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Beyond The Box Office: Headin' Home (1920)

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The second in a weekly series designed to look a little closer at the history of baseball and film history. You can read the first entry here.

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Last week we looked at a series of early baseball films produced during cinema's nascent years of 1895-1905 or so. What they lacked in familiarity was hopefully more than made up for through their illustration that cinema, like baseball, cannot exactly be said to have any firm origin story--that the earliest formal innovations with the cinematic apparatus were not intended to be steps on the road to J.J. Abrams' billion-dollar Hollywood spectacle, but were rather just a series of happenings which occurred before, and after, one another.

Nevertheless, by the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, the American continuity editing system had developed enough that film historians looking back eighty years later could cobble together a series of discrete stylistic elements and call them a 'thing.' This continuity editing system, many film scholars argue, is sort of like the basic formal language of narrative cinema underlying most of the films you watch even to this day--things like cutting on action, a character's eyeline match to the next shot, the basic shot-reverse-shot mechanism. In short, the reason you can intelligibly make sense of a whole bunch of rapidly moving images on a big screen which do not present themselves to you in the same way that you actually physiologically perceive the world through your own two eyes, fixed in space, set in time.

Of course, anything that sounds like that perfect of an answer is probably oversimplifying things, and as we pointed out last time, the historian's quest for 'firsts' is more often than not a bit of a fool's errand. In any case, what most film scholars can agree on is that by 1920, Americans were going to the movies. A lot of them. A lot of Americans were going to the movies, and these Americans were paying money to go to the movies and that meant that there was a lot of money going to the movies, which meant there then had to be more movies made to make more money, because when you say the word 'money' you almost always hear the qualifier 'more' in the same sentence. Phew. Take a deep breath. Take a deep breath and look, uh

WOW BABE RUTH HOME RUN GRAND SLAMSS!

Of course, despite having just spoiled the ending of Headin' Home (1920, Lawrence Windom) for you here, we should acknowledge that this is not just movies to which this industrial analysis applies. Last week we also saw how the rise of a middle class of consumers during the nineteenth century gave way to commodities like amusement parks and baseball games--imagine, then, what would happen when said commodification could eventually channel itself into objects: radios, magazines, newsreels before film prints at the cinema, and so on.

Imagine also a country not turned into a field of war-stricken mud, a country which only entered the conflict in its final throes and which then emerged onto the world scene as a new economic power, ready to be dispersed into European markets decimated by mass death. A country which then returns home to the heartland with a simple quest: transform a mass American population divided by any number of racialized, sexualized, and gendered identities into a homogeneous base of consumers, all ready to buy the same product.

It gets messy, to say the least. Much of this kind of work in film spectatorship studies can be found in places such as Miram Hansen's incredible Babel and Babylon, which is only to say that's not exactly the point I'm getting at here (only because the work has already been done, and it's been done better than I can ever hope to do it).

Instead, we should look at this (frankly goofy as all hell) Babe Ruth vehicle from 1920 and think about why the American cinema was a place for Babe Ruth's on-field star to be produced. Why these two distinct entertainment industries could be such familiar bedfellows for creating the same product, a star system, specifically orchestrated by economic interest as a tool to help commodify their products, but also as a field of play which we still see acting out today from Drake sitting courtside at Toronto Raptors games, to Mike Trout selling subway sandwiches, and even to the crying Jordan meme.

The Film

heading home

Headin' Home

71 min. 1920, produced by Kessel & Baumann

Directed by Lawrence C. Windom

Watch on YouTube here.

Available in Kino Lorber's Reel Baseball DVD set here.

Ok, so I'm not saying baseball's star system somehow began with the arrival of this corny film or anything. Old Hoss may be everyone's favorite old-timey Twitter account, but he was a legitimate nineteenth century baseball celebrity before there even was such a thing as a Hall of Fame, which is to say nothing of King Kelly. Christy Mathewson, baseball's eponymous "Christian Gentleman," has long been thought to have added an air of moral credibility to the game after gambling and vice crises. And of course, don't forget that the Black Sox scandal happened a mere year before this film debuted, putting Shoeless Joe Jackson into a public's consciousness which has yet to disappear, despite the expanse of generations in between.

But nevertheless, we are talking about something really interesting and unique here. The general thesis amongst film scholars is that the Star System emerged concomitantly with the development of the continuity editing system. This is not to say it had no precedents--of course Vaudeville had it's own stars, and early silent serials such as The Hazards of Helen were massively popular--but many of these "stars" were characters played by multiple actors, non-narrative attractions in their own right designed to push films themselves as independent products.

But the serial craze, of course, isn't actually much different from what would turn into the Star System as we know it, or even how it functions today. Whether or not "Helen" was played by Helen Holmes or Helen Gibson didn't matter--what mattered was audiences seeing "Helen." Eventually, what mattered was that Greta Garbo was that mysterious actress from Sweden who didn't like to talk. What mattered is that you knew exactly what kind of movie you were going to get with John Wayne, that Christian Bale is probably going to mumble and either lose or gain a bunch of weight, that Bill Murray is going to be a sad old man kicking empty beer bottles around, or something. None of these qualities need have any actual correlation with the person inhabiting each character (and they are, to be sure, characters).

Headin' Home opens with the story of one George Ruth, a poor, dim-witted laborer from the town of Haverlock who always finds ways to get in trouble with his employers while getting distracted by the baseball games he walks past each day. Ruth wants nothing more than to play for the Haverlock team who unfortunately has little interest in our bumbling clod, so instead, he spends his days whittling down homemade bats from nearby trees which will hopefully one day give him the power to hit a mammoth home run...say, right at the end of a tied game or something like that.

ruthtree

Eventually through a series of lucky events, George finally makes it onto the team, but not before losing his collection of homemade bats which he will need to save the day by the story's end. Of course, you know what happens because I spoiled it for you up there with that video in my introductory paragraph, but you get the general idea.

If it sounds familiar, you shouldn't be surprised. The film opened in Madison Square Garden on October 20th, 1920 and, according to Hal Erickson, was immediately lambasted by the New York Times for its poor acting, noting that "no one should expect quality from movies featuring such ephemeral celebrities as sports figures or persons made famous by spectacular divorce cases" (231).

ruth2

(Here is Ruth kindly breaking up an argument between two Haverlock citizens, just one of the many good deeds our humble protagonist would call his own by the film's end.)

What is left out from that review is the fact that films didn't open in venues like Madison Square Garden--no, people were coming explicitly to see Babe Ruth and they were coming in droves. Variety noted at the time that attendees could expect to not simply watch a five-reel comedy in a gigantic boxing arena, but they could also purchase everything "from Babe Ruth phonographic records to the Babe Ruth song, 'Oh You Babe Ruth,' which was sung and played by Lieut. J. Tim Bryan's Black Devil Band, which accompanied the picture." Field of Dreams, this was not.

In short, nobody gave a crap if the movie was an aesthetic masterpiece. They wanted to see Babe Ruth, and the Babe Ruth they got was much different from the Babe Ruth we know. Here he did not grow up in Baltimore, go to St. Mary's reform school, sign a Minor League deal with the Orioles, pitch for the Red Sox, get sold to the Yankees, drink beer and eat unhealthy food and on and on and on. No instead we get an oafish man-child under the care of a loving mother, clean-living and supremely talented beyond even his own comprehension, stumbling into destiny with his hand-made bat that predates Hitchcock's understanding of a Maguffin by nineteen years.

ruth3

Now putting all this into discourse of accuracy is just silly, of course. For the above image to work in 1920, you only need a few easy signifiers: one of which audiences had just spent the previous 37 minutes watching unfold, but the other which they already knew about in contemporary newspapers, baseball chatter, and even down the block at Yankee Stadium, which had hosted the real Babe Ruth for less than a single season. That is, just the idea of Babe Ruth, divorced from the human actor playing his part both in this particular film and also from the athlete hitting dingers in real life, each preceded in the stands by a did you hear about...or a he once pointed in the exact spot he hit the ball.

No, what matters is not that the film flubs his origin story to tell a heartwarming tale or something, but rather that this humble cinematic origin story actually is Babe Ruth's story--Babe Ruth the star, anyway. It's how New Yorkers were introduced to him in 1920, midway through a season which saw him suddenly emerge in pinstripes while hitting 54 home runs only two years removed from being a pitcher. Whether Baltimore and beer or Haverlock and felled trees--the key to the Babe Ruth mystique is that he emerged from seemingly out of the vast new American Century, as big a celebrity as any of our silent serial stars and then, later, an even bigger one.

Of course, acknowledging Ruth's historical celebrity is no radical act here in 2015. But I do think it is important that Ruth emerges right around the same time that cinema stardom began to develop with the Mary Pickfords, Rudolph Valentinos, and Douglas Fairbanks of the early silent era--stars who functioned as media texts designed to unify a heterogeneous American consumer public into fixed, yet highly unstable, identities.

Rudolph Valentino, for example, was an Italian born actor coded as simultaneously feminine and masculine, ethnic and white enough to appeal to a broad base of cinema spectators around the peak of the silent film era. Ruth, with his mysterious origins out of an immigrants' neighborhood, here could also emerge from the American woods chopping trees down as a visceral sign of his most infamous skill set. He came from nowhere, he came from everywhere: in short, a perfect vehicle for broad commercial appeal, whether any of it actually worked on diverse audiences looking for their own forms of representation in the popular imaginary or not.

-----

That the myth is bigger than Ruth himself should be obvious, but one thing I keep coming back to in this film is precisely this bit with the homemade bats. When Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural in 1952, he supposedly based his protagonist on Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, whose comeback from a gunshot wound is embodied in, you guessed it, a homemade bat. The very same device in the movie with Robert Redford. Heck, even The Simpsons parodied it in one of the best episodes ever, Homer at the Bat.

naturalsimps

But as we now see, Babe Ruth's mythologized screen character was already pulling this narrative off in 1920, and you then have to ask yourself where it got legs before that.

title card

Perhaps we here are left simply with what we started with, only this time inverted once more: that baseball, like cinema, cannot be known to have had any comprehensible origin story. That myth, reaching out to us back from the shores of that first, murky swamp, can only ever give us the echo of an echo, perhaps of an echo. I know that's probably not the answer we were all looking for, here, but at the very least it should help illuminate the ways in which popular myth does not simply emerge into culture from out of the air, but rather within a discrete matrix of already functioning popular media.

Of course, Josh Gibson wouldn't get his own film until 1996, and by then it had been nearly 50 years since his early death at age 35. But that "The White Josh Gibson" grew into this just absolutely insane national stardom a good ten years before Gibson would even take the field should help illustrate the gaps left behind within the historical attempt to produce bigger-than-life celebrity signifiers for spectators to identify with.

And also, that it's never simply the diamond where this work takes place.