It’s been a while since I took a look at how Hollywood deals with baseball, so it’s time to do it again. This time I’ve chosen one of the all-time stinkeroos to review. Yep, it’s the 1948 flick “The Babe Ruth Story” starring William Bendix.
The movie is basically a hymn to Ruth. His shadow alone can raise a sick child, he can call his shot in the World Series, he can hit a home run for a sick child (apparently this one he can’t raise from the sick-bed), and he’ll miss a game to help an injured dog. Everyone of these things happen in the movie. In the end Ruth is carted off for a special operation that will help all mankind (not just kids this time). For some reason they didn’t play “The Star Spangled Banner” in the background as he was wheeled offstage.
The cast includes William Bendix as Ruth. Bendix was a major comedic character actor of the 1940s and 1950s. He was getting an unusual starring turn in this flick and actually does a fairly good job. Bendix was right-handed, so they had to sew Yankees on his uniform backwards (seekanY) then reverse the film. They used the same technique with Gary Cooper in “Pride of the Yankees.” Bendix was an avid baseball fan (he also did a movie called “Kill the Umpire” in which he played a fledgling ump) who enjoyed getting the role. Legend has it that in one of the scenes he actually hit the ball over the fence for a home run. They kept the scene in the movie and the joy on Bendix’s face was real. No one seems to know which scene it is, so it may be legend.
Claire Trevor plays Ruth’s wife Claire (guess that made it easy for her to know when she was being called to the set). She does a good job, arguably the best in the movie. The next year she’ll win an Academy Award for best supporting actress in “Key Largo” (which has nothing to do with baseball). Charles Bickford plays Brother Maththias, Ruth’s mentor, confidant, and friend. William Frawley (of “I Love Lucy” fame) is Jack Dunn and does a good job playing mostly a straight man rather than his normal comic turn. And Matt Briggs plays Colonel Jacob Ruppert, Yankees owner. He was mainly a Broadway actor and is probably best known to movie fans as the judge in “The Oxbow Incident.” Joe Flynn, of “McHale’s Navy” has a small role (his first) and Mark Koenig is the only actual ballplayer with lines.
The movie is utter nonsense. Ruth’s upbringing is misrepresented, his relationship with Miller Huggins is left out, and most importantly his first wife (and daughter) is totally ignored. The scene where he meets Claire is more likely to have been when he met his first wife (try to imagine Claire Ruth in a honky-tonk). Having said all that, I can’t help but like it. It’s so much fun. Bendix is having the time of his life and it shows. It represents Ruth as simply an overgrown kid and that’s how most of us really, I think, want to see Ruth. The warts aren’t pleasant and are ignored in the flick.
I suggest that if you want to just have a fun hour and a half (the movie runs 106 minutes and is in black and white) with a bag of popcorn this is as good a way as any. Just make sure you don’t believe a word of it. I understand it’s available on Netflix.
Finally, Ruth was given a screening a few weeks before he died. Claire liked the movie a lot. At least the Babe got to see Hollywood’s version of his life.