America has always had a love affair with baseball, and what’s more American than professing that love through the arts? We’ve written novels about baseball, we’ve written songs and stage plays about baseball; heck, we’ve produced whole musicals about the sport.
There’s nothing quite like a classic baseball film, though. Perhaps you loved Angels in the Outfield as a kid, or laughed along with the hapless Cleveland Indians of Major League, or let Field of Dreams tug at your heartstrings. Maybe you were a Rookie of the Year devotee, or a Sandlot enthusiast. There are just so many classic—and some not-so-classic—baseball films to pick and choose from. The movie I’ll be looking at for this edition of Retroactive Review often falls through the cracks.
Rhubarb, based on the novel by H. Allen Smith, is a 1951 movie that’s tough to define. It’s a somewhat madcap comedy that centers around a special cat called Rhubarb—so named for the baseball slang for a fight—that captures the hearts and imaginations of the Brooklyn Loons baseball club and its community.
The movie opens with T.J. Banner, owner of the Loons, on a golf outing with some acquaintances. A vicious stray cat keeps stealing their golf balls and Banner quickly falls in love with the cat, ordering his beleaguered team publicist, Eric, to capture the animal. After several failed tries, Eric finally catches the stray and brings it to Banner, who decides to keep it as a pet.
Banner is clearly an eccentric owner and, when he dies, bypasses his spoiled daughter Myra to leave his entire estate—including ownership of the Loons—to Rhubarb. Banner appoints Eric as guardian of the cat, a position that he accepts with extreme reluctance. Myra doesn’t react well to being passed over by her father—though he does leave her a monthly allowance!—and vows revenge on Rhubarb.
This movie is a comedic, family-friendly, animal-friendly sports caper…with a major kidnapping—catnapping?—subplot, low-speed chase scenes, nefarious butlers, bookies and gangsters, courtroom drama, faulty science, a faked rain delay and a female villain obsessed with male body-builders who’s bent on revenge against a seemingly harmless cat. Rhubarb a mishmash of all sorts of disparate threads that don’t really come together in any coherent way. This makes Rhubarb the kind of movie only a true baseball-loving movie buff could enjoy, and yet…it’s not entirely terrible. It’s kind of zany, kind of weird and, in fact, a bit of fun.
Of course, one shouldn’t think too hard about the logistics or the science or, well, really anything. Rhubarb requires a suspension of disbelief. If you pause to wonder “why is the mob kidnapping a cat?” you’ll just trip up on the ridiculousness of the plot. If you stop to ask yourself why a woman would challenge the identity of a cat in court or how a man in an airplane would be able to create his own rain delay, you’ll just end up with a headache. It’s not worth it. Rhubarb asks you to enjoy it for what it is.
Rhubarb’s not just all fun and games, though. The movie’s portrayal of female baseball fans is particularly interesting, especially to this female baseball fan. Eric’s fiancée, Polly, is the daughter of the team’s manager, portrayed by William Frawley of I Love Lucy fame. Polly, whose allergy to cats becomes a major plot point in the film, is a hardcore baseball fan shown closely watching games, interacting with the team and yelling at her TV during games. The film also depicts female fans—including plenty of older women—in the crowds at games, most notably an older woman who’s determined to introduce her female cat to Rhubarb (we know the cat is female only because it wears false eyelashes!).
None of the female fans are ridiculed or mocked, nor is their love of or commitment to baseball used as comedy material. While the movie would never be confused for a feminist masterpiece—I’m still puzzling over the murderous, body-builder obsessed Myra—the depiction of the female fans was a breath of fresh air, especially for a movie that came out in the early 1950s.
While female fans are portrayed somewhat favorably, the opposite could be said for the baseball players. Most of them are shown to be overly superstitious, and perhaps even dumb and easily manipulated. In an early scene, the players are threatening to fake injuries and refuse to play for a cat owner, but Eric and a team employee trick the players into agreeing to play for Rhubarb by giving those who accept the cat extra cash. The players believe Rhubarb has blessed them with good luck, and rally their comrades to get behind the cat. The lone player who resists has a series of unfortunate incidents, such as tripping over a row of unattended baseball bats. (I guess, back in the day, they didn’t have bat racks.)
Though Rhubarb is certainly difficult to precisely define, it slots comfortably into that fantastical, goofy, suspend-your-disbelief sports film niche populated by the likes of Angels in the Outfield, Air Bud, Little Big League, Heaven Can Wait and Rookie of the Year. What makes it stand apart are its mystery/thriller elements and its courtroom drama. The elements don’t all work together, but it makes for an unforgettable movie experience.
We don’t see too many sports movies like Rhubarb these days. Whether that’s a good thing, I’m not entirely sure. Rhubarb is, without a doubt, a flawed movie on many levels. But it’s also got a sense of humor and doesn’t appear to take itself too seriously. So many sports movies these days seem dour, serious and/or stiff. Baseball is meant to be fun and enjoyable, and not a lot of films about the sport seem to reflect that. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from serious character pieces like Sugar and biopics like Moneyball or Cobb to indulge in the carefree silliness of a movie like Rhubarb.
Some other notes of interest:
- Rhubarb was Leonard Nimoy’s second film role (following a bit part in Queen for a Day). Nimoy appears in an uncredited speaking role during the scene in the Brooklyn Loons clubhouse. Here is a clip of his appearance:
Nimoy was 20 at the time.
- Ray Milland, the movie’s star, followed up Rhubarb with the classic Dial M for Murder, and went on to have a distinguished film and television career. What possessed him to accept the role in Rhubarb we may never know.
- William Frawley, as we know, went on to play Lucy Ricardo’s neighbor, Fred Mertz, in the classic television show I Love Lucy.
- Orangey, the cat who portrayed Rhubarb, also appeared as “Cat” in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and was known as the “world’s meanest cat.” Orangey had a long, distinguished career which spanned nearly a decade and a half.