Friday, August 16, 2013

Death on the Diamond (MGM, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched an intriguing 1934 MGM movie called Death on the Diamond, an odd little baseball-themed thriller in which Robert Young plays star pitcher Larry Kelly, who’s recruited by St. Louis Cardinals owner-manager Pop Clark (David Landau) to perk up an otherwise ailing franchise (coincidentally — or maybe not — the legendary pitcher “Dizzy” Dean led the Cardinals to a World Series berth that year). Kelly meets Clark’s daughter Frances (Madge Evans), who also serves as the team’s secretary, and has one of those hate-at-first-sight meetings with her that we know, as hardened moviegoers, will soon blossom into love. Alas, the Cardinals are beset by gamblers led by Joseph Karnes (C. Henry Gordon — who else?) who at one point, unbidden, leave $10,000 to get Kelly to throw a game (he responds not only by pitching to win but racking up a no-hitter!); by an unscrupulous businessman named Henry Ainsley (John Hyams), who has a mortgage on the franchise that will enable him to take it over if Clark’s team doesn’t win the pennant and thereby make enough money to pay him off; and by a string of mysterious assaults on the team members that ends with one of them being murdered in the middle of important games. The sequences showing the shootings look surprisingly modern — just the muzzle of a gun mysteriously appearing from behind a column in the stadium and then a cut to the ballfield, where the intended victim falls and is assumed to have simply collapsed until the tell-tale bullet hole indicates foul play. The first shooting is aimed at Kelly and the Cardinals’ star hitter, Dunk Spencer (Joe Sauers) — who can’t stand Kelly and also has the hots for Frances — the shooter aims not at them but the tire of their car, causing it to overturn and laying them both up so they miss several important games.

Then “Truck” Hogan (Nat Pendleton), who until now we’ve thought of only as a comic-relief character, is fed a poisoned hot dog (we’ve previously seen that non-toxic hot dogs are his favorite food) because he witnessed the strangling of pitcher Frank Higgins (Robert Livingston) before the second game of a double-header, which Higgins was going to pitch in Kelly’s place at the insistence of Frances, who’s in love with Kelly and doesn’t want to see him killed. Clark doesn’t want to put Kelly in the game either but is persuaded by Larry himself that the only way to flush out the killer is to let Larry pitch — and the bad guy actually throws an exploding baseball into the game, only Larry realizes what it is and hurls it out of the field just in time so it explodes harmlessly in mid-air. Then the assassin tries to shoot Larry but is caught and is revealed to be Patterson (DeWitt Jennings), a former Cardinals player whom Clark demoted to groundskeeper even though he thought he should have been hired as manager when he was too old to play. The film ends with Patterson arrested and safely in custody, and the Cardinals needing one more run in the bottom of the ninth to win the final game of the season — and the pennant; it’s Larry Kelly’s turn at bat, though, and Clark wants to send in a pinch-hitter but Kelly persuades him he deserves the chance to bat himself, drives in a home run and everyone — except Ainsley and the gamblers who bet so heavily on the Cardinals to lose — is happy. Based on a similarly titled novel by Cortland Fitzsimmons (a writer I’ve vaguely heard of), Death on the Diamond could have been considerably more exciting than it is; as it is, it’s an amiable thriller written by the usual committee — Harvey Thew, Joe Sherman and silent-era veteran Ralph Spence — and directed in O.K. but not spectacular fashion by Edward Sedgwick, who made great movies with Buster Keaton as his star (though those were probably good because Keaton still had the interest and the clout essentially to direct himself) but seemed out of place outside the realm of comedy. The film does feature a lot of comedy, including the ongoing arguments between a Cardinals player and an umpire who’s always threatening to fine him and/or throw him out of games, and it was shown by TCM — oddly — as part of a “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to, of all people, Mickey Rooney, who’s in it, all right, as a bat boy in one scene.