' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Kill the Umpire (1950)

Friday, April 03, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Kill the Umpire (1950)

Bill Johnson (William Bendix) is a baseball fan who hates umpires, loathes ‘em, can’t stand ‘em, and in a twist of fate, if not inherent desperation stemming from a lack of gainful employment, winds up taking a job calling balls and strikes. This distinct two-dimensionality defines the film, suggesting “Kill the Umpire” as a kind of 1930s anti-drug movie, just aimed at people who can’t stop bellyaching about the men behind the plate. Yet, while occasionally dabbling in mild earnestness, director Lloyd Bacon’s film aims less for sermonizing than comicality. Even when Bill, near movie’s end, as a faithful umpire now, is trailed by angry imbeciles who are literally shooting guns at him, “Kill the Umpire” doesn’t invoke the murderous rage of its title so much as “There Bill Goes Again!” guffaws.

Bill is purported to be a great lover of baseball, though “Kill the Umpire” provides little evidence to bolster this claim. His love is more akin to an addiction, walking off jobs to watch games, and Bill comes across more like a psycho. Given that nearly every play in baseball ends with a call, he hardly has time to cheer before a call is made and he instantly disagrees. Look at Bendix in these moments and you can see a flip being switched; it’s less the heat of the moment than improper wiring. He looks like Reggie Jackson in “The Naked Gun”, programmed to kill the Queen, just programmed instead to argue with umpires instead. It’s never even made clear whether he’s arguing for his team; he’s just arguing against the umpire. The umpire is the opposition, not the team in from Toledo, or whatever.

All of this is meant to be funny in that way of a 1950s sitcom, where Bill just can’t stop making a mess of things. He’s putting his family’s livelihood on the line with these tantrums, though the movie only half-sees the recklessness of his actions and his daughters hardly seem to see it at all. They keep trying to finagle ways to get their dad and mom to make up. His wife just sort of suffers in private even though she’s the foremost victim, of its time, as they say, in so much as it goes to show that in her time, like it or not, and she mostly doesn’t, she’s tethered to this dope. He gets his umpiring gig through a family connection and though he tries and succeeds in being kicked out by being a deliberate pain, he has a change of heart while waiting for the train home when he sees a group of kids playing a pick-up game squabbling over a call, intervening and calling himself – ye gods – an umpire.

This essentially suggests Bill, in his umpire-hating incarnation, is essentially a child too, though “Kill the Umpire” never makes this connection any more explicit and possibly has no idea it even exists. No, from there Bill passes his ultimate umpiring test despite inadvertently being struck by double vision, giving him his own behind-the-plate persona, Two Call Johnson, which is a little humorous but not at the level of, say, Enrico Palazzo break-dancing. Bill is not seeing double, however, when he makes a call in a Texas League game that turns the entire stadium and town against him. He’s right and we know he is because the movie lets us, not the crowd, see the play. That might have made Bill a paragon of virtue, standing up for what’s right, and though he sort of is, “Kill the Umpire” is content to just let him keep being the butt of the joke, in a roundabout way proving Bill’s initial point: Why would you want to be an ump in the first place?

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