“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.
In one of those cosmic ironies that occur so often in show business, if it wasn’t for his supporting role in Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like It Hot, comedian Joe E. Brown would be almost entirely forgotten nowadays by the general public. The irony lies in the fact that Brown was one of the three Hollywood comedians who were the most popular with movie audiences during the Depression. (The other two were Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor.)
A natural-born clown with the face of a leprechaun, Brown’s abilities as an acrobat and physical comedian were second only to those of Buster Keaton. Another thing that Brown and Keaton had in common was a passion for baseball. Unlike Keaton, however, Brown actually played professional baseball and even turned down an opportunity to sign up with the New York Yankees to pursue a career in show business. Not surprisingly, Brown made an unofficial trilogy of comedies about the National Pastime when he was Warner Bros.’ top comedian in the early 1930s: Fireman, Save My Child (1932), Elmer the Great (1933), and Alibi Ike (1935). The last of these, Alibi Ike, is not only the funniest of the trio, but is arguably the best damn baseball movie ever made as well.
Like Elmer the Great, Alibi Ike was based on a short story by the dean of baseball scribes, Ring Lardner. In fact, as directed by Ray Enright and scripted by William Wister Haines, Alibi Ike is a very faithful adaptation of Lardner’s story with much of the dialogue taken verbatim from its source. The main deviation from the original, which was a brief “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” tale, is a subplot involving game-fixing gangsters added to pad the story to feature length. (For Alibi Ike, the feature length in question was a brief 72 minutes. Those were the days.) Another deviation was changing the title character from a batting sensation to an ace pitcher. (Pitching offering more opportunities for visual humor, particularly Brown’s elaborate, exaggerated, corkscrew-pitch.)
Alibi Ike boasted some authenticity rarely seen in sports movies. The game sequences were shot at Wrigley Field; no, not the one in Chicago, but at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, the ballpark that hosted minor league teams for about three decades and which served as a backdrop to numerous films (such as Damn Yankees) and television episodes. In addition, the majority of the non-speaking baseball player roles in the film were played not by extras, but rather by professional ball players of the period, including Herman Bell, Ray French, Wally Hebert, Wes Kingdon, Jim Levy, Frank Shellenback, Guy Cantrell, Dick Cox, Cedric Durst, Mike Gazella, Wally Hood, Don Hurst, Smead Jolley, Lou Koupal, Bob Meusel, Wally Rehg, Ed Wells, and Jim Thorpe. (Which explains why they moved around the field like professional ballplayers and not extras pretending to be professional ballplayers.) Another notable member of the cast was an actress making her film debut, Olivia de Havilland, who played Brown’s love interest. (Many up-and-coming young actresses appeared with Brown in his movies for Warners, including Ginger Rogers, Joan Bennett, Thelma Todd, Dorothy Lee, and Alice White.)
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“Alibi Ike” is the nickname bestowed on the main character for the reason explained in the first paragraph of Lardner’s story: “His right name was Frank X. Farrell, and I guess the X stood for ‘Excuse me.’ Because he never pulled a play, good or bad, on or off the field, without apologizin’ for it.” In the film, Farrell is a bushleague player traded to the Chicago Cubs. In the opening scene, Johnson (Joseph King), the team’s owner, discusses the chances for the season with crusty, middle-aged manager Cap (William Frawley).
Johnson: “I know you had nothing to work with last year but—“
Cap: “Nothing? I had the finest-trained butch of rookies you ever saw with one ball player among ‘em, Pennick. All he did was keep us from fallin’ out of the league. But Pennick, it now appears, has been sold!”
Johnson: “Oh, snap out of it, Cap. We’ve still got the rest of the club.”
Cap: “Yeah, cut off Max Baer’s right arm and you’ve still got the rest of a heavyweight champion, too.”
Johnson: “It’s not as bad as all that. Pennick was good, yes, but it’s not every year you can get a hundred thousand dollars for one man.”
Cap: “Who’s gonna pitch for us, them hundred thousand dollars?”
Johnson: “You’re sure to find something good among those new players. That boy Farrell alone struck out twenty men in one game last year.”
Cap: “Yeah, in Sauk Centre, wasn’t it? Did they claim Babe Ruth was playin’ against him in Sauk Centre? I bet I’ll have to ring a cow bell to get him in off the field.”
Johnson: “Well, at that, you can buy a lotta cow bells for a hundred grand.”
While being interviewed by a sports reporter (Jack Norton playing sober for a change), Cap receives a telegram from Farrell: “Reporting tomorrow. Sorry I was late but my calendar was wrong.” “His ‘calendar was wrong!’” fumes Cap, “Now there’s an alibi for ya!” As it turns out, Farrell does show up on that day, making a spectacular entrance while he’s at it: crashing through the fence and plowing around the field in an out-of-control jalopy, sending the players scrambling to get out of his way.
Cap forgets his anger when Farrell turns out to be the pitching phenom his rep promised. He’s even willing to excuse Farrell’s endless alibis for all occasions. His teammates, on the other hand, aren’t about to ignore Farrell’s habitual mendacity, especially a pair of jokers, Jack Mack (Eddie Shubert) and catcher Bob Carey (Roscoe Karns), who go out of their way to try catching him in a fib. Farrell’s alibis even extend to totally innocuous situations, like when, after a night of playing pool, Farrell tells the boys that he’s calling it a night and going to bed. “Don’t feel a bit sleepy” he says, “but got gravel in my shoes and my feet hurt like the dickens.” (“I should think they’d take them gravel pits outta this pool room,” cracks Carey.)
Eventually, Farrell’s alibi habit gets him in hot water when he meets Dolly Stevens (de Havilland), the sister of Cap’s wife Bess (Ruth Donnelly). Farrell and Dolly are immediately smitten with each other and he soon asks her to marry him. When Bess tells Carey about the engagement, he and Jack can’t resist the temptation to razz Farrell about it, not knowing that Dolly is within earshot on the other side of the hotel lounge door, a scene that’s taken directly from Lardner’s story.
Carey: “Now wait a minute, Ike, I got a bet here with Mack and it’s up to you to settle it.”
Farrell: “Well, make it snappy.”
Carey: “Well, I bet that you and Dolly were engaged to be married.”
Farrell: (sheepishly) “Well… well, no, we’re not exactly engaged—”
Carey: “Now, listen, no alibis! This costs me real dough if I lose, so give it to us straight. Cap’s wife said you were engaged, right?”
Farrell: “Well, I… I don’t want it to cost you any money, Bob. You win.”
Carey: “What did I tell ya? Congratulations, Ike!”
Mack: “Ike, you gotta swell gal!”
Carey: “She’s a peach! You’re a lucky guy, Ike!”
Farrell: “Yeah, she’s all right, I guess, but I never cared much for girls.”
Mack: “That is, not until you met this one?”
Farrell: “Well… she’s okay, I guess, but I didn’t want to get married yet a while.”
Carey: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, let’s get this straight. Who done the asking? Her?”
Farrell: “No, not exactly her, but… but… but sometimes a fella don’t know just exactly what he’s gettin’ into. You… you take a good-lookin’ girl and a fella does just about what she wants him to. When a fella gets to feelin’ sorry for a girl, it’s all off.”
It isn’t until Farrell steps out of the lounge and sees Dolly glaring daggers at him that he realizes he’s been caught in the act. He tries to explain his remarks away as just joking around, but she won’t have any of it. Dolly angrily gives Farrell his ring back and leaves town, swearing never to see him again.
The timing couldn’t be worse; Farrell’s already in hot water, having gotten inadvertently involved with a gang of crooked gamblers. The day before he proposed to Dolly, Farrell was approached by a shady character named Lefty Crawford (Paul Harvey), who claimed to be the president of The Young Man’s High Ideals Club. Crawford asked Farrell to speak to the boys about clean living and he agreed to go with him. (Yeah, Farrell’s that naïve.) He didn’t even suspect anything when the “boys” turned out to be bunch of obviously adult hoods gathered in a seedy, smoke-filled hotel room.
Crawford: (with mock disapproval) “Now, boys, what did I tell you about that smoking? You know it’s not allowed. Put out those cigarettes and don’t let it happen again.”
Farrell: “Your president is right, boys. Where would I have been today if I had smoked?”
Thug: (deadpan) “All right, I’ll bite. Where?”
It wasn’t until Crawford made it clear that they wanted Farrell to lose a couple of games for them that light began to dawn. Farrell, of course, refused, but when Crawford literally twisted his arm, he was forced to pretend to go along with them in order to get out of there in one piece.
Farrell’s depression over the break-up with Dolly causes him to lose the next game, the first game he was supposed to “throw” for Crawford and his goons. Seeing as Farrell has never lost a game before, Johnson and Cap smell a rat and go to question him in his room. Their suspicions are seemingly confirmed when a known hoodlum, Kelly (Cliff Saum), delivers an envelope full of cash to Farrell while they’re there. Now, in addition to losing his girl, Farrell is believed to be on the take.
Per sports movie tradition, there’s always a big game that the good guys absolutely have to win in order to provide the story with a happy ending and a plot complication that threatens that happy ending. In this case, the big game is a night game that will determine if the Cubs make it to the pennant and the complication is Farrell being kidnapped by the gamblers. (Farrell offered to clear himself by setting up the gang for the cops, but the hoods got wise to his double-cross.) Farrell escapes from his kidnappers, leading to a wild chase in a stolen ambulance as he’s pursued by gang members, shooting at him from their car. At one point, Farrell accidentally drives the ambulance onto a car carrier truck and, when he realizes his mistake, he simply steals the truck, too, and resumes speeding toward the ballpark.
Coming full circle, Farrell arrives during the ninth inning by crashing the truck through the fence. Hastily outfitted in an oversized uniform, Farrell succeeds in striking out the opposing team, keeping the game tied as they go into the bottom of the ninth. Now it’s up to the Cubs to break that tie. Normally, in sports comedies, the way the heroes win the big game involves bending the rules a little (or breaking them outright). Not in Alibi Ike, though. Keeping with the film’s authenticity, Farrell manages to make the game-winning run in a legitimate (if unlikely) manner by using his acrobatic skills to avoid being tagged out at home. It hardly counts as a spoiler to mention that Dolly forgives Farrell and, in the final scene, they get married, giving the movie its promised Hollywood ending.
An underrated specialist in action films and comedies, Enright’s direction keeps Alibi Ike moving at a breathless clip and successfully guides Brown through one of his most amusing performances. Nineteen-year-old de Havilland makes a most charming and fetching young romantic lead for Brown. (Later that year, she would be teamed for the first time with her most notable cinematic partner, Errol Flynn, in Captain Blood.) And invaluable support is provided by Warners stock company members Donnelly, Karns, and, especially, Frawley, hilarious as always embodying his standard lovable old grouch persona. (Was Frawley ever young?)
Alibi Ike is currently available on DVD from Warner Archives. Like most Warner Archive releases, the DVD is short on extras (just the original theatrical trailer), but the film’s print is absolutely pristine and flawless. So far, Warner Archives has issued only four of the twenty comedies that Brown starred in for Warners, but, hopefully, there will be more forthcoming in the near future.
 Supposedly, when Keaton had his own production company in the 1920s, his employment application consisted of two questions: “Can you act?” and “Can you play baseball?” 50% was a passing score.
 De Havilland had already completed two movies before filming on Alibi Ike began, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Irish in Us, but they were both released after Alibi Ike. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream required extensive post-production work.)