Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Big Leaguer (1953)

In which I attempt to grapple with a significant director's oeuvre via his debut film without, you know, having seen any of his other films.

Sounds like a fool's errand, I know. But then, I never claimed to not be a fool. Besides, we all know how much fun it is to go far afield and then try to come back unscathed, and how often do I get to indulge my auteurist impulses? So here goes:

Big Leaguer, the debut film of Robert Aldrich, is an important entry in his filmography, as it presents in nascent form a theme he would return to time and again: how men react when placed in high-pressure situations. Seems like a lot of import to place on a simple work-for-hire B-movie about baseball, I know. But what better way to celebrate the career of a man who, with films like Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen and Apache, made it his raison d'etre to elevate B-movie material into the realms of the mythic?

Big Leaguer concerns a group of young, hungry would-be ballplayers at a New York Giants training camp overseen by former ballplayer Hans Lobart (Edward G. Robinson). The kids know that this camp could be their first step towards a career in the major leagues, so the pressure's on them to impress; meanwhile, Lobart has been informed by his daughter Christy (Vera-Ellen) that the bean counters in the front office want results or he might be out of a job. So there's a lot of people with a lot to prove, and the narrative centers on three individuals: Lobart, cocky pitching prospect Bobby Bronson (Richard Jaeckel) and shy, quiet third baseman Adam Polachuk (Jeff Richards), who might be the legitimate discovery that Lobart needs.

Having set our conflicts in motion, Big Leaguer observes what its characters do when put under pressure. Lobart, older and more experienced than any of his charges, takes everything in stride. Bronson uses his brash mentality and obvious talent to hide his nervousness but has trouble holding together when he gets into jams; meanwhile, Polachuk is serene and unassuming on the field, dealing with the pressure to succeed admirably, until a different set of family-related stressors threaten to push him off track. It's also interesting to note that both young ballplayers have been given a twin bunkmate who shares their neuroses: Bronson has a double in showboat center fielder Julie Davis (William Campbell), all jokes and braggadaccio, while Polachuk's doppleganger is first baseman Tippy Mitchell (Bill Crandall), a friendly but awkward kid with daddy issues -- his father is legendary ballplayer Wally Mitchell (Frank Ferguson) -- and a realistic sense of his own shortcomings as a ballplayer.

But then, there's a lot of doubling going on in Big Leaguer, and I don't just mean long shots into the gap in left field. Bronson's egoism leads him into conflict with Lobart; in a great bit of business, he responds to Lobart's attempt to take him down a peg by throwing at the elder's head. Yet, this action is mirrored by a bit of self-sacrifice midway through where, in the midst of a bad outing, he deliberately throws a pitch at Polachuk's head in an effort to rouse him from a depression-induced slump. (The teamwork theme that would seem natural to a film like this doesn't get touched on much as you'd expect, given that Aldrich's most famous film is The Dirty Dozen, but a glance here and there is thrown in its direction.) Similarly, Polachuk's funk is brought upon by fears of disappointing his immigrant father, leading him to a crisis of conscience which pushes him to consider quitting the team; implicit in this crisis is that, by obeying one father figure (his father), he'd be letting down another (Lobart). Then there's the idea of contrasting Polachuk's father, who sees baseball as a useless diversion, with Cuban ballplayer Chuy Aguilar, for whom baseball represents opportunity. I don't know how much of this is intentional, but it's fun to spot.

The film Aldrich crafts from these materials is not high art by anyone's standards, but it is a genuinely entertaining bit of second-bill unpretentiousness, especially for a unrepentant old-school-baseball sentimentalist like myself. Like I said, all the themes that run through Big Leaguer are things that Aldrich would come back to -- the men under pressure (Attack!, The Big Knife), the look at how men function in groups (The Dirty Dozen, Ten Seconds to Hell), and even the mirror images (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte) would all be employed by Aldrich later and more effectively in his career. Judging from Dennis Cozzalio's exhaustive writeup, Emperor of the North may be the ultimate expression of all these tropes. There's even a brash youngster who clashes with a stoic old-timer.

None of this diminishes the pleasant charms of Big Leaguer. It's skillfully directed with a minimum of fuss, and it hits all the marks it needs to hit with enough professionalism that the familiarity goes down easy. Edward G. Robinson, of course, is the shit, and his jovial, unassuming turn here sets the tone for the film. (You haven't lived until you've seen Robinson boogie down to jazz music, as he does briefly here.) It may, in the end, be merely a fun B-movie, but fun it is indeed, fun enough for me to forgive all the bashing of my beloved Dodgers (though seeing the Shot Heard 'Round the World again was painful). Plus, it introduces a future Hollywood all-star, and the throughline is there. Aldrich was destined for great things, and the proof was within his debut the whole time.

(Postscript: My favorite bit of Big Leaguer actually has nothing to do with anything I've written about, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it. It occurs in the opening narration. The narration in Big Leaguer is mostly superfluous and annoying, the epitome of bad voiceover as imposed by a useless framing device which gets forgotten by film's end. There is, however, a bit in the opening where the journalist character who serves as the narrator is talking about the dreams and aspirations of all the kids who show up at this camp. One of the lines he says goes, "This is the way it is in the big time," and I couldn't help but think about Aldrich himself quietly drawing a parallel between these fresh-faced hopefuls and himself, also at bat in the big leagues for the first time. What can I say, it made me smile.)

Grade: B


Blogger Mark said...

GREAT write-up.

I loved this movie too, and remember it very well although it's been decades since I saw it.

I found the review sort of by accident -- searching to see who played the journalist/narrator.
And I didn't find that. But I did find this, and it was worth it.

I didn't myself note any of the themes that are mentioned here, but they all ring true. And I never knew that the film was directed by Aldrich.

Props to Steve for a great write-up.

11:55 PM  

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