The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, June 14, 2013

Kill the Umpire

Across preferred sports, favorite teams and athletes, classic games and series, most sports fans can agree on one thing.....officials are brutal. Referees, umpires, call them whatever you want, but fans can always find solace that an official will mess up a call here and there. They're easy targets, aren't they? For the most part and on a percentage basis, they get it right. But what's the fun in that? There aren't many movies out there about umpires, but here we go with 1950's Kill the Umpire.

A former baseball player with a family, Bill Johnson (William Bendix) loves one thing above all else, and it keeps getting him into trouble. Bill loves baseball. He can't get enough of it to the point he keeps losing his job because he bails far too often to go to afternoon ballgames. His wife (Una Merkel) has finally had enough and threatens to leave him unless he really buckles down and commits to keeping a job. Bill's father-in-law, Jonah (Ray Collins), is a former baseball umpire and recommends Bill -- with all his fandom and knowledge of baseball -- trains to become an umpire himself. As a sports fan who hates each and every umpire, Bill bristles at the very thought, but in hopes of keeping his family together, a less than enthused Bill half-heartedly goes along with it.

That is one misleading plot synopsis if there ever was one. Brace yourself, but this 1951 movie from director Lloyd Bacon is a slapstick farce comedy. That in itself isn't a deal-breaker. I love The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and all sorts of physical comedies from the 1930s through the 1950s. What is a deal-breaker is how over the top and ridiculous the slapstick is here. I figured a story titled 'Kill the Umpire' wasn't going to be heavy, dark drama, but the humor here was painful to watch. At one point, Bendix over-inflates his chest protector, gets his cleats stuck in the floor and bounces back and forth like a bouncy ball between the floor and the lockers. Everyone has a good guffaw at that craziness. The best physical humor is just funny, the actors/actresses don't have to try too hard.

Of course, that's not what's going on here. Late in the movie, Bendix's Bill falls out of an ambulance -- it's a long, meandering story -- but manages to catch on to part of a fence the ambulance crashed through and is now dragging behind it. He is able to stand up on the broken fence and basically surfs behind the fleeing ambulance. Seriously, there's no good, rational way to explain how he gets into that troublesome predicament. Just go with me, he's there. Funny is funny when it works, but the on-screen theatrics here were brutal to watch. Too bad because in the more subtle moments, Bendix shows off a low-key comedic timing that still shows how physical comedy can work. I like Bendix a lot, always have, and in small doses here, he's very good. The script is all over the place though, kneecapping him whenever he gets into a rhythm.

In the supporting cast, Collins is pretty good as a straight man to Bendix's Bill. His friendly father-in-law just wants to help out his son-in-law, even if it's something the guy hates to do. Merkel is pretty shrill -- understandably so to be fair -- as Mrs. Johnson with Gloria Henry and Connie Marshall playing the Johnson daughters. Better known as Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy, William Frawley is solid as Jimmy O'Brien, the owner of the umpire school, Tom D'Andrea is Roscoe Snooker, Bill's friend at school, and an uncredited Alan Hale Jr. as a baseball player who comes across Bill's wrath (sort of). Also uncredited are Jeff York and Robert J. Wilke as big-time gamblers trying to bribe Bill.  

There are moments that do work here. Bill at Umpire school provides some really funny laughs, especially when he's trying to get kicked out of the school. His final test at graduation -- with an unfortunate mix-up with eye drops -- is the sort of physical humor that works so well, dubbing him a nickname Bill 'Two-Call' Johnson. Earlier ventures showing Bill absolutely losing his mind at umpires' calls is perfect, the fired-up fan even charging onto the field to argue. I did like it, but it's too goofy for its own good. A disappointing mild review.

Kill the Umpire (1951): **/****

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