Video Review: "Reel Baseball"

Now this is cool.

"Reel Baseball" would be cool enough standing on its own merits -- it's a compilation of baseball-themed films, some short (as short as a minute), some long (two features, one 55 minutes, one 73 minutes), from the silent film era, dating from 1899-1926.

Cool, right?

What's even cooler is that this two-DVD set was produced by BCB reader Jessica Rosner for the company she works for, KINO International in New York, and so if you buy this -- and I highly recommend it -- not only will you be acquiring a fascinating look into the silent film era, but you'll be helping out a friend of mine who is a regular contibutor to this site.

It's been reviewed in the New Yorker, and Jessica informs me that it's going to be reviewed in this week's edition of Sports Illustrated, so I figured I'd beat them to the punch and post this review a day before that magazine arrives in most subscribers' mailboxes.

There are two features on this DVD and 11 shorts; I'll get to the features in a moment. The shorts range in length from a single minute (an 1899 short titled "Casey at the Bat, or The Fate of a 'Rotten' Umpire", to a 14 minute film that was partly shot at the then-brand-new Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, featuring a man I'd never heard of before, but who was apparently considered the very first comic film star of the silent era, John Bunny, titled "Hearts and Diamonds".

There's a feature including some rare footage of longtime New York Giants manager John McGraw; a Felix the Cat cartoon with a baseball theme -- and the animation is surprisingly good for its time (1922), and whimsical at that; a somewhat-stereotyped but fascinating look at how native Americans were perceived in 1909 titled "The Last Game", and what was to me the absolutely best thing about this DVD, a six-minute short that was one of the earliest experiments in sound film, an amazingly melodramatic reading of "Casey at the Bat" by DeWolf Hopper, who was a big star in his time but might also be better known to modern audiences as the husband of newspaper gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and the father of TV star William Hopper, who played Paul Drake on the Perry Mason TV series. The DVD's worth it just for this.

The two features are "Headin' Home", sort of the "Space Jam" of its era, featuring the top sports star of its time (1920), Babe Ruth, and trying to make him out as if he were an old-fashioned country boy made good, rather than the son of a barkeeper that he really was. The 25-year-old Ruth looks almost too skinny to be a professional athlete in this film. Finally, there's a 55-minute feature titled "The Busher" (1919), featuring three of the top silent film era comedy stars, Charles Ray, Colleen Moore, and John Gilbert. It's another small-town-boy-makes-good-then-fails-but-gets-another-chance story that was so typical of that era. And yes, he gets the girl, too, of course.

In that sense, this DVD is not only a fascinating look at baseball and the film industry in the first two decades of the 20th Century, but also a peek into American culture and society in that era. If you're into silent films I'd think this would be an essential addition to your collection. If you don't know much about them -- and I didn't -- I think this set is a fine introduction to these classic films. All of the films are set to brand-new music composed and performed by silent film music specialists David Drazin, David Knudtson, and Ben Model.

The DVD's official release date is April 3, next Tuesday, but you can pre-order it now via kino.com's website. And know that one of BCB's own created and produced this entire project.

AYRating:

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