I had been a fan of the old baseball film, Bang The Drum Slowly, which came out in 1973, for many years. It was not a great film, but it entertained, and was one of the early pre-The Godfather films that showcased the talents of a young Robert De Niro. But, it certainly wasn’t great cinema, more or less a baseball version of the football melodrama Brian’s Song, or a non-musical, more dour version of Damn Yankees! It followed a year or so in the life of a dying backup catcher for a pro baseball team, the New York Mammoths, obviously modeled after the New York Yankees. While working my way through The Criterion Collection’s DVD set called The Golden Age Of Television I came upon the fifth entry in the series, which was culled from 1981 re-broadcasts of the live television shows. The fifth entry was, indeed, a 52 minute long teleplay of the same name, shown September 26th, 1956, and was adapted from the same titled novel by Mark Harris. In the De Niro role of catcher Bruce Pierson was Albert Salmi, a veteran Broadway actor. And in the lead role of Henry ‘Author’ Wiggen was a young Paul Newman. What is interesting is how, in this version, the breakout performance belongs to Newman’s character, a pitcher, whereas the same character, in the later film, played by Michael Moriarty, was a relative dud.
The black and white teleplay was adapted by Arnold Schulman, directed by Daniel Petrie (who later directed Sybil and Fort Apache, The Bronx), and broadcast on The U.S. Steel Hour. Other major characters included the manager of the baseball team, Dutch (Rudy Bond), and Piney Woods (George Peppard), who sings the theme song, from which the play’s title is derived, The Streets Of Laredo. The tale is relatively simple. The play is narrated by Newman’s character, Henry, who is always called Arthur, by Bruce (a corruption of Henry’s nickname, ‘Author,’ given to him by his teammates after the star pitcher penned a book), and who claims that the teleplay about to be seen is based upon a book he wrote on the death of his good friend. Henry move sin and out of scenes and time, much like Andy Griffith’s character, Will Stockdale, does in the earlier No Time For Sergeants, also in the DVD set. But, this is a full on drama, not a comedy. Fortunately, it never veers into melodrama. After some early scenes, setting up the relationship between Henry and Bruce (Henry often ‘rags’ on his friend, as do most of their teammates), who are roommates on the team, the drama begins when Henry receives a phone call from Bruce, who is in the Mayo Clinic, in Minnesota. Henry visits him, and finds out his roomie has a degenerative and terminal illness (never specified in the play).
This leads Henry to evaluate his own life- he has a pregnant wife (Georgeann Johnson), as well as how he handles his spring training holdout, for a new contract (this was well pre-free agency days). As a stipulation for signing, Henry wants a guarantee that Bruce is not cut from the team. Eventually he gets it, but for most of the season he is able to hide Bruce’s condition from the team. Naturally, though, they find out, as Henry is unable to keep the grim news to himself. The team wants to cut Bruce, but the gruff Dutch relents, and keeps Bruce. After a birthday celebration for Bruce, replete with beauty contest winners, the dim witted catcher is joyful, then is hospitalized. He never recovers, the audience is informed by a solemn Henry, who speaks to the camera, and chides himself as being no better than the rest of the world, in its treatment of the big dumb farm boy, Bruce. He claims that he’ll rag on no one any longer. At that, the cameras fade to black. It’s a good ending to a first class piece of entertainment. It’s not quite as deep and complex as some of the other dramatic entries in the series, and the acting is generally solid, with the exception of Newman who, it is plain to see, gives a star-making performance.
The DVD comes with two features- the first is the PBS Introduction to the piece, by actor Cliff Robertson, who reminisces on his live television experiences, as well as a DVD commentary by director Petrie, which runs the length of the play, save for the last few scenes. Overall, Petrie makes some good points (such as the lack of closing credits on the teleplay owing to the drama running a minute or so too long; thereby causing U.S. Steel to buy space in trade papers to publish the cast and crew credits), but the more interesting facet of his commentary is his own life story, and his transition from young Broadway actor to drama coach to director of theater to director of teleplays. Interestingly, he is one of the few participants in the live television era who admits to not missing it so much, preferring the use of tape to perfect performances over the ‘edge’ of a live broadcast. The kinescope is in fairly good shape, unlike some of the earlier entries in the DVD set.
Bang The Drum Slowly is not quite there with the better 60 minute long dramas of live television, like Marty and Patterns (both included in the DVD set), but it’s leagues above the sorts of television movies of the week that proliferated just a generation later, and galaxies beyond much of the mind-numbing fare that passes for drama these days, such as the cops and doctors shows that are really just excuses for trying to sneak a little sex into an hour. Watch it, and lament that even an example of an art form that is not at its pinnacle can still be gripping, and how such an art form has wholly faded, not just from the screen, but the bulk of collective memory, for that is something that is no waste of energy; unlike the television you likely most recently gazed.