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Kino on Video presents
Reel Baseball: Baseball Films from the Silent Era (1899-1926)

"Babe would rather play baseball than eat, an' he had a natcheral talent for both."
- Eliar Lott (William J. Gross) in Headin' Home

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: April 02, 2007

Stars: Babe Ruth, Ruth Taylor, Charles Ray, Colleen Moore, John Bunny, Flora Finch, Billy Bevan, Ethlyn Gibson
Other Stars: John Gilbert, John McGraw, De Wolf Hopper, Andy Clyde, Billy Butts
Director: Francis Ford, Jerome Stern, Otto Messmer, Del Lord

Manufacturer: Crawford Communications
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (racial stereotyping and caricature, some violence)
Run Time: 04h:14m:23s
Release Date: April 03, 2007
UPC: 738329052928
Genre: sports

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B BB-B+ D+

DVD Review

When the crack of the bat against the ball is heard across the land, spring is here for real. And if you can't watch an actual baseball game, the next best thing is a baseball movie. Unsurprisingly, that's always been the case, even back in the silent era and even before 1900. This two-disc collection is a loving compilation of some of these gems of a bygone era, prominently featuring one of the biggest names in all of sports: Babe Ruth.

Headin' Home (1920) can't really be called a fictionalized biography of Ruth, since it bears no resemblance to actuality whatsoever. In the filmmakers' slim defense, Ruth only plays a character named "Babe," and not necessarily Babe Ruth. That nickname and a prodigious appetite are just about the only things that the cinematic Babe has in common with the real one. Of course, the unreliability of the story's narrator is more than broadly hinted at in his name: Eliar Lott (William J. Gross). In his retelling of Babe's story, the slugger hails from the idyllic farming community of Haverlock, living with his mother (Margaret Seddon) and foster sister Pigtails (Frances Victory), rather than being shuffled off to a Baltimore orphanage. The tale just gets taller in the telling, as Ruth is seen cutting down trees to whittle into baseball bats. Shunned by the local Haverlock team, out of love of the game he signs up with the rival Hillsdale ballclub, and makes himself persona non grata by hitting a game-winning homer against his own home town. Sent away in disgrace, he returns in triumph from his major league debut with the Yankees (never mind about that business with the Boston Red Sox).

The slant is easily explained when you notice the date of 1920, the first year after the notorious swap (or depending on your perspective, swindle) from the Red Sox to the Yankees. The production company, Yankee Photo Corporation, probably should be another hint; it's just as fair and balanced in its presentation as its spiritual successor, the YES Network. There is some tantalizing but all-too-brief footage of Ruth playing with the Yankees at what appears to be the old Polo Grounds, both at the beginning and the end of the film, but Ruth's acting has to carry the picture for most of its running time. He proves himself a surprisingly natural actor, unadorned by silent screen training and basically just being himself quite comfortably in front of the camera. Even though 1920 was the year he shattered the home run record by 25 dingers, nearly doubling it in the process, he's still fairly slender and not the portly caricature running on toothpick legs that is the usual Ruthian image that comes to mind. The supporting cast is negligible for the most part, with some odd business involving a dog catcher (George Halpin), random chase sequences, and a setup for a bank robbery that goes nowhere. The primary point of interest is Ruth, and he doesn't disappoint, sending up his own image several times in comic sequences.

Ruth also appears in the brief (1m:10s) Kinogram of unknown date that follows; in this newsreel-type clip he and his wife are seen visiting a potter's studio. One of the most startling pictures on the set is His Last Game (1909), which is half knockabout baseball comedy and half A Century of Dishonor. It centers on a Choctaw baseball player who is leaving the game, but is being pressed by white gamblers to throw the game. When they get violent, he kills one in self defense, but is granted a reprieve to play in the baseball game. The ending is quite a shock after what has gone before, and it's quite openly critical of the racism of the time. The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912) is more predictable period fare, as Hary, as star college player, gets him sent out West to act as a paymaster. There's plenty of tenderfoot comedy here, and it's reasonably enjoyable.

The second disc leads with the short feature The Busher (1919) (55m:05s). Charles Ray stars as baseball crazy Ben Harding, who is seen by scouts for the "St. Paul Pink Sox" when they break down in his home town. Ben's rapid rise to the major leagues and just as rapid fall from grace are intertwined with his hapless romance with hometown girl Mazie Palmer (Colleen Moore), who is also pursued by banker's son Jim Blair (future leading man John Gilbert). There's plenty of bucolic Norman Rockwell Americana here, as well as glimpses into the booth where the play-by-play is sent out over the telephone in those pre-radio days. The intertitles are quite gorgeous, and several of them are even animated; unfortunately a few have also fallen victim to nitrate decomposition. It's amusing enough, although its splicey and somewhat disjointed character indicates that there may be substantial amounts of footage lost.

The rest of Disc 2 is filled with eight additional short films. The 1899 Casey at the Bat (:37s) from the Edison studio is a very brief little skit involving ball players getting into a fight with a crooked umpire; it's notable as one of the earliest motion picture depictions of the game. How the Office Boy Saw the Game (1905) is another Edison offering (5m:09s) that provides some amusing POV shots as well as glimpses of the 1906 New York Giants, with the words "WORLD CHAMPIONS" emblazoned in enormous letters across their chests. The liner notes suggest that Christy Mathewson may be visible here, although the picture quality makes a definitive identification difficult. Hearts and Diamonds (1914) is one of the very few surviving pictures of John Bunny, once the most famous man and most beloved comedian in the world, at least until the explosion of Charlie Chaplin in the year this picture was made. The rotund Bunny stars as the Widower Tupper, who schemes to get the attractions of the heiress Miss Rachel Whipple (Bunny's frequent co-star, the gaunt Flora Finch). Learning that she adores baseball players, he sets out to organize a team to play an exhibition against professionals led by "Matty Christheson." The three-reel length is padded out with a subplot about a mad baseball player escaped from the asylum, but on the whole it's plenty of fun and a welcome chance to see Bunny and his aptitude for physical comedy.

One Touch of Nature (1917) is represented by fragments, the full film apparently lost. Based on a story by popular writer Peter B. Kyne, it prominently features Giants manager John McGraw as himself. John Drew Bennett stars as "Battling Bill" Cosgrove. The plot is a bit difficult to suss out, but apparently his rich father disapproves of the baseball life, though he ends up becoming enthralled by the game. Even cartoons are included here with Felix Saves the Day (1922) featuring a primitive Felix the Cat (who looks more like a wolf than a cat) helping out a ballplayer friend who is thrown in jail on a trumped up charge. There's an interesting meld of live action and animation here, and some clever humor, though there are also some offensive racial caricatures typical of the period.

Not all of the pictures in the set are silent; an experimental sound film from 1922 (five years before The Jazz Singer) features De Wolf Hopper (husband of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) as he melodramatically declaims Thayer's poem, Casey at the Bat. It's way over the top, but since Hopper apparently performed the poem over 10,000 times, we're able to get a good idea of what passed for entertainment 85 years ago. Portly comic Billy Bevan is featured in Butter Fingers (1925) as a pitcher with something extra on his pitches: a cheating device. Complete with wild baserunning antics, it's an amusing little romp. The package is wrapped up with Happy Days (1926), ostensibly based on the comic strip Winnie Winkle but more than anything it's an Our Gang knockoff with the addition of the Buster Brown-clad Perry Winkle (Billy Butts). The short features the "mangy league of baseball" with predictable gags involving the black kid and the intervention of a naughty dog.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: For their age, most of the films look pretty good. Some of the intertitles have suffered significantly from nitrate decomposition, but the films proper don't have too much. There are the expected scratches and nicks throughout. Some of the intertitles (especially on the Felix cartoon) seem to be cropped to the point of cutting off gags. Headin' Home is from a nice source print with reasonably good detail.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Music Only; Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: David Knudtsen, Ben Model, and David Drazin contribute piano and organ scores in both straightforward mood settings as well as rollicking jazz. They have good depth and texture, with few notable problems. The sound film of Casey at the Bat has all the shortcomings of hiss, noise, and limited range one would expect of a 1922 sound experiment.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 38 cues and remote access
Production Notes
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The sole extra is an informative but all too brief onscreen essay from Rob Edelman, who provides a concise background on each of the films as well as giving them historical context.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

This widely disparate accumulation of baseball pictures from 70 to over 100 years ago serves as a fascinating picture of how the love of the game has both changed and remained the same. The condition is mixed as one might expect, but more than acceptable.


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