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Big Leaguer (DVD Review)

10 Sep, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$17.95 DVD-R
Not rated.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Vera-Ellen, Jeff Richards.

No one will ever mistake Robert Aldrich’s screen debut for an example of auteur antics, but just the mental image of Edward G. Robinson in a jockstrap (which director Aldrich mercifully spares us) gives the movie’s 70 minutes a certain level of fascination if baseball is part of your makeup. This and the fact that, for all the talk of her off-screen anorexia, Vera-Ellen looks sleek on the beach (but no more) in the only movie she ever made that was neither a musical nor a comedy.

Aldrich had been an assistant to Chaplin, Max Ophuls and other heavyweights when he caught his own directorial break with Big Leaguer — second-feature fare tailor-made for premiere engagements at drive-ins or second-run movie houses. Perhaps flexing some muscles after the studio’s reasonable success with the 1951 original version of Angels in the Outfield (said to have been one of President Eisenhower’s favorite movies), MGM even gave former Giants’ pitching great Carl Hubbell several lines of dialogue amid (big surprise) playing himself, whereas the earlier picture had only given guest star Ty Cobb a couple. Eddie G. and Hubbell interacting and sharing the frame: you don’t get this everyday.

As for the rest of the movie, it is something you not infrequently did get at least once each movie season — aside from the absolutely singular scene here where cocky right-hander Richard Jaeckel actually “dusts” Robinson (or at least throws behind him) during a practice session at the Giants’ Florida-based training camp where the latter attempts to groom Giants hopefuls. The team’s most promising prospect is a third baseman/coal miner’s son played by Jeff Richards, who had already been in a couple baseball pics (Angels and the William Bendix comedy Kill the Umpire) and would soon be one of the hunkier bro’s in MGM’s 7 Brides for 7 Brothers. The actor’s character here soon has the inside track with — and here’s a compelling gene pool — Robinson’s comely niece (Vera-Ellen, probably wondering what she’s doing here). This attractive blonde all too conveniently happens to be on hand visiting unc, though this should not be construed as a viewer complaint. Also at the camp — and spending what seems like a disproportionate time on a minor (and minor league) beat — is a syndicated sportswriter played by Paul Langton. This was the year before Langton had the lead in something called The Snow Creature (directed by W. Lee Wilder, estranged brother of Billy), which my father more than once called the worst movie had had ever seen.

As the script has it, Robinson’s continued employment may be contingent on his winning a game between Giants farmhands and Brooklyn Dodgers farmhands, a long climactic sequence that also gives screen time to the Dodgers’ onetime minor league hand and later team executive Al Campanis — three-plus decades before his unintentionally racist remarks about the lack of African-American managers (but racist just the same) dropped the jaw of host Ted Koppel on a famous episode of "Nightline," losing Campanis his job. Hubbell is around for this contest as well, which leads to a situation familiar to old baseball movies: game observers making remarks that they would never make in real life (i.e. the “here are two outs, which means there’s only one more out left” variety) to members of the audience whose game of choice must have been canasta or some other alternative. The other key amuser here is two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer William C. Mellor’s camera angles, something my baseball buds and I immediately picked up on when we caught Big Leaguer’s frequent telecasts as adolescents. A shot from the pitcher’s POV looking in toward the plate signifies a coming strike, while a shot from behind or otherwise near the batter means the fielders had better prepare to run. One thing, though: Early on, this movie features the most pristine footage I’ve ever seen of Giant Bobby Thomson’s legendary National League playoff game home run to win the 1951 pennant against the same Dodgers.

This is a very strange concoction from a director I love. The first real Aldrich movie was arguably his next — the Dan Duryea ‘B’ World for Ransom — and the first really real Aldrich movie was his third: Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in the slam-bang and actually better-than-ever Vera Cruz. Only two years later, Aldrich would make what is still one of the great screen originals of American cinema: the Mike Hammer whack-job Kiss Me Deadly, which has already gotten the Criterion treatment it fully merits.

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