Reel Baseball: Baseball Films of the Silent Era

Reel Baseball: Baseball Films of the Silent Era

Kino Video’s release of Reel Baseball, a compilation of early baseball films, brings viewing pleasure to residents of joyless, chilly Mudvilles everywhere. The films, many of them rare, fill two discs with images of innings past from 1899 to 1926, and feature players as notable as Babe Ruth and Felix the Cat. Since most of the films predate the perfection of synchronized sound technology, they aren’t “talkies.” The films have musical accompaniment, some of it composed and performed by Chicago’s own star player David Drazin.

It’s a commonplace that baseball and American identity are intimately intertwined. When these films were made, they played an important part in stitching the game into the fabric of everyday life. If one couldn’t make it to the big city ball park, there was always the local nickelodeon where images of the players and the game could be seen. On display in these films are a number of definitive themes of American life. When a small-town player gets discovered and called up to the big leagues, country ways come up against city sophistication and the rube gets hazed by the slickers. This dramatic kernel played itself out in many a drama, all part of an increasingly urbanized nation. It could even be reversed. A college player from the East faces the derision of cowboys only to prove himself the best man of all.

Whatever the conflict, the experience of watching these films brings the past vividly to life. Through this cinematic knothole in the fence, America appears in all its vivacious and optimistic glory. The films make it clear that over 9 or 10 decades the game itself really hasn’t changed much. The speed of the athleticism of the game is at a different level. But it’s absolutely the same game, whose invariable structure and endlessly variable outcomes have been noted before as a source of its attraction.

The earliest film here is one minute long: Casey at the Bat or the Fate of a “Rotten” Umpire. It is apparently one of the first times baseball shows up on film. The film shows players enacting the figurative murder that dwells in the heart of every true baseball fan.

In 1922’s Felix Saves the Day, the star cat does just that when he goes to bat in the big game for neighborhood star Willie Brown who is cooling it in the clink. It would be a shame to miss this one because of a distaste for animation, given that animator Pat Sullivan uses photographic backgrounds of New York to stage a chase and also live-action inserts of fans at the ball park. It also bears noting that Felix’s team, all-white, competes against a team that is all black, rendered by Sullivan in stereotypical forms.

Two feature films anchor the squad of films. In The Busher of 1919 Charles Ray plays Ben Harding, a talented hurler from Brownville, called up to the majors. He leaves his girl, Mazie Palmer, played by Colleen Moore, back home. The big city (in this case, St. Paul) turns Ben’s head — the title card tells us “In no time at all: city clothes and city ways.” The story’s contours are pure morality play: Ben’s fall follows his rise, and redemption comes on the field back home as a last-minute substitute for the Brownville team.

The other feature, Heading Home of 1920, features Babe Ruth. The film outlines the Babe’s rise from humble beginnings. He gamely plays the precise cliché of a lumbering bumpkin, the lumber being in this case not only his clumsiness but the enormous bat that he whittles into shape, carrying it wherever he goes. I’ll bet you can’t guess who comes into the game in the end to win it in this one. Lest any ingredient be missing, the film even has mom and apple pie.

A 1909 Western, His Last Game, shows how the game of baseball occupies a privileged status in the American Imaginary. In this compressed melodrama, frontier myths team up with a baseball storyline. Bill Going, star player for the Choctaw team, holds fast to a code of honor. When he refuses the enticements of a gambler outside the Jimtown Bar, tragedy results. In this story triumph on the playing field serves as prelude to a grimmer outcome. That these two symbolic domains, the American West and the baseball diamond, figure together in this drama points to the role the game plays in composing national identity. The game has always been bathed in the light of our imagination. It enables us to compose stories of triumph, failure, and redemption. As the films of Reel Baseball make clear, Americans love a thrill, and we make a point of finding them – whether it’s by going out to the movies, or going out to the ballgame, or going out west or going, going going out of the park.