Charles Ray stars as a bush league pitcher who makes it big and heads to the city. He leaves behind his girlfriend, Colleen Moore, but it looks like his arch-rival, played by a very young John Gilbert, is ready to step in to replace him. Will our hero realize what is most important before it is too late?
I took on this film as a kind of personal challenge. You see, I am not the biggest fan of sports movies.
I was a kid during the heyday of the family sports movie genre. You know what I mean. The Karate Rookie of the Year Joins the Mighty Little Giant Ducks on a Sandlot of Their Own… and I met it all with a resounding “meh.” Maybe it was residual resentment at being forced to play peewee soccer when I just wanted to read a book. Who knows? The point is that sports movies are not my cup of Powerade.
(For the record, though, I do like Cool Runnings.)
In short, it is going to take a lot for me to be interested in a baseball movie. But The Busher has two aces up its sleeve: Colleen Moore and John Gilbert, both struggling featured players on the eve of stardom.
So, can the underdog genre eke out a victory and charm this jaded reviewer? Let’s see.
First, a tiny dab of background on Charles Ray. If Ray is brought up at all these days, he is usually used as a cautionary example of a star undone by big budgets and hubris. The very abbreviated story: Ray gained fame, popularity and fortune playing rubes who were taken in by city slickers, got too big for their britches or just generally discovered that there was no place like home.
Ray got sick of being typecast and decided to set out on his own. (This was around the time that Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith founded United Artists so the idea was not far-fetched.) The demand for costume pictures ebbed and flowed but Ray felt that an American colonial subject and a huge budget could not go amiss. In 1923, he made a film version of the Longfellow poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and sunk his personal fortune into the picture. No expense was spared, right down to a floating replica of the Mayflower.
You guess it. The thing tanked spectacularly. If this story had been the plot of a Charles Ray movie, he would have gone back to the old hometown and the arms of his best gal. Reality was not so kind. Ray won leading roles (and then supporting parts) in films throughout the silent era but he never recaptured the stardom he had once enjoyed. The parts got steadily smaller and he was reduced to uncredited roles by the 1940’s. Ray died of a tooth infection in 1943, a month shy of the twentieth anniversary of Miles Standish‘s disastrous premiere.
The Busher is from the height of Ray’s fame and popularity. It is our chance to see a forgotten star in his prime.
The story is simple. Ray is Ben, a bush league pitcher with a killer curveball. He loves Mazie (Colleen Moore), the girl next door, but she is also being courted by Jim (played by a 21-year old John Gilbert), the local rich boy. Mazie is quite fond of Ben but she also enjoys, er, parking with Jim.
Ben is accidentally discovered by the big leagues when the Pink Sox (heh heh) make an unscheduled stop in tiny Brownville and decide to play in the bush league for kicks. Ben’s curveball flummoxes even their best batter. The team leaves but soon after a telegram arrives offering Ben a lucrative contract in the city. Ben leaves behind Mazie, joins the Pink Sox and soon has his head turned with the big city ways. In fact, Ben no longer bothers to practice his famous curveball, relying on the infamous spitball instead. (The pitch was banned in 1920.) Will Ben see the light before it is too late or will he lose it all?
The Busher was a very typical Charles Ray vehicle. Bumpkin makes good but becomes a creep in the process. The story is familiar, it has been told hundreds of times. I am sorry to report that The Busher does not tell it very well.
You see, we are shown the results of Ben’s behavior but not the steps leading up to it. Ben arrives in the city, acts like a rube, the scene changes and BOOM! Ben is a snobby jerk with a new girlfriend. Later, Ben is cut from the team, he walks off the field, the scene changes and BOOM! Ben is a hobo who has to come home by freight car. Once he returns to his old bush league pitching job, BOOM! Ben is back to his old, cheery self. Where did all this come from? Why did his skills deteriorate so much in the Pink Sox? How did he become a tramp? How did he become nice again? Sorry, no explanation is forthcoming.
Worse, the movie expects us to root for Ben against his rival, Jim, whose biggest crime in the first act seems to be owning a car. Then, the script portrays Ben’s dating a city girl as an enormous sin. Um, Mazie was not going steady with Ben. She was dating both boys openly. I think Ben was perfectly within his rights to date someone else.
We are given a vague gambling subplot near the end to show that Jim is a Very Bad Man but it is underdeveloped and does not really fit in with the rest of the story.
As for acting, John Gilbert and Colleen Moore are both quite charming, though neither one of them displays the spark that would mark them for stardom. Charles Ray is okay as the leading man but he does seem to have a limited number of expressions. He also has the irritating habit of standing around with his mouth open in reaction to, well, everything.
The movie also has some moments that can only be described as… different. For example, Ben thinks he is wearing Mazie’s stocking as part of his baseball uniform, gets all giggly at the idea and then sulks when discovers they are not really hers. Later, the local girls and their lunch baskets are auctioned off to the highest bidder. The twist is that the girls are concealed behind a screen so their identity can only be guessed. This strange scene goes on far too long.
What works about The Busher? Oddly enough, the scenes I enjoyed the most were the baseball scenes. The film does an excellent job of capturing the small town team passion and the joy that can come from seeing a live sporting event. If the movie had simply been about a bush league pitcher trying to fit in and had featured more ballgame scenes, I might have enjoyed it more. As it stands, the movie is a very choppy affair punctuated by well-done baseball scenes and a charming (if raw) Gilbert and Moore.
The film also leads me to believe that the failure of Miles Standish, while a blow, was not the only reason for the demise of Ray’s career. While Ray had friends among his fellow actors, producers found him difficult and demanding. Also, we must remember that, like D.W. Griffith, Ray specialized in a bucolic and simple countryside that was not exactly in fashion during the roaring mid-twenties. These country films had been a comfort while the war was on but cheeky entertainments were more in keeping with the spirit of the Coolidge years. (That is not to say that there were no Americana/countryside films in the mid to late-twenties but they were definitely less popular than during the war years and their immediate aftermath.) The Busher may have been swell entertainment in 1919 but I can’t see it succeeding in, say, 1926.
John Gilbert and Colleen Moore were both able to adapt to the new world and thrive. She became the quintessential flapper and he was the Great Lover. Richard Barthelmess, who played Tol’able David, the most famous country boy of the silent screen, slipped easily into boy-next-door and straightforward dramatic roles. Charles Ray, on the other hand, never found a persona to replace the bumpkin and this fact is the key to his career’s demise.
The Busher is a mixed bag. The sport scenes work very well and it is nice to see Colleen Moore and John Gilbert before they hit superstardom. On the con side of things, the story is choppy and I do wish Charles Ray would close his mouth once in a while.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
The Busher was released on DVD by Kino-Lorber as part of their Reel Baseball collection.