Wednesday, 31 August 2016

No beating around… The Busher (1919)

“The story has been done and done, and even half-way well-done, it never fails, but this time it has been so well done that it starts life all over again, as something new, vigorous and real.” New York Times, May 1919

Baseball, as obscurely-fascinating as cricket: thousands of people in a frenzy of support whilst arcane running, hitting and catching takes place on the grass. Films about sport; close-ups and game-changing moments… cricket’s a slow-burn and not very cinematic but baseball… a home run can change everything: a flash of the bat, the ball in the sky and the hero running safely home as his opponents throw wildly to base.

OK, no spoilers… but this is a film about a baseball. It features impossibly-young people who resemble Colleen Moore and Johnny-Jack Gilbert but its star is Charles Ray a boyish 27-year old who, since his debut in 1913, had often played country boys made good…

And, lo, it did come to pass that here he plays a fresh-faced young man who can swing and throw like no other in the little town of Brownsville...

Charles Ray
As The Times went on: Seldom, if ever, has Ray had a part more suited to him. Ben Harding, hired-man, pitcher, lovable and laughable human being, lives on the screen in him.”

A "Busher" is someone from the minor baseball “Bush Leagues” someone who may have the potential to make the majors but not necessarily the character… it’s one thing to have the skill, Raheem Sterling (insert other disappointment here…), but another to deliver when it matters… The Busher may or may not have provided emphatic new momentum to this tale but it’s hard to tell given the odd jump and skip suggestive of missing frames if not reels.

That said, we can fill in those gaps and the narrative arc holds in place for a story of rise and fall and the girl won then lost then…

Whether deliberately of through force of vanishing celluloid, there are moments that are underplayed… and that means that the film now presents as “subtle” and strangely “modern” in not ramming its key moments home.

Jim tries to impress Mazie with his car and all...
Ray himself is a decent performer – anyone who has seen The Coward (1915) will know how well he can act – and here he is as convincing as the contemporary press describes: his Ben Harding a mix of insecurity and sporting brilliance that needs to find a balance. In love with local girl Mazie (Colleen) but out-gunned by the confidence and wealth of her other suitor Jim Blair (Jack – later John – Gilbert).

Ray just falls back in jealous resignation whenever he sees them and even when he gets a chance to bid on a date with Mazie at a bizarre ritual at the local theatre in which men get to bid on the silhouette of their favourite girl… he guesses wrong and ends up out of pocket and out of luck.

But things are about to change… Earlier that day the players and coaching staff of the major league Pink Sox (no relation to the team that plays at Fenway Park…) – are marooned in Brownsville and decide on a knock-up to pass the time. Ray gets involved and they can’t fail to be impressed as he throws un-playable curveballs past what he thinks are just amateur players. The guys look around with eyebrows raised but they ain’t telling, at least not yet.

Yet, in the midst of his humiliation at the theatre, a telegraph arrives that far from bringing bad news – the usual expectation, especially this close to the Great War – contains an offer to train with the Pink Sox! The town celebrates with their hero: recognition at last.

Off to the big city, and his big opportunity… but surely it’s too early? Yes, it is… Ray goes from that insecure ingénue to a cocky first-teamer who all-too-quickly forgets the folks back home as the potential WAGS of the time gather. By the time he returns home to show what his new team can do, he has taken his eye off the ball and gets hooked after trying an illegal spit ball… the equivalent of seam-tampering in cricket and the lowest of the low…

He is shamed and what’s more seems to have lost the trust of his town and even loyal Maize… can there be any way back: will we see redemption?

Ben watches the ball...
The Busher is a fun film in spite of those missing pieces. Charles Ray gives a super performance of realistic expression and is more than ably supported by those around him. Colleen Moore radiates as usual, her style already in place at just 19 years old whilst Gilbert, also 19, looks skinny and not yet the romantic superpower he would become.

Jerome Storm directs with efficiency and the cinematography of Chester A. Lyons capture the detailed and large-scale action equally well.

Your home media options
I watched the Grapevine version which is not great quality but which retains some of the original title cards and some well-chosen stock backing music. The film is also available on the Kino’s Reel Baseball DVD in much better quality: if you need more silent baseball – that’s the one to go for!
This is a lovely still but it's Colleen and Ben Lyon in Painted People from 1924

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