Sunday, October 5, 2008

Don't quit your day job

TCM's Silent Sunday Night feature this week is Headin' Home, airing overnight at 12:45 AM ET. (That's very early Monday for those of us on the east coast; late Sunday for those of you in the rest of the country.) It stars Babe Ruth (yes, that Babe Ruth) as a baseball player who makes it big, and claims to be based on the life story of Babe himself, although it's a complete fabrication.

The real-life Babe Ruth was born and raised in Baltimore, and was a bit of a troublemaker growing up, largely because his parents didn't have time to raise him properly. In Headin' Home, however, our hero is portrayed as having come from the epitome of small-town America, and being a pretty good guy, among other things saving his kid sister's dog from a malicious warden. If you haven't figured it out yet, the plot -- such as it is -- is relatively dumb. Actually, "dumb" is a bit unkind; it's more that the plot is a collection of stereotypes of what people thought of as the good points of small-town America as it was in 1920. The reason to watch this movie, therefore, is not for the story, but for the people in it, especially the Babe himself.

In 1920, Babe Ruth was already famous enough to get a part in a motion picture, although it was right at the end of baseball's "dead ball" era, in which home runs were almost as rare as hen's teeth. The single season record for home runs at the time was something like 20 home runs. In 1919, however, the Chicago White Sox were involved in a betting scandal in which eight of their players effectively threw the World Series (told more or less in the movie Eight Men Out), and baseball's popularity was in serious trouble. One of the ways Major League Baseball responded was apparently to reformulate the inside of the baseball (they've been accused of this on a number of occasions, including after the 1994 strike, although the assiduously deny ever changing the make-up of the ball), resulting in a barrage of home runs by everybody, and making Babe the "Sultan of Swat". But Headin' Home was made before he became that Sultan. Here, he can barely act, although it's still quite obvious that the man had a lot of charisma, and it's easy to see just why somebody would want him to "act" in their movie. As for the rest of the cast, watch for the little girl who plays Babe's kid sister; she's just as charming as a Virginia Weidler or a Margaret O'Brien would be in later decades.

Babe Ruth himself would go on to make cameos in a number of movies, most notably as a taxi passenger in Harold Lloyd's Speedy. He also went on to set the standard for athletes who ought to have stuck to playing their respective sports. What was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thinking when he made Airplane!, or George Foreman when he became the star of his own TV show? At least in Pat and Mike, the athletes are generally there to compete as themselves.

No comments: