Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on April 27, 1950
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Frank Tashlin
Cast: William Bendix, Una Merkel, Ray Collins, Gloria Henry, Jeff Richards, Connie Marshall, William Frawley, Tom D’Andrea, Joseph Crehan, Alan Hale Jr, Murray Alper, Pat Flaherty, Robert J. Wilke, Duke Snider
Of the dozens of baseball films out there, this is the only one I’m aware of that concentrates on the officiating side of the sport: specifically, the umpire. You’d think by now there’d be at least one other umpire-themed movie out there somewhere—The Nestor Chylak Story perhaps, or maybe The Blind Side 2: Ballpark Nights—but instead we’re stuck with this goofball comedy starring William Bendix, playing a boisterous blue-collar fan who is so devoted to the sport, he continually loses job after job due to his penchant for sneaking away from work to see games…and to berate umpiring crews to outlandish extremes.
Soon catching the wrath of his wife and family, his ex-umpire father-in-law offers an obvious solution: keep your job, see games for free, and solve the problem of lousy officiating by becoming an umpire yourself. And so our story takes off, as Bendix—soon known by the disparaging name ‘Two-Call’—works his way through umpiring school and earns a spot calling games for the Texas Interstate League, where his honest decision-making soon lands him in a whole heap of trouble with fans and shady gamblers alike.
After my first viewing a few years ago, I couldn’t have been more disappointed with the slapstick and dunderheaded tone the film had taken, but watching it again recently, I had a better time with it, perhaps because I knew what to expect going in, and could now cut it a moderate level of slack. Directed with an even-keeled hand by Lloyd Bacon and written by the usually-dependable Frank Tashlin, Kill the Umpire was mostly simple, overboard, and obvious, but to its credit, it was harmless and wholesome as well, and painted a decent picture of minor league baseball in the 1950s; thankfully, Bendix at least resembled an ump (I could easily picture him working behind the plate at the old Polo Grounds in New York), but here his constant mugging got tiresome after awhile.
Personally, I would’ve enjoyed seeing a more realistic view of umpiring, instead of the many Three Stooges-like antics and pratfalls that were thrown my way, especially during its flat-out ridiculous conclusion, but I guess that was to be expected, knowing Tashlin’s history: he began his career as an animator on Warner Bros. cartoons, then later went to work as a gag writer for Lucille Ball and the Marx Brothers before moving on to features. And though that mentality worked well for his films The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, it was maybe a bit much here.
Early on, I considered the fan-mode Bendix as more a lunatic than a fanatic, most tellingly when he raced onto the field during a game to club the home plate ump with a Coke bottle…but then I realized, this sort of thing actually happened, and still does, and I was reminded of an old black-and-white photo showing a fan pummeling an umpire senseless after a game at Ebbets Field. Strangely enough, the movie itself turned equally hostile a bit later, as one of the shady gamblers charged umpire Bendix with a bat, and inadvertently struck the home team’s catcher on the skull, knocking him unconscious; for that moment, comedy took a back seat to an unexpected dose of serious drama.
But looking beyond the negatives, I was surprised to find some good in the film this time around: the umpiring angle did offer a fresh take on the usual baseball storyline, and I actually laughed at a few of the gags and one-liners spoken by Bendix and his umpire school mentor, William Frawley. If you’re a fan of old-time baseball, and don’t mind putting your intelligence on hold for a bit, you may want to give Kill the Umpire a shot. And trust me, if some mystical force plucked me from current times and dropped me into the world of 1950s baseball, I’d find a way to ditch work and see a game, too. (5/10)