William Bendix was a fantastic character actor who built a fine career in the 1940s and 1950s playing distinctive supporting parts in a variety of different films. He specialized in playing gun-toting heavies in classics like “The Blue Dahia” and “The Glass Key,” as well as playing the lovable schlub/best buddy in plenty of war movies. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to tackle lead roles too often, but when he did (most memorably in "The Life of Riley" and as the Sultan of Swat in “The Babe Ruth Story”) it was always worth a watch.
That’s why his presence is the best thing about the otherwise forgettable “Kill the Umpire.”
Bendix plays Bill Johnson, a former ballplayer who still gets so wrapped up in the game that he can’t keep a steady job because he keeps sneaking off to the ballpark during work hours. After losing one too many jobs, his wife threatens to leave him if he doesn’t do something to shape up. Bill’s father in law, a retired major league umpire, comes up with the idea of sending Bill to umpiring school so that he can make a living in the game he loves. What follows is a lot of slapsticky, sitcom-ish comedy and moralizing about the importance and integrity of umpires as Bill finally finds a steady life for himself.
The script by Frank Tashlin and direction by Lloyd Bacon are amiable and competent, but also silly and predictable. (When the opening theme incorporates the melody of “Three Blind Mice,” you know exactly what you’re in for.) Baseball has been a constant presence on the big screen since the beginning, but stories focusing on umpires have been rare, so it’s good to see that aspect of the game highlighted, even if it’s only superficially.
And it lets Bendix put his flair for comedy to work. Plus he’s surrounded by a solid cast of fellow character actors (lots of familiar faces, including Ray Collins, Una Merkel and William Hawley) who do a lot to save the film from itself. But ultimately “Kill the Umpire” falls a little flat with its ridiculous situations and hokey theme.
It’s a treat to see Bendix get a chance to carry a film himself, even if the material doesn’t live up to his talents.
The three-headed steer. (Don’t ask.)
The uncredited actor playing Harry Shea, the catcher whose bobbled play is at the center of the rhubarb at the end of the film, is none other than Alan Hale Jr.
"Safe at Home" (1961).
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