Olive Films' Blu-Ray release of Republic Pictures' 1949 feature The Kid from Cleveland is a fascinating time capsule for fans of baseball history that includes vintage game footage of the Cleveland Indians, as well as numerous glimpses of the team's personnel 'acting' in this socially relevant drama about juvenile delinquency.
If you're not a sports fan, well, fear not, it's not exactly a baseball movie. A title screen at the beginning says, 'This movie is about a city, a kid, and a baseball team,' but the order is a bit jumbled. The focus is on teenager Johnny Barrows (Russ Tamblyn) and his struggles to stay out of trouble. After his father was killed in World War II and his mother remarried a stepfather he resents, Johnny looks up to and falls under the influence of juvenile delinquent Dan Hudson. Fortunately for the titular Kid, kindly Indians broadcaster Mike Jackson (George Brent), takes Johnny under his wing and tries to set him straight with a little help from 'his 30 Godfathers,' as the credits describe the baseball team.
The Kid from Cleveland takes us back to a simpler time, when youth crime seemed manageable with good intentions and positive influences. The movie portrays baseball in a warm, sunny light. Our introduction to young Johnny shows him sneaking into Municipal Stadium and frolicking on the field, pretending he's a big leaguer with a huge, joyous grin. Later, when he runs away from a problematic situation, Johnny spots a group of chattering boys setting up a pickup game, and as soon as he is accepted, all his troubles seem to vanish. In this setting, all youths love baseball because, well, that's just what kids' love.
Then there is the depiction of the players as wholesome, jovial fellas who enjoy amiable ribbing with each other and have no qualms about a kid hanging around in the clubhouse. One of the more charming sequences in the movie has the Indians, clad in street clothes, playing ball with a bunch of young boys, then breaking off into smaller groups and giving them tips.
There is a darker side to this era, of course. After a dispute with his insecure and irritable step-dad, Johnny storms into his room and digs into his father's trunk for a gun, which he raises and points at the closed door before Dan shows up at the window. Dan is practically a hardened criminal himself, and he gives a drunken man a brutal beating during a mugging. The specter of the war hovers over the story as Johnny and his mother grapple with Mr. Barrows' absence. And one entertaining scene dramatizes, in flashback, the first appearance of Larry Doby, Indians outfielder and the first black player in the American League, hinting at the hardships suffered by those who integrated the sport.
Overall, though, this is an optimistic film, even as it takes a sobering look at troubled youth. In its exploration of child psychology and sociology, The Kid is very much of its time. Herbert Kline and John Bright's screenplay wears its heart on its sleeve, with well-meaning grownups doing their best to turn around young lives. Kline also directs, and while it's hard detecting a strong visual signature, it's possible his background as a wartime documentary filmmaker influences some of the themes of the story and the integration of genuine baseball footage into the picture.
The psychoanalysis seems a little pat, and the explanation for Johnny's problems at home (and subsequent breakthrough) feel too simple, but it's typical of many studio films of the time. It's amusing when experts discuss the boy's violent tendencies after giving him some pictorial tests. I'm no doctor, but I'm not so sure it's a red flag when a teenager says a picture illustrates a bridge blowing up...especially when you show him an actual drawing of a bridge blowing up.
In one of his earliest film roles, Tamblyn captures both the petulance of a disaffected youth and the giddy enthusiasm of a baseball-crazy boy. He often avoids eye contact, out of shame as much as anything, and wears a resigned, downbeat expression when he's not watching or talking baseball. Brent, considerably puffier than in his days of co-starring with Bette Davis, is solid as caring announcer Mike Jackson, narrator of the story.
We learn Mike is himself an orphan who overcame a rough upbringing, and though he has two young girls of his own, he relishes the opportunity to give Johnny a better life. While Brent doesn't have to do a whole lot here, he's suitably earnest, as is Lynn Bari as wife Katherine. One of the standouts in the cast is character actor Louis Jean Heydt, superbly cast as edgy Carl Novak, who immediately feels threatened by Jackson and his 'big shot friends' on the team.
The most fun comes from watching the Cleveland Indians participate in the narrative. Perhaps the individual who comes off best is the team's player-manager, shortstop Lou Boudreau, who gets significant dialogue, belts a key home run in a pivotal scene, and thinks nothing of sacrificing his slumping team's practice time so that everyone can make an early visit to the juvenile detention facility where Johnny is staying. It's not hard to understand why when young Barrows grows up, he wants to be an architect like his late father or a shortstop like Boudreau.
After reading many colorful stories about legendary team executive and impresario Bill Veeck, it's somewhat surprising to see how stiff and awkward he is. It's nice seeing legendary Tris Speaker, then retired and in a coaching/advisory position, as well as Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Stachel Paige (whose name is misspelled in the credits even though he gets to demonstrate his windup in a showcase scene).
Unlike many other movies that feature baseball, The Kid doesn't build to a climactic game. In fact, the Indians' 1948 World Series win is spotlighted early on, and then the 1949 season is just a backdrop for Johnny's story. If you don't know Jim Hegan from Mickey Vernon, then, you needn't worry about being overwhelmed by sports content. However, an appreciation for the locations, the individuals, and the overall setting makes the movie a lot more appealing.
Olive Films presents a fine-looking transfer of this 65-year-old release. The actual game footage, including some 1948 World Series film, does look like old film, but that only makes you appreciate how good everything else looks. Whether you consider this a baseball picture or a 'social problem' picture, this is a quality release of a solid story that, for good and bad, is decidedly of its era.
Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.