This is not Major League, or Bull Durham, or A League of Their Own. I’m not talking about Field of Dreams or Eight Men Out or The Sandlot. I am talking about a movie that goes above, beyond, and kind of awkwardly around all those movies. A movie made before all those others; a movie that laughs in the face of everything that came after, knowing full well that nothing– nothing!– can ever compare to it.
The year was 1951, and the movie I’m talking about is
It is hard for me to know where to start with Rhubarb. I found out about it at the Baseball Hall of Fame, where it was mentioned briefly in an exhibit on baseball movies. I saw the premise and IMMEDIATELY knew that I needed to see this movie. It had to be in my life. In fact it would not be enough to simply see it; I needed to own it, so that I could cherish it properly. At the time, it had not come out on DVD. I waited, obsessively stalking places like Amazon, until some kind, loving spirit somewhere decided that its time had come. The movie was converted to the new format. I acquired it. I watched it. My life was changed.
Although the movie is complex and touches on a great many genres and themes, the overall premise is simple. An eccentric, rich old man dies. He leaves his entire fortune– including his baseball team– to his cat, Rhubarb. Drama, comedy, and a variety of shenanigans ensue, as everyone tries to come to terms with the new feline world order.
Let me reiterate:
THE CAT OWNS A BASEBALL TEAM
THE CAT OWNS A BASEBALL TEAM
A BASEBALL TEAM
The star of this movie is, of course, Rhubarb, who was played by an enormous, irritable orange tomcat named, creatively, Orangey. He is the greatest cat actor of all time. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not: Orangey is the only cat to ever win two Patsy Awards, and his acting career spanned more than a decade, lasting from 1951 to 1963. Please note that this is significantly longer than the careers of most professional baseball players.
Orangey was a cantankerous prima donna disliked even by his trainer. A movie executive called him “The World’s Meanest Cat.” During one shooting session, his trainer, Frank Inn, placed guard dogs at all the movie studio doors in order to dissuade the cat from running away.
However, Orangey was a real talent and according to Inn could “play any part” and won more awards than any other cat in show business before or since.
Suarès, J.C. Hollywood Cats. San Francisco: Collins Publishers, 1993.
You may know Orangey better for his role as “Cat”, in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Again, not kidding: it’s the same cat. But Rhubarb was his break-out role, and his acting is truly spectacular.
Just look at that emoting!
The human stars were Ray Milland (as Eric Yeager, the team’s publicist and Rhubarb’s appointed guardian) and Jan Sterling (as Polly Sickles, the daughter of the team’s manager, and Yeager’s fiancée). Gene Lockhart played the millionaire owner. Orangey was credited in the film as ‘Rhubarb’, presumably because correct crediting of animal stars was less strict back then. Paul Douglas (It Happens Every Spring, Angels in the Outfield) shows up at the very end of the movie for a cameo, with a throwaway line that I am pretty sure is a joke, but it’s referencing something from the ’40s, so the nuance is lost on me.
Leonard Nimoy has an uncredited bit part as one of the ballplayers. Seriously. Check it out:
The team skeptically meets their new owner.
Now look closer…
Leonard freakin’ Nimoy. He would have been 20 years old when this was filmed. He has one line; he asks Yeager to make sure Rhubarb shows up at their next game for good luck. Amazing.
The team in Rhubarb is very clearly supposed to be the Brooklyn Dodgers. They play at ‘Banner Field’ (Lockhart’s millionaire is named TJ Banner), but it’s in Brooklyn and reference is made to Flatbush Avenue, where Ebbets Field was located. The team’s uniforms say ‘Brooklyn’ across the front and they have Bs on their hats. But nobody ever says the word ‘Dodgers’. In fact the team is initially referred to as the Loons, although this is a goofy nickname bestowed upon them because they suck, not any relation to real Loons baseball (neither of those teams even existed in 1951). Once Rhubarb shows up and they (spoiler!) start playing well, they’re referred to as ‘the Rhubarbs’.
‘Banner Field’. Not sure if that’s actually Ebbets Field, or just random stock footage?
The other teams in the movie are also referred to by city; Brooklyn plays St. Louis (unclear if this is meant to be the Browns or the Cardinals, both of which existed at the time) and New York (I think this is supposed to be the Giants, not the Yankees; they play in Manhattan, which becomes important later in the movie). Apparently Major League Baseball wanted absolutely nothing to do with this one.
(more after the link!)
The cat’s name is an old school baseball term: a ‘rhubarb’ is a baseball argument or fight. This is explained early in the movie when the butler (a retired pitcher) answers a phone call from a crazed Rhubarb fan.
“No, he did not get his name from the pie, lady. It’s a baseball expression, meanin’ a big beef. No, a big beef is not a large cow…. a big beef is a brannigan [?]. A brannigan is a saloon term meanin’ a… uh…”
“Give it to me!” Yeager grabs the phone. “Hello? Look, lady, you ever been to a sale in a bargain basement? Well, you know what happens when two women get hold’a the same dress? That’s a rhubarb!”
Lest the above quote make the movie seem anti-feminist, I have to point out that I was pleasantly surprised by its treatment of women. Yes, there is an evil, Rhubarb-hating daughter who will stop at nothing to get the money her father left to the cat (she is a weight-lifter, which is clearly meant to be ‘bad’; to me it was mostly puzzling). But in many ways it’s actually much more pro-female-fan than many baseball movies made in recent years, which is depressing if you stop to think about it.
At first Brooklyn is unhappy about being owned by a cat, threatening fake injuries so that they won’t have to play and suffer embarrassment. Yeager, who is overwhelmed by all the responsibility thrust upon him as Rhubarb’s guardian, wants to just dump the team. It’s Polly, his fiancée, who refuses to let him do it, saying that the team might not mean much to him, but it means a lot to her. She obsessively watches the games on TV when the team is on the road, treats the ballplayers like a pack of idiot little brothers at her wedding, and even though she is told that she has a terrible, dangerous allergy to cats (so much drama involved here), the thought of getting rid of Rhubarb (who by that time is a vital part of the team) is horrifying to her.
In the manager’s office. Please note the INSANE cat carrier.
The most surprising thing here is the depiction of the crowd. It is a very evenly mixed crowd, men and women. There are old women and young women, and they are shown at multiple points as sincere, diehard fans of the team: the Brooklyn superfans are equally likely to be men and women. What’s so surprising is that this is not played off as comedy or a novelty, and it’s obvious that the director assumed his early-’50s audience would see this as completely normal. Awesome! What the hell? Why did this ever change?
“We want Rhubarb! We want Rhubarb!”
Yeager plays off the superstitions of the ballplayers to get them to accept the whole situation, talking up Rhubarb’s fine qualities (prompting one of the ballplayers to tell another, more skeptical player, “You should be jest a ballplayer, like he’s jest a cat”), saying that the 1914 Red Sox had a ‘yellow’ cat adopt them and look how well played, and finally faking a ‘lucky’ cash windfall for the first two players to pet the cat. Convinced that Rhubarb is good luck (the ballplayers are repeatedly portrayed as morons, which is fun), the players insist he be brought to games, which he is. He has his own little pedestal, complete with blanket, milk, and, yes, a litter box.
Mmmm, ballpark litter.
Desperate to start playing better, the ballplayers pet Rhubarb as they exit the on-deck circle. Because this movie is awesome, the players who pet him DO have good luck, getting on base and making big hits.
Like rubbing the belly of a statue of Buddha.
The one ballplayer who is still resistant to the idea of being owned by a cat initially refuses to pet Rhubarb…
playa be hatin’
…but relents after he trips over a row of bats (bad luck!) and Rhubarb interrupts a bad play by running on the field, causing a lowercase-R-rhubarb when the St. Louis team, which had brought a dog into their dugout to try to intimidate Brooklyn, releases the hound and chaos results (Rhubarb, who is one tough cat, eventually sends the dog scampering away with a whimper).
The player relents and offers his hand to Rhubarb. “Go on, take a chunk out. Bruise me!”
At this point, if you are not in awe of the sheer wonder that is this movie, I don’t know what to do with you. But I have only lightly scratched the surface of the plot. It is, at various points, a movie about
–the law! There is a court case when Rhubarb’s identity is called into question, involving some of the most dubious/hilarious introductions of evidence I have ever seen.
–science! At one point they need to delay a ballgame, so they MANUFACTURE RAIN by taking dry ice up in a plane and dumping it over the ballpark. Somehow this creates a small cloud directly over Banner Field, which rains and pushes the game back a day. I was dying. The allergy is also explored in depth.
–mobsters! Rhubarb is at one point catnapped by fedora-sportin’ evil-doers, included a cruel character named Pencil Louie (he got shot once, and they left the lead in). There is a thrilling car chase.
They look happy now, but can you see the ominous black car in the rear window behind them?
–the evils of betting on baseball! The gambling craze surrounding the final Brooklyn/New York series leads some desperate folks to do some desperate things!
–love! Not only do Yeager and Polly have to navigate their own relationship as it comes under stress from an idiot baseball team and a serious cat allergy, but Rhubarb himself has a love interest! An alluring lady cat! The director apparently decided that she needed to be super wicked alluring so that the audience would get it; as a result, the cat used in the film wears a giant bow AND EYELINER. Not to mention Rhubarb’s touching relationship with his original millionaire owner, who considers the cat his truest friend.
–New York! The Brooklyn vs. Manhattan thing becomes insane later in the movie, when the police departments of both boroughs are asked to help find a missing Rhubarb in the middle of a Brooklyn/New York (Manhattan) baseball series. Rhubarb runs through the streets of New York! He crosses the Brooklyn Bridge on foot! (you can see they spliced the footage in)
Probably not allowed to actually film a cat running across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1951.
The back of the DVD box describes Rhubarb as a “charming and fast-paced screwball comedy,” but it is so much more than a simple comedy. It is a movie as multi-faceted as life itself. It’s a movie about baseball, and the nature of felines, and the human condition. It’s a movie about the rewards that come when you stay true to yourself and never let other people push you around. It’s a movie about A CAT WHO OWNS A BASEBALL TEAM. It is the greatest baseball movie of all time.
screencaps and movie quotes from my copy of
—Rhubarb. Ray Milland, Jan Sterling, Orangey. Directed by Arthur Lubin. Paramount Pictures, 1951.
additional information from
—Hollywood Cats. J.C. Suarès. San Francisco: Collins Publishers, 1993.
—Rhubarb at IMDB.