Alcoa Premiere Theatre: Flashing Spikes (1962 USA 53 mins)
Source: PC Prod Co: Avista Productions/Revue Dir: John Ford Scr: Jameson Brewer, from the novel by Frank O’Rouke Phot: William H. Clothier Art Dir: Martin Obzina Ed: Richard Belding, Tony Martinelli Mus: Johnny Williams Titles: Saul Bass
Cast: James Stewart, Jack Warden, Patrick Wayne, Edgar Buchanan, Tige Andrews, Carleton Young, Fred Astaire (presenter)
John Ford went in every direction a jobbing Hollywood director could including, intermittently between the mid-1950s and 1962, into TV, the “New Media” of the times. Typically it was odd jobbing, as a guest artiste. Nearly all of his TV assignments were one-offs for showcase series: The Bamboo Cross for the Fireside Theatre series in 1955; an earlier baseball drama, Rookie of the Year, also from 1955, for the Eastman Kodak-Screen Directors’ Playhouse (compare and contrast the sociable Ford in a director’s union showcase, against the singular Hitchcock in his Hitchcockian showcase, Alfred Hitchcock Presents [1955-62]); and Flashing Spikes, made in 1962 for the Fred Astaire-fronted Alcoa Premiere Theatre. The “Golden Age” of TV’s conditions of production probably suited Ford. It kept the most workaholic of directors active, but not pressured, creating a principality within a foundling production system hungry for content. Not unlike his first years as a filmmaker – encompassing Ford’s B-silents of the late teens – TV also seemed to allow a certain degree of free play with the extended Ford family of regular collaborators. Ford was getting old, but seems to have avoided regular TV work once it institutionalised as feature production had done before it. The new generation of TV star-auteurs-producers exemplified by Lucille Ball’s Desilu company, must have seemed a strange new world. He even avoided being hired out to the bunch of gunslinger yarns that dominated US TV drama in the late 1950s – a cycle that of course owed so much to the Fordian Western. The one, deeply ironic, exception was a 1960 episode of Wagon Train – a series where stock-footage, format, themes, motifs and even support player-turned star Ward Bond, were all bought off-the-rack from the director’s own back catalogue.
If TV can be seen as work on paper as compared to feature filmmaking as oil painting, then some of Ford’s TV is as sketchy as the drop-by TV work of some of Hollywood’s current auteurs (think of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 episode of ER). The Bamboo Cross is by most accounts a Cold War quickie, more Sam Fuller than Ford. The Wagon Train episode, The Colter Craven Story, is a Fordian quip, stock-footage wading around in a quarter-hour or so flashback sequence (1). But some of Ford’s TV was more richly-toned gouache. The two baseball mini-dramas he directed have all of Ford’s draftsmanship and colouring. Gathering us to that place where Ford and nation were most intimate, confident and confidential, they form a diptych, nearly a sub-genre, of themes and plot elements. In the earlier Rookie of the Year (credited to Ford’s regular scriptwriter Frank S. Nugent with a story by W.R. Burnett), cynical small town sports journalist Mike Cronin (John Wayne) stumbles across a scoop – the father of Major League baseball’s “Rookie of the Year” (Ward Bond and Wayne’s son Pat’s first role) is a disgraced player, infamously involved in a White Sox-like bribery scandal (2).
Flashing Spikes tilts this little. Things turn ugly in a small town when one of a barnstorming team of veteran baseballers is recognised as Slim Conway (Jimmy Stewart), a notorious, now banned star once at the centre of a Major League bribery scandal. Riley, the star of the local high school team (Pat Wayne again) is at first spiteful, inflicting Conway with baseball’s ultimate insult (a favourite of Ty Cobb’s) – “spiking” him with upturned baseball cleats. Yet they develop a friendship beyond the game. Conway mentors, Riley rises to brilliance and, quickly, he’s playing in the World Series. Then celebrity sports columnist Rex Short (Carleton Young) spies the two together in a stadium car-park and accuses Riley of taking a bribe from Conway. “Once a crook, always a crook…” observes one of the trilby-topped gentlemen of the sports-press, as so often in Ford loitering about the hearing in a bilious chorus. But there is redemption. The “bribe” is revealed to be a map to Conway’s Florida fishing spot, Rex Short is discredited and Conway vindicated in a lasting sense, as it is revealed that his banning was the result of perjured testimony.
Plot and theme of Ford’s TV baseball double-header are virtually interchangeable, sharing: the central narrative technique of the flashback; reference to the White Sox scandal of 1919 as baseball’s nadir (“say its ain’t so, Joe”); ingénue Pat Wayne as raw new rookie talent, a symbol of baseball’s eternal force of seasonal, cyclical renewal; stalwart Ford performers – Bond and Stewart respectively – embodying autumnal, lonely players, “The Wanderers” in perdition and exile; girlfriends next door; the cynical grumpiness of the game’s habituates (not to mention the actors playing those habituates); baseball’s folkways and rituals of ethical transmission; its parasitic culture of spectatorship; sports journalism’s hubris and pack mythopoeism as baseball’s true moral rot, hiding behind sham panics and indignation (the Press oversee the ruination of baseball as they do the West in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ).
We can overstate the “thematic” qualities of these elements; they are also generic assembly-line parts. Is Flashing Spikes simply a remake of Rookie of the Year and all – or rather, the little – that was meant by that in Hollywood’s industrial terms? Such questions can be asked of much of the rest of Ford’s career as well: in his first decade as a filmmaker he had whittled out dozens of mostly Western genre feature titles, typically by a snap-on reassemblage of standard generic plot elements. Much like TV drama, the medium must have appealed to Ford as reminiscent of the cottage-industry years in which he first worked in theatrical cinema, a market able to comfortably ingest repeated servings of classical genre filmmaking “stuff”. Yet although Ford’s baseball films were old-fashioned and economic genre remanufacturing, as Andrew Sarris suggested in his 1976 monograph on Ford, the director understood better than any the special, implicit power of genre cycles (3). Ford was able to achieve a personalisation of standard parts, a micro-artistry over the issued plot, theme and affect. Reusing an actor, reintroducing a character, recycling a story, varying narrative expectation a little, each was an incremental but powerful gesture of recollection, passing time and history, like a lengthening shadow. Ford sees baseball as he saw genre cinema, fascinated by the sport’s cyclical, ephemeral role in the American national imaginary and its valuable rituals of seasonal re-affirmation such as the throwing out of the first ball at the season’s opening, or the World Series at its close. Baseball is an American pastime and a cultural artefact something like the Western genre is an entertainment; both seem to represent a rite of an eternal renewal – and a little guileless amnesia? – in American popular culture.
In fact, you come away from watching Ford’s baseball films wondering if the sport, its cinema representation and its place as a cultural “genre” are even much closer to an American cultural essence than the Western. We’ve always supposed that the Western is the intrinsic American generic variation. But to some degree its mythic core, its archetypes of romantic loners, of civilisation versus wilderness have become transnational universals since the 1940s. By the 1960s, even the Russians were making them and making meaning from them. We should look, maybe, for something even more intrinsic, all the more interesting because – like Lagaan (2001), or Argentinean Tango movies, or Northern British coursing films – it doesn’t translate, is culturally and historically too specific, and is the nearest Hollywood came to a national cinema genre. We should argue for the baseball genre. Nostalgia fits comfortably, like an old baseball mitt, on the renewed baseball cycle that surfaced in the mid-1980s: including The Natural (1984), Bull Durham (1988), and even in the peculiar ways of M. Night Shyamalam’s Signs (2002). They are works of return, of fundamentalism. A “revisionist” baseball cycle anything like that of the Western is unimaginable; as the Ford TV featurettes suggest, baseball stories are about the recovery of values temporarily lost to hubris and revisionism. Even the more testy problematisations of the sport’s culture “do it”, in the end, for the love of the game or a reunion with this love: Eight Men Out, the Major League films (1989-1998), Ken Burns’ PBS Baseball series (1994; the national pastime’s Book of Kells, from the most Fordian filmmaker since Sean Aloysius O’Feeney); and even Ron Shelton’s distaff Cobb – a 1994 attempt to deal with the darkness at baseball’s heart via Ty Cobb, the sport’s great, Mike Tyson-like, untrammelled Id figure. Probably only the Bad News Bears films (1976-1978) are genuinely iconoclastic.
So John Ford made Westerns and War films and also baseball films. But why only in the potted format of TV drama? Again, this feels justified: as Penelope Huston once commented, somewhere, TV is essentially a medium of a nation talking to itself – just as baseball seems to do. Ford’s best critical biographer, Tag Gallagher, argues that this was Ford’s most communal period, when the “Fordian” quality in his cinema was really forged. Ford’s baseball TV dramas belong to a period when town, rather than country, was ascendant in his work (despite The Searchers, 1956) and his communal text was at its richest: the world of the second Judge Priest movie (The Sun Shines Bright, 1953), The Long Gray Line (1955), Gideon’s Day (1958), The Last Hurrah (1958) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (a withered town memory of wilderness): parables of communal, tribal impulsiveness versus civilising law. In the baseball TV featurettes Ford deployed the same trusted dramatic tools to hew these themes that he used in those features: the court room, press newsroom or other chambers of communal value resolution setting; an unfolding of the story through a sort of investigative “flaneurism” (a lawyer’s or policeman’s or reporter’s journey into communal social values) and resolving it through the wisdom of Platonic authority (the Judge Priest figure). This is manifest in Flashing Spikes. We get not just Judge Priest redux, in the civil form of the small town judge (Charles Seel), protecting the geriatric ball club from a lynching mob, but also Priest renovated: Jack Warden playing the league’s commissioner as a streamlined model of corporate, Socratic reason, holding proceedings together in the face of the folk irrationality and boosterism of baseball’s class structure. In the end, Ford makes in Flashing Spikes the same almost Tory social observation about community he made frequently in that period, the same gently-stated (or sometimes bitterly put, as in Two Rode Together) contradictions of American political culture’s “checks and balances”. Picaresque as its population could be, we tend to understate how unpleasant Ford’s community had become by the 1950s. It’s a chaos of individual moodiness swinging into majority tyranny, constrained only by the tolerant Plutocrats and the policing of Ford’s men of duty – military middle-managers, western gun-“workers”, ball-players. A banner carried by the marchers at the end of The Sun Shines Bright probably registers Ford’s key social statement of the time: “HE SAVED US FROM OURSELVES”.
But Ford’s democracy is a lovable rogue’s gallery. The first of Flashing Spikes‘ pleasures is the exquisite deployment of the Ford stock company in cameo roles, creating a taxonomic gallery of baseball culture grotesques: a haemorrhoidal Edgar Buchanan swatting at pests, Harry Carey Jr. in a dugout, Tige Andrews as the baseball manger in need of anger and syntax management, Carleton Young perching on John Carradine’s usual niche of public sanctimony and cant, “Michael Morrison” as the sergeant-major of a Korean baseball diamond, and even (possibly) Ford himself, lurking in the mock lynch-mob of grumpy old ball-game buffs. By this time Ford had such control over the grammar of Fordian performance that their presence was all that was required. The Cast of Characters title-card itself now had a poetics.
Flashing Spikes‘ second great pleasure is formal, showing that Ford could also have an old master’s control over the “parametric variations” of film style. Most of its structure, situation, setting and set-ups are of the late and supposedly tired Ford: interior sets, wide shots, dialogue business. These communal rooms could be places for preaching and in the end, as the weaker of the late Fords did (Cheyenne Autumn, Donovan’s Reef ) Flashing Spikes falls away into the “preachment yarns’” easy atonement and abiding of characters with fellow characters. But it’s finest sequence, one of the nicest in late Ford, is outdoors as The Wanderers and the high school kids sideline spectatorship, hubris and hypocrisy to get on with the game. Ford’s best moments are, of course, always set to warm motifs of American folk music; here, the autumnal Wanderers are called to the bat to a few rude bars of “The ‘ol Grey Mare” (“he ain’t what he used to be”) and dance around the ball-park to another sort of folk “music”: an atonal communal cacophony of peanut gallery catcalls, sarcasm and ball-game patois. Flashing Spikes features an unusually complex use of diegetic, actuality sound that enlarges and enriches diegetic space; Ford’s preference was for diegetic music to expand emotional space (although Gallagher claims that it was less art and more part of Ford’s cunning plan to pay old friends the scale rate for speaking parts) (4).
But best of all is the film’s star-turn: James Stewart with his gangling, hesitant minimalist frame. As performance, it’s a pantomime trick, collaborating with Ford’s medium shots and the constriction of the TV frame to delay and dissemble recognition of Slim, the infamous thief who stole baseball. As presence, it is also about delaying the revelation of Stewart the star, dissembling his iconography; like with Pat Wayne, when Stewart first gets off the bus we also have to look twice. But it’s also as minimalist achievement of rich emotional affect: cap, spectacles and gait are virtual mask, so Stewart lowers the articulation of Slim as a battered baseball fringe-dweller into his limbs. When the mob pick Slim out and begin to pelt him with cups and cushions, Stewart shows them and Ford’s camera his hunched, fortified back; all the old pain walled up but transparent behind it. Flashing Spikes is one of Ford’s nicer “haikus”.
- This episode revisits one of the director’s favourite epiphanies of American history: the dark-nights-of-the-soul of drunkard turned Civil War hero and President Ulysses S. Grant. In the Stendahlian ways of Ford’s later cinema, this sketch was varied again in the exquisite, intimate miniature Ford inserted into the Cinerama hyper-epic, How the West was Won (1962).
- Eight Chicago White Sox players (later nicknamed the Black Sox) were accused of taking gambling money to throw the 1919 World Series. All were acquitted of criminal charges, but banned for life for not reporting the bribery offer. The eight were probably scapegoats; few had actually seen any money and had genuine grievances over team pay and corrupt management. The subject of John Sayles feature Eight Men Out (1989), it remains not just baseball’s cause célèbre, but an archetype of soft corruption in 20th century American public life; F. Scott Fitzgerald even communicates something of Jay Gatsby’s shady mystique by hinting at his hand in it. The famous saying “say it ain’t so, Joe” was reputedly the cry of a young Sox fan outside the hearing room to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the most renowned of the eight.
- Andrew Sarris, The John Ford Movie Mystery, Secker and Warburg/BFI, London, 1976.
- Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985, p. 382.