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Death on the Diamond (DVD Review)

7 Dec, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive       

$21.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Robert Young, Madge Evans, David Landau.

As long as we’re not talking art or even the higher ends of entertainment, there’s something to be said for the idea that the hokier baseball movies are, the more fun they can be. One can, of course, carry the assertion way too far, but this MGM eye-roller about mass homicides during a pennant race is probably worth 71 minutes of any fan with the potential to be amused by the sight of (in very small pre-fame roles or bits) Mickey Rooney, Dennis O’Keefe, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond and others further down the historical food chain. After a while here, I was beginning to wonder when Chaplin was going to show up. Or maybe George Arliss.

Centered on the St. Louis Cardinals and released in the fall of a year when the Cards actually took the World Series, this is kind of a diamond variation of 1932’s 70,000 Witnesses, a Paramount “B” about gamblers and college football players in which a fatal rubdown (now, there’s a title: Fatal Rubdown) plays a part. I’m probably one of the few people with a heartbeat who has seen both pictures, and Death has more to offer of the two — certainly more murders, to be sure. It all begins when little Mickey the ball boy (that would be Rooney) discovers that somebody has been tampering with some of the players’ gloves and, in fact, has lathered their insides with a substance that does very bad things to the skin. So, what’s up?

For one thing, the gamblers who’ve leeched onto the team immediately try to entice its new pitching hopeful up from the minors; Robert Young plays him, and with one of those convoluted octopus windups that make even the herky-jerkiness of, say, a Luis Tiant look like a straight lobbing. Meanwhile, the Cards’ manager/owner (David Landau) has hocked every penny he has to keep the team going, though he’s also had to bounce a couple crooked players (who, like most everyone else, here look old enough to be on their third contracts) off the team. Landau is a familiar early-1930s face, and this was his next-to-last film before his death the following year; he was the warden in I Am a Fugitive in a Chain Gang and is, in fact, even in 70,000 Witnesses. The actor wasn’t exactly W.C. Fields, but his honker was on the bulbous side — not enough, apparently, to keep his character here (named, of course, “Pop”) from having a comely blonde daughter (Madge Evans). I always wonder about the mismatched genetics in so many ’30s movies. Who was the mother here, Marlene Dietrich times three? (Well, no. Dietrich was only eight years older than Evans.)

Cutey Madge is also the team secretary in this NL family affair, though one wonders how Pop even scraped together the money to pay for jockstraps despite a roster that looks to be populated with a fair amount of rum-dums. Young and another teammate would both like to wangle at least a long lead off second base with Evans, but there are other considerations like the murders or attempted murders of teammates — some of them even while the game is in progress. But this isn’t enough to keep the commissioner or someone in charge from postponing death-compromised contests the way sane minds did in 1996 when veteran umpire John McSherry suffered a fatal heart attack in Cincinnati during a Reds-Expos game (for God’s sake, I see it’s on YouTube). Though it probably should be recalled that once notorious Reds owner Marge Schott famously complained about it (another famous show of class from my home state — and by the way, did someone say “bulbous”?) when the game ended up being called in the first inning.

As noted, supporting cast star-gazers can have some fun here, as when Brennan is spotted hawking burgers (I bet he doesn’t wash his hands) in or near the stands; there aren’t many who would have taken the bet that this humble-looking guy squeezing ketchup-covered gristle would have three supporting Oscars within the next six years. The longer the movie goes, the more outlandish it gets, and the actor who plays the eventual murderer comes off like someone who must have been threatened with a guillotine somewhere off on Metro’s newly constructed A Tale of Two Cities set with a firing squad if he didn’t give it his all in his big scene. I’m not sure why Warner Archive is bringing out a baseball movie this late in the year, but I’m glad to see this oddball get a release (the DVD jacket is rather cool, by the way). And matter of fact, Olive Films just brought out a Blu-ray of The Kid From Cleveland, so I’m off to take a look at how the ’48 Indians come off in high-def.

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