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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's The Great American Pastime (1956) is a lightweight comedy set in the midst of the classic upper-middle class American suburbia of the mid-20th century -- the same setting enjoyed by many of the popular television sitcoms of the era. The plot centers on the wildly popular suburban phenomena of Little League baseball. The presence of dry-witted comic actor Tom Ewell as the lead character gives hope that the film may have a satirical edge along the lines of Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It (1956) made the same year, but since The Great American Pastime was made with the full cooperation of the Little League, the comedy is gentle and safe. Fittingly, the production also sports the sleek, professional sheen that is to be expected from a studio like MGM.
The screenplay for The Great American Pastime was the first by writer Nathaniel Benchley, the son of famed writer and humorist Robert Benchley (who was featured in his own series of MGM shorts from 1935 to 1944). The film is introduced and narrated by the lead character: Bruce Hallerton (Tom Ewell), a lawyer living in the suburbs with his wife Betty (Anne Francis) and son Dennis (Rudy Lee). Bruce, a baseball fan, agrees to be a coach for the local Little League in an effort to be closer with his son. While Dennis is eventually picked for another team, Bruce soon finds himself inundated with advice on how to run the team from others in the community. Every parent wants his or her son to get more field time, including attractive widow Doris Patterson (Ann Miller). Betty notices the undue attention being paid to her husband by Mrs. Patterson, so she becomes the team secretary in order to keep an eye on the situation; it is difficult for her since she can't stand baseball.
The Little League concept was developed by Carl Stotz in Pennsylvania beginning in 1939. The volunteer-run organization spread across the United States in the 1950s, and by 1956 when The Great American Pastime was made, there were leagues in all 48 states. In his book Baseball in the Movies: A Comprehensive Reference, 1915-1991 (McFarland, 1992), author Hal Erickson writes that The Great American Pastime displays "...the expected comedy inherent in the concept of flabby, middle-aged adults living their dreams of glory through their children, but the satiric thrust is gentle to the point of being antiseptic. The young ballplayers perform vigorously in the film's sporadic game sequences, exhibiting more pep and enthusiasm than is found in 90 percent of the films about adult baseball." Erickson notes the credulity-stretching premise of the romantic plotline, writing that "...modern audiences are dumbfounded that either [Ann Miller or Anne Francis] can see anything in Bruce Hallerton who, as played by Tom Ewell, is such a ploddingly unromantic fellow, with so pronounced a tendency to comport himself like a TV sitcom 'idiot father,' that he makes Hugh Beaumont look like Cary Grant."
Contemporary reviews noted many of the same shortcomings when the film was released in theaters. Writing in Variety, "Holl" anticipated Erickson's comments when he noted that "the character Ewell is called on to play is unfortunately the stereotype of an American father that television, in particular, has advanced. He's a silly, bumbling nincompoop totally unaware of the realities that surround him...Ewell is frequently funny in a farcical way, but his character never emerges as a real person." This writer optimistically calculates the chances for the film at the box office, saying that "with the proper spotting and promotional tieups with local little leaguers, fair returns can be probably realized." Unfortunately for MGM, such was not the case and the film did not break a profit in the theaters.
The critic for the Hollywood Reporter noted the pedigree of the screenplay and commented that "Tom Ewell is the closest thing we have today to the late Robert Benchley, [with] the same ability to render a flat line with humorous effect." The Great American Pastime was Ann Miller's last film for MGM, and, in fact, her last important role in a feature film until her final one, a supporting part in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001).
Producer: Henry Berman
Director: Herman Hoffman
Screenplay: Nathaniel Benchley
Cinematography: Arthur E. Arling
Art Direction: Randall Duell, William A. Horning
Music: Jeff Alexander
Film Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Cast: Tom Ewell (Bruce Hallerton), Anne Francis (Betty Hallerton), Ann Miller (Mrs. Doris Patterson), Dean Jones (Buck Rivers), Rudy Lee (Dennis Hallerton), Judson Pratt (Ed Ryder), Raymond Bailey (George Carruthers), Wilfred Knapp (Mr. Dawson), Bob Jellison (Mr. O'Keefe)
by John M. Miller