Baseball — Black by Popular Demand

Baseball is America’s favorite pastime and we celebrate it by continually producing movies that highlight its mythic status. From Pride of the Yankees (1942) to Field of Dreams (1989) baseball movies prove that there is indeed an intimate history between the sport and this country and a certain legendary-ness to a group of guys hitting balls with bats and racing around a huge diamond.

Sadly, baseball, like most other activities at some point in United States history, was also a segregated spectacle. So what is the best way (cinematically) to deal with this divided time in sports history? Why, with comedy, of course!

1
What do you get when you put Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor on a baseball team in 1930s America? The answer: Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). I haven’t seen a title like that since Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965).

Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, The Empire Strikes Back) stars as Bingo Long, an enterprising, good-hearted ball player stuck in the segregated Negro Leagues under the oppressive thumb of greedy team owner Sallison Potter (Ted Ross). Sick of himself and the team being underpaid and treated poorly, Bingo starts to hatch a plan to start his own barnstorming independent team of all-star African American players. James Earl Jones (Coming to America, The Hunt for Red October) is the power hitting Leon Carter, Bingo’s stoic ally and partner when they hit the road. They assemble a team of great athletes who are sick of their crappy team owners. One of the players they manage to pick up is Charlie Snow aka “Carlos Nevada” aka “Chief Takahoma”, played by comedian Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Superman III). Other players can outrun speeding baseballs and hit home-run after home-run. The film also makes several allusions to athletes like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and others with its fictional lineup.

This being the first directorial outing by John Badham (Short Circuit, Stakeout), the film needed a strong cast. And the cast is great. Williams is as charismatic and sharp as ever, Jones delivers a strong performance (as if he could deliver anything but), and Pryor is funny as the guy trying to get into the white leagues by passing himself off as Cuban (a hilarious insight and statement in itself). The ensemble baseball team of entrepreneurs is very talented and fun to watch. Stan Shaw and Tony Burton and all the rest are well cast. Ted Ross is also fine as the mean, cigar-chomping, hearse-driving Sallison Potter and Mabel King is great as team owner “big” Bertha Dewitt.

1a

Once the All-Stars successfully cut themselves off from their former owners they drive from town to town dancing down main street to advertise their arrival in the hopes of playing the local teams and getting paid. This goes well and everyone on the field and in the stands is having a great time, but then Sallison Potter hears of their success and will not have it. Potter starts paying people off so no one in the Negro Leagues will play them. He also has his thugs rob and terrorize Bingo’s team members. Running out of options, and low on dough, Bingo and Leon decide the only thing left to do is to play the white baseball teams.

The problem is that the good, white, Southern folk who fill the stands on hot summer days in the 1930s are not too thrilled to see black athletes screw around on the field. At first the All-Stars find themselves getting ugly stares and even boos when they make a good play. Then Bingo realizes what the white games are missing: some informality. In the Negro Leagues they would laugh and joke and have fun with the opposing team. The small-time white baseball players are too stiff and uncomfortable with their opponents so Bingo starts to lighten everybody up by adding a healthy dose of clowning to the white diamonds. It is not enough to be as good or even better than the white teams, the All-Stars have to make a show of it. One does not simply catch a fly ball. One piggybacks up on a taller player to catch it or slides between someone’s legs to catch it. They prove their athletic prowess as well as good spirits and sense of humor and soon the conservative folks up in the stands are having as much fun as the All-Stars.

3-monstrum-playgrounds

After several games, Potter’s tampering goes too far. They lose all their money, lose one of their cars (full of equipment), lose several team members, and have to pick potatoes to earn cash. Bingo tries to keep everyone together, but perhaps his ideals are just too big and unrealistic for anyone else to see. With nothing left to lose, Bingo challenges Potter to a game: his team vs. Potter’s. If the All-Stars win they retain their independence, but if Potter wins everyone goes back to their own teams. With everything riding on this one big game and Leon Carter nowhere to be found the stakes are high…but if you’re a regular filmgoer than you already know that somehow things will work out for the best.

I like the old cars and charismatic performances. I like how it interacts with history and how they recreate the look and feel of the old south. I like the energy and humor and fun it looks like everyone is having. Add all this to the fact that the story is pretty good and that makes for a pretty entertaining and lovable movie that unfortunately seems to get overlooked these days. If you like sports movies and think you’ve seen them all then check this one out.

1b

Top 10 Reasons to See Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

1. Just look at that title. Marvelous. Ooh! And an ampersand too!

2. See a young, svelte, bat-swinging James Earl Jones—pre-Vader voice.

3. Oh, so you like period baseball flicks like A League of Their Own and The Natural too? Watch this one.

4. It’s a refreshingly unpretentious outing to the ballpark. I love Field of Dreams, but movies like Bingo Long and the original Bad News Bears aren’t nearly as full of themselves.

5. Car chases, shootouts, sucker punches, dwarfs, amputees, classic cars, and great baseball plays. (Sorry, I guess the dwarfs and amputees thing is just the Jodorowsky fan in me talking).

6. Mabel King keeps her large ridiculous hats on even in a sauna.

7. Richard Pryor pretending to be Cuban…and Navajo. 3

8. Although it’s a bit screwball, it is still grounded in its historical setting and has a genuine affection for the game.

9. It’s such an American movie! Baseball, overcoming the odds, AND entrepreneurship?!

10. Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones talking to each other. Seriously. Two of the best and most recognizable voices in conversation? Hurry, the credits are coming. Give them something else to read!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 21, 2011

The Rape of “Fantasia” — Italian Style!

Walt Disney produced one of the most daring animated feature achievements in history when his studio full of talented artists developed Fantasia (1940). From bow to stern Fantasia is a masterwork, a wondrous marriage of classical compositions and powerful animation. It’s beautiful, humorous, imaginative, and willing to surprise at every turn with each new animated technique used to interpret the gorgeous music. Several years after this celebrated film a little Italian movie was made, a sardonic response or riff on this immortal classic.

12More recently I had discovered that my local library carried an old, worn-out VHS of this strange foreign artifact and, as I’d been searching for it for quite some time, I made ready use of my library card. Sadly it is not available in the United States on DVD of Blu-ray yet. With the film in my bookbag, I traveled to yet another library (my old alma mater and then-current place of employment) to utilize their free VCRs. There I was, alone with my thoughts, a headset, a 9 inch TV screen, and a scratchy, used copy of Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976).

An over-confident narrator informs us that we will be witnessing an unprecedented event: brilliant, original animations set to legendary classical music compositions…until Hollywood calls him mid-speech and tells him that someone named Bizney or Frisney already did that in 1940. BUT THE FILM MUST GO ON! And go on it does.

13A group of embittered old ladies are harvested into a livestock truck to be escorted to the theater where their instruments await. With the geriatric band of curmudgeonly females in place, the pompous, bloated, cigar-chomping conductor enters (he reminded me of a svelter Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life). The tacit animator is brought out of the dungeon to sketch the music live as it is played. The animator’s slanted desk provides much opportunity for slapstick gags and it proves to be a constant struggle for the mousey, mustachioed artist. With the warped live-action re-imagined elements of Fantasia set, the orchestra comes to life.

11Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is first on the program. A sad, dumpy satyr lopes along through a lush garden inhabited by sleek, sultry, and noticeably nude wood nymphs. The satyr, recognizing his lack of physical appeal, attempts to beautify himself, but nothing works and he gradually shrinks away into misfortune and comical melancholy. The piece presents very human insecurities regarding self-image and unfulfilled desires for sex and love. Like many a great comedy, this short has fun at the expense of its doomed protagonist. This piece has some wonderful sight gags and clever bits of surrealism (such as tempting trees made of legs and boobs, etc.).

You couldn’t have a film like this and not have the ornery conductor beat up on the old ladies. So he does. Don’t worry. But right after his assault on granny we get Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46. This cartoon features a man who will do anything to get away from his intolerable society. He leaves the rocks to build a hut, but everyone in the rocks copies him. He next builds a house and a tower, but the rest of the mindless population just follows suit. He can’t get away! It all culminates in a humorous game of Simon Says that doesn’t go exactly the way the little rebel hoped.

17There is a slop break for the orchestra and nasty tins full of gruel are ladled out to the old ladies and the animator (who fights to keep it on his slanted drawing desk) while the conductor and the narrator enjoy a decadent candlelit meal. When all the food is gone and the woeful animator, still not having ingested a morsel, reaches for a Coke that is snatched away and glugged down by the greedy conductor. He then tosses the bottle carelessly into the audience. Taking cues from both his own anger and the image of a flying bottle, the animator proceeds to sculpt another brilliant short to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro.

6This is perhaps the best segment of the whole film. A nearly empty Coke bottle is tossed by a careless astronaut and left on some unknown planet. The remaining drops ooze out of its glass prison and develop eyes, then a nose, sentience, and finally locomotion. The amorphous blob evolves into more complex and surreal organisms and soon an entire food chain and ecosystem is formed and we are following a parade of boneless, squishy dinosaur-like creatures to Boléro‘s wonderful tempo. A mischievous and rather unscrupulous ape-like creature uses a club to kill random critters. As the tormented procession of evolutionary oddities marches on they are badgered by tornadoes, the cross, a spear, a tank, freeways, and are ultimately done in by a booming metropolis. An enormous statue of a man stands alone, but it too finally crumbles and the ape-like creature emerges from the wreckage and shrugs.

5Back in “reality” a gorilla attacks the animator, it snows in the theater, and there is an impromptu dance sequence. Then it’s back to the drawing board for Jean Sibelius’ Valse Triste. This is the saddest piece on the program as it features the optimistic hallucinations of a starving-to-death stray cat (think Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”). The cat lives in a ruin of an old house that sits like an island amidst a see of identical cubed buildings. The cat imagines what the house might have been like in its glory days and soon phantoms of past owners appear and fade away. Hungry and alone the cat fades along with the phantoms and what was once a glorious home full of stories, art, and character gets the wrecking ball.

14Next it’s Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major. A fastidious cartoon bee meticulously sets her table (a daffodil full of pollen). Her silverware, napkins, and television all in place and the sun just right she prepares to dine, but is disturbed by a necking couple out for an amorous tumble in the field. This delightfully amusing piece is punctuated by a very funny escalating altercation between the conductor and the animator. Will the arts never see eye to eye?

The last musical piece is Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (which was featured in Fantasia 2000). The music ever so cleverly reinterprets the saga of Adam and Eve. The twist in this version is that the people won’t take the fruit and so the snake eats it himself…and gets thrust into a hellish world of consumerism and pornography (perhaps the same thing?). The snake is tormented by giant demons and exposed to all manner of diabolical and sexually-charged advertisements and other harvests of materialism.

15When the cartoon concludes the animator runs off with the cleaning woman and the orchestra folds, leaving the narrator with no other choice but to ask the dimwitted “Frankenstini” to find a finale. The finale is a grotesque amalgam of images, violence, and what-have-you set to a disruptive cacophony of musical pieces overlapping each other until finally reaching its delirious apex in a violent explosion.

I’ve heard differing arguments for this film; some praising it, others seeing it as a trivial parody of a classic. I admire this film. It is not Fantasia nor does it wish to be. Fantasia was a beautifully imagined experiment executed with precise artistic flourishes and a languid pace. It is an undisputed classic. Allegro Non Troppo might not be as artistically complex, but it is every bit as cunning and all the more biting with its sharp, sardonic wit. Fantasia dealt with what music makes us feel and imagine and did an astounding job. Allegro Non Troppo uses music to conjure cynical but humorous ideas of society and humanity. It deals with adult themes such as urban development, isolation, modernization, death, pain, frustration, sexual longing, and societal disenfranchisement and it does so all with a wry sense of whimsy. Nothing is ever on so grand a scale as it was in Disney’s classic, but this humble film’s intimacy places it in a unique position for a more subtle social satire without distracting presumptuousness. Only a comedy could muse so sharply and eloquently about such human topics. And some segments beautifully parody Fantasia, such as the satyr bit when compared to the centaur scene or their own distinct takes on the march of evolutionary progress.

9I think the films compliment each other nicely and the music is just as lovely and well utilized to convey an idea or story, although perhaps not quite as memorable. The idea of setting clever toons to classic tunes is a fun one. Heck, even Tiny Toon Adventures did an episode like that. I recommend this film (if you can find a copy of this elusive specimen) for anyone who loved Fantasia…or hated it.

Top 1o Reasons to See Allegro Non Troppo

1. Old ladies get beat up and mistreated. Comedy gold!

2. Although the animation might not be as colorful or grandiose as Fantasia, it has a great style all it’s own that Disney could never have pulled off.

3. One thing Allegro Non Troppo does that might suit today’s ADHD audiences is keep all of its musical segments very short. I love Fantasia, but as a kid I always felt like some of those things went on forever.

4. It’s not the artistic slap in Disney’s face you might be expecting, but it’s probably close.

5. The Boléro sequence is a great bit of animation that definitely rivals Disney’s portrayal of the dinosaurs. The difference being that the Fantasia sequence you might show to a biology class, the Allegro Non Troppo sequence you might show to a biology, history, philosophy, or theology class. Think the intro to the animated Dilbert TV show, but much more sly and smarmy.

26. I won’t tell you it’s more sophisticated than Monty Python’s stuff, but some of it definitely reminded me of their style of humor.

7. The animated interaction with the music is subtle but very effective.

8. You might actually laugh and cry. Maybe you won’t. Shut up and watch it.

9. How often do you get to see this much artistic talent coupled with great classical music AND a snarky sense of humor?

10. It’s cleverness and irreverence is overshadowed only by its humorousness.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 2, 2011