April 6, 2022

What is baseball without a Rhubarb?



Tomorrow is Opening Day of the baseball season, delayed as it has been. Granted, I haven't watched a baseball game in years; I hate the modern game, its absurdly slow pace, and the emphasis on "three true things" (home run, strikeout, walk) at the expense of everything else. I dislike today's owners intensely, have no favorite teams, and recognize very few of today's players. 

Notwithstanding all that, I still have an affection for the history of baseball; I can get lost in old television and radio broadcasts, and I understand the excitement of Opening Day, even though I don't share it. In tribute to the day, I offer my favorite baseball movie, which I first saw many years ago on TCM: Rhubarb.

Based on the novel by H. Allen Smith (one of the finest humorists of his time), Rhubarb tells the story of an orange feral cat with a nasty disposition who's "adopted" by a wealthy businessman, T.J. Banner (Gene Lockhart, whom you might remember as the judge in Miracle on 34th Street). Banner, who's constantly surrounded by "yes" men, admires how the cat treats everyone with distain, rich and poor alike. This cat, he says, has spirit. He's a fighter, and if there's one thing T.J. Banner has always admired, it's a fighter. T.J.'s greedy daughter Myra thinks he's crazy, but his public relations man, Eric Yeager (Oscar-winner Ray Milland), affectionately tolerates the old man. It was Eric who was assigned to capture the cat from the golf course where he lived (stealing golf balls off the greens), and when Eric finally succeeds, he has the scratches to prove it.

Although Banner owns many successful businesses, his pride and joy is his baseball team, a bunch of losers named the Brooklyn Loons (read: Dodgers), managed by Len Sickles (William Frawley, Lockhart's political boss in Miracle on 34th Street). If only, Banner thinks, his team had the same fight his cat had, they might win for a change. After watching the cat trash his study, Banner decides to name him Rhubarb, after the term for a baseball imbroglio. (In one scene, trying to explain what the cat's name means, Eric explains: "Lady, you know what happens at a sale, when two women get hold of the same dress? THAT's a Rhubarb!")

After many years Banner dies and, to the amazement of his business associates and Myra (who has been fairly counting down the days to the old man's death), he leaves the balance of his estate, including the baseball team, to the only living thing that ever showed him trust and loyalty: Rhubarb. Realizing the limitations inherent in a cat running an empire, the will provides that Eric will act as Rhubarb's guardian. He's not sure at first, but when Myra attempts to murder Rhubarb, Eric remembers T.J.'s words that "if you're right, fight for it." Rhubarb's always been a fighter, which is what the old man loved about him, and Eric is determined to fight as well.

His biggest fight concerns the baseball team—the players, perhaps understandably, are reluctant to play for a cat, even if he does own the team. Fans around the league meow at them, and an umpire even leaves a bowl of milk at home plate before the start of the game. The players are threatening to sit out the season and Eric, along with his fiancée Polly (Jan Sterling), manager Sickles' daughter, realize something has to be done. Eric convinces them that the miracle Boston Braves of 1914—a team that rallied from last place on the 4th of July to win the World Series (a true story, by the way)—owed their success to a lucky orange cat that served as their mascot, they start to have second thoughts. When the Loons' hitters come through in the clutch after having petted Rhubarb, the superstitious players become convinced: with Rhubarb on their side, they can do no wrong.

The Brooklyn team—now dubbed the "Rhubarbs" by the tabloids, with Rhubarb and Eric accompanying them to every game home and away—catches fire and wins the pennant. Now, they're prepared to face their archrivals, the New York club (read: Yankees) in the World Series. The entire city is electrified, and in the days leading up to the Series seemingly everyone in Brooklyn is placing bets on the Rhubarbs to win. The alarmed bookies calculate that if Brooklyn wins, there's no way they'll be able to cover their losses. Then one of them, with the Runyonesque name of Pencil Louie, strikes upon an idea: if something were to "happen" to the cat, it would almost certainly mean defeat for Brooklyn, and the bookies would save their skins.

Pencil Louie's first thought is simply to kill Rhubarb, but then he realizes there's money to be made - surely Myra would pay them to get rid of the cat. With Rhubarb thus out of the way, Myra gets her father's fortune, Brooklyn (and the people betting on them) loses, and the bookies get their necks out of the noose. In short order Rhubarb is catnapped, New York evens the series, and all of Brooklyn is in a panic. Eric and Polly launch a desperate search for the missing cat, even resorting to seeding the clouds with dry ice to cause a rainout that postpones Game 7 for another day.

In the end the good guys win, of course. Rhubarb is found, the bad guys are captured, and Brooklyn rallies to win the series. Eric and Polly marry, and Rhubarb is last seen with the female cat who's been sitting in the box behind Rhubarb with her lady owner throughout the season, trailing a litter of little kittens.

Rhubarb is a charming fantasy, featuring a top-notch performance by Milland (including a hilarious send-up of his drunk scene in The Lost Weekend), wild slapstick comedy, and Smith's satiric jabs at television and commercial sponsors (a pivotal moment in one game is interrupted for a "much more important" message from the ever-present Friendly Financial Company, whose commercials are a running joke during coverage of the games).

It tells of a time when baseball was an ingrained part of the American culture, when teams were part of the very fabric of the cities they played in (as the Dodgers were when they played in Brooklyn), and when the idea of a cat owner/mascot wasn't perhaps all that outrageous. And of course it's perfectly believable that baseball players, a superstitious lot since the game began, would become convinced that petting a cat before going to bat would bring them good luck.

Best of all is Rhubarb himself—one source says fourteen cats were used to portray him, with the prime cat being a tiger named Orangey. His transformation from feral loner to tycoon to good-luck charm is the stuff dreams are made of.

Smith's original book spawned two sequels, neither matching the charm and outrageousness of Rhubarb. As both novel and movie, it is the essential baseball story: the tale of a team and its lucky cat. Don't miss it the next time it shows up on TV.  TV  

2 comments:

  1. A long time favorite and a reminder that I haven't seen it in a while. Initially saw it as a kid, as an adult it is likely even better. Given his love for baseball, Frawley is perfectly cast in this and SAFE AT HOME!

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  2. I feel much the same way about baseball. I think I love the mythology of the game more than the actual game. I'm also the guy who thinks that homeruns are overrated and any ball leaving the field of play should be considered a foul. Maybe I'm just a killjoy, I don't know.

    That said, this movie looks totally charming. I see it's on Amazon Prime for rent. I may also check my local video store (we still got em here in L.A.!). Thanks for the recommendation!

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!