Charles Ray is a country boy from rural Vermont who gets to attend college thanks to his late mother’s final request. Teased for his unpolished ways, he joins the baseball team as their mascot. But when all the batters are injured at the big game, will our country boy prove himself?
Hey batter, batter, batter, batter!
There’s stiff competition, alas, but Charles Ray has a pretty good claim to the title of Huge Film Star You’ve Never Heard Of. Enormously popular during his heyday, he infamously sank his personal fortune into an expensive flop and his career never fully recovered. In 1917, though, Ray was at the top of the movie world, one of the stars (along with William S. Hart) who followed producer Thomas Ince from Triangle to Inceville (distributed by Paramount). The Pinch Hitter was made under Ince’s supervision before he parted ways with Triangle.
Like Ray’s 1919 film The Busher, The Pinch Hitter is all about a young fellow making a name for himself in baseball. Unlike The Busher, there are no young John Gilbert and young Colleen Moore in supporting roles; this film must be carried by Ray alone.
Joel Parker (Charles Ray) has been told since childhood that he is useless and will never amount to anything. If you hear something enough, you start to believe it and so Joel has zero self-confidence. His horrible father, Obediah Parker (J.J. Dowling), would be content to keep his only child on the farm and under his emotionally abusive thumb forever but his late wife made him promise he would send the boy to college. Pa Parker informs Joel that he’ll probably fail anyway and he’ll have money for tuition and board and THAT IS IT.
Once on campus, Joel is immediately targeted by the school bullies and the one bright spot is Abbie Nettleton (Sylvia Breamer), the waitress at one of the college restaurants. She like Joel but knows that he has the look of a loser and desperately needs an injection of confidence if he is going to survive college.
Despite the title, this does not really become a sports movie until midway through the picture when Joel is allowed to join the college team as their mascot. (He was too nervous at his tryouts and though he really is a good player, he doesn’t show well.) But it’s no spoiler to say that most of us know exactly how this picture will end. (Classic sports pictures can end only one of two ways: victory for the underdog or a victorious defeat that includes a slow clap from those mean people who doubted them.)
The biggest question in this film is Charles Ray. How is he? For the most part, pretty good. He does oversell his mourning for his mother (“Stop snogging the photograph, Charles.”) but generally does an excellent job of portraying the terrible toll of emotional abuse. A tall man, Ray curls into himself and can barely lift his shoulders, especially when something happens that seems to confirm his father’s cruel words.
The film does let his father off the hook, in my opinion, because the man shouldn’t have been allowed to raise a tank of Sea Monkeys, let alone a live human boy. But then again, this is a light entertainment from 1917 and was never intended as a study of the psychological effects of emotional abuse.
Sylvia Breamer does okay as Abbie but she does emote a bit. Also, I understand that Joel has basically been emotionally beaten to a jelly but I really would have liked a scene in which he stands up for Abbie against all obstacles. (Without giving too much away, he does profess his love but nobody really tries to stop him when he does it.)
The rest of the cast is okay and the film proves that rich and snotty college kids have always been the perfect movie villains and they will likely continue to be. Okay, okay, so the actors playing these “kids” look thirty-five or thereabouts. That’s a proud movie tradition too.
The plot is pretty predictable—if you’ve seen one sports movie you’ve seen them all—but I should also note that the version I saw only ran for about 47 minutes (the original was five reels, which likely ran for about an hour) and there are clearly some missing sequences. Whether or not these lost scenes would have made the picture smoother, I have no way of knowing. I was still able to follow the plot well enough but there were some clear gaps.
Director Victor Schertzinger does a decent job with the material and even includes a few flourishes like using an opening farmyard gate to signal the opening of the film and employing animation to illustrate the scores of the climactic ball game. He went on to direct pictures like The Fleet’s In, The Mikado and a couple of the Cosby/Hope Road films but he’s probably best remembered today for writing the jazz standard Tangerine.
But now let’s discuss the overall tone of the picture. It’s easy to see why Charles Ray would be so appealing to 1910s audiences. The world was going to hell in a handbasket and then after the war, everyone was licking their wounds and trying to pick up the pieces. Ray’s bucolic films pushed all the right Americana buttons and the ease with which his onscreen problems were solved was a feature, not a bug. In short, audiences wanted low stakes and a likable kid to spend the evening with.
I should note, though, that while Ray did specialize in rural pictures with titles like The Clodhopper, String Beans and The Egg Crate Wallop, he branched into other genres as well. His resume includes propaganda (In the Claws of the Hun), historical drama (The Deserter, The Coward) and assorted millionaires-in-disguise pictures (and they always fall for the shop girl).
Still, Ray is remembered for two things: his rural pictures and his self-financed flop, The Courtship of Miles Standish. The latter is missing and presumed lost but we have several excellent examples of the former. I would say that The Pinch Hitter is successful for what it is. The film sets out to be an unpretentious, feel-good picture with the college and the sports and the romance that you people seem to love. That’s exactly what it delivers. There’s something to be said for that.
Where can I see it?
The Pinch Hitter was released on DVD by Grapevine as a double feature with The Busher. (But if you want to see The Busher, the version included in Kino’s Reel Baseball collection is far superior.)
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