually themselves refugees from Europe. Some of them had even been interred at Nazi concentration camps during the 1930s, before making their way to this country. Their accents – not to mention the passion they brought to this anti-Nazi film – added a layer of authenticity that simply could not be imitated.

Sparkling Dialogue

Another thing that I really appreciate is the crackling, rapid-fire dialogue. This film holds the distinction of being the greatest source of lines of any movie on AFI’s list of the Top 100 best movie quotes. From “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris,” from “Round up the usual suspects,” to “This is the start of a beautiful friendship,” everyone has a favorite Casablanca quote.

Here’s an example from a conversation between Rick (Bogart) and Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault –

 Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.

Rick: It was a combination of all three.

Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

Sparkling!

Of course, there’s one line that’s often misquoted. No one in Casablanca ever, EVER, says, “Play it again, Sam.”

Rick’s Redemption

Of all the great things about this movie, my favorite is the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.

Until now. In one transformational moment, he makes the decision to take a stand. In this scene, Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano, and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs, and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval – watch for his affirmative nod. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing together, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”

Remember, many of those actors were Europeans; some had been imprisoned by the Nazis, others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”

Remember, too, that when this movie was made, the outcome of the war was still very much up for grabs. But the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is very real.

I love this movie, and I appreciate this opportunity to share it with you. Thanks for reading.

Now, I think I’ll go make some popcorn, put my feet up, and one more time watch Rick, Ilsa, Victor, and the rest, in the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. I’ll listen again as Sam sings, “As Time Goes By.” And I’ll rejoice as the good guys win again. Because we’ll always have Paris.

And once again, here’s looking at you, kid.