Kill the Umpire (1950) ✰ ✰ ✰

My choice for Movie of the Month for June is a classic baseball comedy from the crazy mind of Frank Tashlin, entitled Kill the Umpire (1950). While this season’s introduction of instant replay has noticeably reduced the incidence of on-field skirmishes between Major League players and managers and umpires, such peace and harmony was not always the case.  The rapport between the men in blue and the uniformed players, coaches and managers has always been a rocky one, with the umpires at eternal disadvantage in terms of public popularity.  But they have the power, and the duty, to keep the sport fair and honest. This movie emphasizes that duty, while at the same time poking all the fun it can at baseball in general and the manner in which umpires are treated in particular.  Much of the humor of the piece derives from the fickle nature of the fans watching the sport, and the incredible speed of their ability to turn from cheers to jeers when calls go against their favorite teams.

One particular fan is known far and wide for his vociferous outbursts against the umpires — any umpires.  He is Bill Johnson (William Bendix), a former ballplayer who has never lost his love for the game.  Johnson cannot hold a job during the summer because he cannot help but watch games wherever he happens to be, nor stay away from ballparks despite promises to his wife Betty (Una Merkel) that he will behave.  And once at a ballpark, be it for the Majors, semi-pro teams or Little League, Johnson cannot help but bark at the umpires for any play at any time.

Former ballplayer Bill Johnson (William Bendix) typically expressing himself at a ball game.

It is only when Betty threatens to leave him for good that her father Jonah Evans (Ray Collins), a former umpire himself, devises a plan that will keep Johnson working, and yet provide him with ample opportunity to see games every day. Johnson is to go to umpire school and become one of the men in blue. Of course, the idea makes Johnson’s stomach turn, but he needs to hold down a job — or at least give his family the appearance of trying to give it his best shot — so he agrees.  Johnson is sent to a school run by Jimmy O’Brien (William Frawley), who soon realizes that Johnson wants out very badly.  O’Brien and his staff coach their new recruits how to be decisive on the field, with a heavy emphasis on how to yank one’s arms in the “out” call and spread them wide for the “safe” call.  In other words, the schooling doesn’t seem very extensive.

Even so, Johnson wants nothing to do with umpiring, and looks for ways to foul up and be tossed out of camp.  The chief visual gag (a Tashlin hallmark) during the school sequence involves a large, inflatable chest protector which Johnson overfills, bouncing himself around the clubhouse.  It’s a completely silly gag but it is funny, especially when Johnson bounces himself outside where the other umpire recruits can see him.  O’Brien has had enough, however, and finally sends him packing.

Bill Johnson points at Jimmy O'Brien (William Frawley), who runs the umpire school.

Waiting for the train to take him home, however, Johnson sees kids fighting on a nearby diamond.  He interrupts, lectures them about fighting and agrees to umpire their game.  When the kids are actually grateful for his guidance, Johnson sees the error of his ways and changes his attitude about umpiring. He swallows his pride and returns to the school, but O’Brien refuses to accept him back — unless the other men agree.  They do, and Johnson rejoins the school, this time with a real desire to learn and become a good umpire.  This section of the movie is a bit treacly, but it is absolutely necessary that Johnson change his ways for the rest of the story to work.  A quick montage demonstrates that Johnson takes the job seriously and becomes proficient at it.  During this time, Johnson also befriends another potential umpire, Roscoe Snooker (Tom D’Andrea), a hypochondriac who has a supply of eye drops for every occasion.

Those eyedrops lead to the funniest bit in the film.  Worried about his own eyesight, Johnson uses some of Roscoe’s eyedrops, which leads to double vision.  When he gets behind the plate during his graduation game, he sees two of everything, and thus calls everything twice.  “Strike one, strike one!,” and so forth.  He becomes known as “Two-Call Johnson,” and it becomes his trademark.  Johnson and Roscoe are hired as umpires in the Minor Leagues, in Texas, and soon find themselves in the middle of a gambling scandal.  The climax of the film has the umpires hiding out from Texas fans that want to lynch them, while trying to stop the gamblers who are trying to fix the championship game.  There’s a big hotel fire, followed by a crazy ambulance chase to the ballpark which must be seen to be believed.

Bill "Two-Call" Johnson graduates from umpire school, surrounded by family and friends.

Now, there’s no denying that Kill the Umpire is a silly comedy.  Writer Frank Tashlin was not exactly known for highbrow material; he was a cartoonist at heart and loved visual sight gags that humiliated pompous characters and made everybody else laugh.  The tone is set right away as “Three Blind Mice” plays below the opening credits instead of the more common “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”  “Three Blind Mice” is heard later as well, before the climactic championship game.  Tashlin loved to stage simple situations and then push them to their extreme, as he does with an early scene involving Johnson working for the telephone company.  Unable to stay away from a bar broadcasting a game, Johnson returns to work tipsy and soon ties all the phone lines in the city together, resulting in people talking to completely random people at the same time. Director Lloyd Bacon took Tashlin’s ideas and was happy to build them into wild set pieces, such as the climactic ride to the ballpark in an ambulance.  Johnson falls out of the ambulance and is soon “skiing” on a fence being dragged behind the ambulance as it roars through the city, while gamblers follow behind and shoot at him!

But Kill the Umpire is also rather smart and unique.  It is one of the only baseball films (out of hundreds) that focus on umpires instead of players or situations, and it is canny enough to utilize the men in blue as semi-heroic figures as well as comic targets.  Behind all the insults hurled by fans, the film recognizes that umpires are as integral to the sport as balls, bats and bases.  It makes the case that they are the protectors of the sport, able to withstand bribes and physical attacks while fulfilling a duty to remain fair, impartial and decisive.  There is an innate respect for the umps, starting with the dignity of retired umpire Jonah Evans and reaching its pinnacle with the conversion of loudmouth Johnson from garrulous oaf to respected arbiter of fair play.  That respect is necessary to give the story the dramatic weight it needs — yet it doesn’t stop any of the characters from booing the umps at every turn.

Bill Johnson tries to protect the eyes of fellow umpire Roscoe Snooker (Tom D'Andrea) on a wacky train ride to Texas.

The script’s sharpest satire is aimed squarely at the fans.  As embodied by Bill Johnson at the start of the story and several particular fans at the end in Texas, sports fans are spotlighted for their remarkable ability to cheer one second and boo the next.  As soon as an umpire’s call goes against their team — deservedly so or not — the fans turn with vociferous passion upon the umps and threaten them with bodily harm.  The end scene is the perfect example.  The fans cheer when an injured player admits that the ump made a correct call on a decisive play; for once they seem sensible and appreciative of the difficulty of an umpire’s job.  Moments later they boo as a strike is called against their team’s player by that same umpire.  The insults fly and the ump just shakes his head at the display of true human nature.  Of course the film exaggerates the passion of the fans; most professional teams would love for their fan base to be as active and passionate as these.  It is a comedy, after all, and the wilder the fans get the funnier the movie can be.

Another reason I like this movie so much as its affection for baseball.  Everybody in the movie loves the game, and that’s as it should be.  For a long time baseball was the national pastime, and for some of us it always will be.  It’s a perfect sport that combines all manner of physical activity with the necessity of strategy, psychology and gamesmanship.  From the youngsters on the sandlot to the professional players on the manicured diamonds of grass, everyone in the film (except possibly Johnson’s exasperated wife Betty) loves playing, watching or listening to the game, and they understand the feelings that it invokes.  Some baseball movies minimize enthusiasm about the sport, but the best ones foster goodwill and convey a love of the game that is infectious.  That’s what Kill the Umpire does.

Bill "Two-Call" Johnson in action.

To be sure, Kill the Umpire is not a great movie.  But it is a good one, a wild comedy with a deceptively serious core.  William Bendix was no newcomer to baseball films; he played the title role in the abysmal bio The Babe Ruth Story (1948).  Thankfully, he was a much better umpire.  Three years after this movie Bendix starred as Chester A. Riley in the TV series “The Life of Riley,” and two of his Umpire costars followed him to the small screen.  Tom D’Andrea (Roscoe Snooker) and Henry Kulky (baseball fan) joined Bendix on that popular series.

Director Lloyd Bacon was nearing the end of his career; he only made nine more films over the next four years.  Frank Tashlin was just hitting his stride; he wrote or directed several huge comedies of the 1950s with stars like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Jayne Mansfield, Bob Hope, Jane Russell and Tony Randall.  Tashlin worked steadily through the 1960s but tastes changed and his somewhat vulgar, always cartoonish comedies gradually lost favor.  But before he employed an Academy Award to narrate Susan Slept Here or put Bob Hope in bed with Trigger in Son of Paleface, Tashlin wrote this satirical ode to the men in blue who keep baseball running smoothly.  He would have hated the new instant replay system.  ✰ ✰ ✰.  June 2014.

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