The Felines That Bloom in the Spring

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Baseball season is starting soon:  That game of Summer that begins in Spring and ends in Autumn; though, what with delays, lock-outs, and periodic season expansions, the World Series will soon be played near the Twelve Days of Christmas (how about three strikes a’striking for a lyric?).

But, as a way to celebrate Opening Day, I ask—what are the great baseball movies out there?  MoneyballA League of Their OwnMajor League?  How about the nostalgia classic, The Natural?  Or that sentimental favorite, Field of Dreams (If you build it, he will come…)?  Or one of my own faves, the loose, goofy, soulful Bull Durham?  Or that sordid bit of baseball history, Eight Men Out?  Or maybe that great, sad biopic, Pride of the Yankees?  (Babe Ruth is in that one—I mean—the real Babe Ruth…)

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Now I will name a great baseball film for you – Rhubarb.

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Huh?, you’re all saying.  Rhu-what?  What kindofa movie is that?  Named after a…vegetable?

To enlighten you—Rhubarb’s that 1951 flick about a cat that inherits a baseball team.

I’m not making that up.

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I will go even further

Rhubarb is the Greatest baseball movie ever made

I’m not making that up, either.

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Because Rhubarb‘s a movie about baseball…and cats.

What better owner for a baseball team than a cat?  Loyal, calm, steady, brave, intelligent—it’s all what a baseball team needs—and all the qualities of a cat.  As well as having heart.  You gotta have heart, goes the (baseball) song.  And that you sure get from a cat (you just gotta look for it…).

This also makes Rhubarb the Greatest cat movie ever made.  That’s two-for-one you’re getting there.  Wotta deal.

Rhubarb’s plot is simple:  A cat inherits a baseball team from its rich, grumpy owner, because the owner liked how his spunky pet can swing a paw (hence Rhubarb’s name, a slang equivalent to ‘donnybrook’).  The owner also hoped Rhubarb’s pluck would inspire his downtrodden team, and, now with Rhubarb at the helm, the team (never named, but which resides in Brooklyn) starts to win…until it finally gets to the World Series, where it faces its fiercest competitor (also not named, but which resides in Manhattan—ain’t nothing like a subway series).

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Disruptions erupt, of course.  Beginning with the players’ reluctance to be owned by a cat (rival teams meow at them); along with trouble from the late owner’s mean, greedy, cat-hating (everybody hiss) daughter, who first tries to bump off Rhubarb (hiss again), and then institutes a lawsuit claiming the cat’s a fake (let’s have one more hiss!); plus amorous complications concerning Rhubarb’s press agent/guardian (Ray Milland) whose fiancée may be allergic to cats and can’t approach her intended without sneezing (a real romance-killer); and then there are those nasty, catnapping gamblers who snatch Rhubarb right before the big game, so Rhubarb won’t be there to cheer his team on and bring them luck (oka-aa-y…everybody take in a deep breath and—make with the Bronx cheer!)…

Throughout all these trials, however, Rhubarb, with true cat-like fortitude, sees it through—right down to a climactic chase across the Brooklyn Bridge, with cops, cars, and crazies in pursuit.  Will Rhubarb make it to the game?  Will the team pull through?  Will the luck hold?

Does baseball have nine innings?  Does a cat have nine lives?

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Sure, Rhubarb’s old-fashioned, corny, and pretty antique-looking to our sophisticated, widescreen, CGI-trained, cynical eyes.  But it’s funny and sweet and lots of fun—like a kiddie matinee for grownups.  Even the kids might like it

Besides, how can you NOT root for the cat—as well as for his team?

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But why is Rhubarb is the greatest baseball (and cat) flick?  I will tell you.  It’s because cats and baseball are a natural fit.  Baseball, as mentioned, is the Summer game—played outdoors, in sunshine and heat, with the fans cheering and relaxed, chowing down hotdogs, gulping down beer, and enjoying a hot, lazy afternoon…one that just goes on and on…

And cats…cats like heat (who grabs the radiator first once the temperature drops?), they like summer (note that furry fellow sleeping in the sun), and they like to relax and take it easy.  Besides, the link is in the cat’s genes.  Cat ancestry apparently goes all the way back to the ancient African savannah and the Eastern deserts, so you can see why heat-loving felines and the Summer game would eventually get together.  Their DNA accords.

That’s why there’s a perfect concordance between cats and baseball.  Both, in their essence, are slow and meditative in nature, broken by spurts of excitement and action.  It’s how you experience a baseball game.  It’s also how you experience a cat.

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That’s because of each one’s relationship to time.  Baseball, as a game, extends into time, but it’s not bounded by time—not by a buzzer or a clock or a whistle.  As long as you hold off that third out, you can go and on, time stretching to infinity (with a 7th-inning stretch for a break).  You relax, slow down, and ease into the game’s rhythm…the way you do when absorbed in a great story.  Because baseball is narrative without time, it holds you in a way that you’re no longer aware of time’s passage.  It’s that time(less) factor that makes baseball the game for the philosophical among us.

And that, too, is the nature of a cat…it’s also one that defies time.  What more serene, contemplative creature is there than a cat?  And what better company than a cat’s on a slow summer day?  Its temperament is almost Zen-like, exuding a philosophical tranquility that both soothes and elevates us when we’re in its company.  A cat’s calm, its stillness, its immutability…does not time seem to stand still in its presence?  Does not the pace of life itself slow down to the rhythm of the cat’s purr?

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It just goes to show that life always seems better at a baseball game…or with a cat…

Thus, to all you baseball—and cat—fans out there, I recommend Rhubarb.   It’s a film that’ll give you the best of both sport and animal, working on you in just the way baseball and cats do.  Although one magazine writer, reviewing Rhubarb, griped that a cat’s personality does not come across on film (another hiss here, please), I vehemently disagree.  Like baseball, the encounter with a cat requires self-possession, attention, and easing into the mood.  But once the game, and animal, grips, you can’t take your eyes from it.  To say a cat isn’t cinematic is to say baseball isn’t cinematic, which the sport abundantly is (note all those great baseball films).  It’s a game—and an animal—of the long take, the long shot, and the deep focus (in more ways than one).  It’s like cinema back to its roots, to those now-ancient one-take, one-shot, ambling narratives, which allow our eyes to pick out the story features that interest us (the pitcher’s wind-up, the catcher’s signals, the outfielder’s nervous shifts of balance).  Forget today’s movie jump shots, racing camera, spiky editing, jagged rhythms, or zooming zooms.  That’s for the attention-deficit afflicted out there—those who can’t sit still and read a book.  Baseball and cats are for the true cinephiles, those of us who know how to see, observe…and watch

It’s why baseball and cats are perfect for the movies.  And why Rhubarb is the perfect baseball-and-cat film.

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Play ball.


BONUS CLIP:  Rhubarb (with Ray Milland) meets the players (admittedly a rather moldy-looking bunch of athletes, but, hey, that’s Hollywood—).  You can glimpse in this scene a young Leonard Nimoy seated at the table, who even gets a line—he’s the one who stands up and asks if Rhubarb will be at tomorrow’s game.  I betcha cool, contemplative Mr. Spock liked baseball….as well as cats…

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