With less than three weeks to go until my novel concerning Babe Ruth debuts, The Babe Ruth Deception, I find myself wondering why Babe Ruth movies are so bad. In fairness, though, not all of them are terrible, at least not when he wasn’t the focus of the film.
He played himself in The Pride of the Yankees, which starred Gary Cooper as the doomed teammate, Lou Gerhig. Babe portrayed himself pretty well in a solid tear-jerker.
He also appeared in a well-regarded Harold Lloyd silent movie in 1928, Speedy, again portraying himself in a cameo role.
He starred in Babe Comes Home, a 1927 silent movie for which no print has survived — a fact that suggests it wasn’t hugely entertaining.
The film industry’s other encounters with the Babe have been horrifying.
A 1920 silent film, Headin’ Home, stars the Babe as — you guessed it — a baseball star. The film is an hour long but seems way longer. It has its fascination, though, since Babe was only 25 when it was filmed so he actually looks like the stud athlete he was, not the dissipated, pot-bellied caricature of himself that he became in later years. And the story behind the movie — in particular the mobsters who bankrolled it — inspired the plot of my novel.
Then there are the two feature films about the Babe. In 1948, The Babe Ruth Story starred William Bendix. Hollywood had to look long and hard to find an actor who could be so implausible as a great athlete. No knock on Bendix. As a kid, I loved him in the TV sitcom The Life of Riley as the overweight, lazy, befuddled husband. To an eight-year-old, he was funny.
But starring as the Sultan of Swat, the Wizard of Wham? Way out of his league. (Get it?)
Then there was the final insult: John Goodman in 1992’s The Babe, which was way worse than the 38% score it gets on Rotten Tomatoes. Goodman — another fine actor in fitting roles — was hopeless. He was 200 pounds too heavy and twenty years too old. I had to turn it off after thirty minutes.
So why hasn’t the big screen yet captured the Babe? I think it was the Babe’s fault. He liked to play the clown, tousling the hair of tykes, winking at the dames, drinking and smoking way too much. The caricature public image of him became indelible. Not many think of him as the sleek, powerful athlete he was until he turned thirty and began to pack on a few pounds.
It’s too easy for moviemakers to seize on his superficial qualities and too hard for them to think about how this kid from a terrible family background in a lousy part of Baltimore willed himself to become a world-class athlete and ultimately a mythical figure. That’s an incredible story, but you won’t find it in any movie.