Headin Home (1920)
This early biopic stars its subject Babe Ruth but completely fictionalizes his life to create a down-home American narrative surrounding a life which might not have fit into accepted American mythology at the time. The result is somewhat odd, but at times quite amusing.
The movie opens, after a jokey intertitle, by showing a throng of baseball fans piling into a ball park (most likely the Polo Grounds, where Ruth worked at the time). They are nearly all men, and nearly all wearing identical straw hats – obviously a major fashion accessory of the day. We see the New York Yankees come out of their dressing rooms and a close up of Ruth in the dugout, then a ballgame and the crowd is shot from a few different angles. Suddenly, one of the fans is introduced as “an oldtimer from Babe’s birthplace, Haverlock.” Haverlock, it seems, is a small rural community somewhere in “the sticks” (it’s never really clear where, but the town has sort of an East Coast look that made me think of upstate New York). We are then transported to this rustic hamlet, where Babe evidently lived with his single mother (Margaret Seddon) and small foster sister (Frances Victory). Ruth is shown hacking down a small tree in the woods with the intention of making himself a baseball bat. Other town members are introduced, each with a funny and often misspelled intertitle, including the local banker (James Marcus), his son (Ralf Harolde) and daughter (Ruth Taylor), who is Ruth’s love interest Mildred. “Si,” the banker (short for “Cyrus”) kicks his son out of the house for running up debts and the son goes off to New York. We also meet Ruth’s rivals, who include the local dogcatcher (George Halpin) and Harry Knight (William Sheer), the man Cyrus brings in to work at the bank and to pitch for the local ball team, run by the drunken town barber (Walter Lawrence).
The dogcatcher, of course, nabs Ruth’s little sister’s cute puppy and puts it in the pound. Sis goes running off to Babe, who’s still carrying a log around, and cries about her beloved pooch. We see an insert shot of a dog being fed into a sausage machine (shades of several early film productions), and Babe marches off to the unguarded pound to release all of the adorable mutts being held there – this town doesn’t have any breed besides cute. The payoff is that the dogcatcher is so surprised when he returns that he drops his latest prize and lets it get away, too.
At the day of Knight’s arrival in town, Ruth joins the city fathers and pretty much everyone else in town in greeting him. But, the oily Knight snubs Babe, and little sister has to stop him starting a fight. One small problem in this scene is that several children are standing around, who should be fascinated by Knight, but can’t help staring at their real idol – Babe Ruth. Within the story’s narrative, Ruth is a delivery man for the ice company, and he’s sent on an assignment for the deacon, but he gets distracted by a ball game and lets most of the ice melt. Meanwhile, we see Knight meet up with a gambling buddy and learn that he’s as crooked as a three-dollar bill (or an American President). There’s a brief racist interlude in which an African American hotel bellboy sees the two of them playing craps and bugs his eyes out for the camera.
Mildred is helping set up for a dance at the church, and after Babe’s minor ice-fiasco, he winds up there as well, but Harry soon arrives and pulls her away from him. She wouldn’t be interested in Ruth at all, but the one other single girl in town (Ricca Allen), who is knock-kneed and pointy-nosed, shows an interest in him and this apparently peaks Mildred’s curiosity. Ruth at first resists going to the dance, not wanting to see Harry and Mildred together, but as the intertitles tell us, there’s nowhere else to go in town. So, he turns up there and looks awkward until he spills his food all over Harry, Mildred, and her family. The next day, Babe finally gets around to carving his bat out of the log he’s been carrying around, but not before embarrassing himself in front of Mildred again, tossing the dogcatcher into the lake.
We then learn that Harry is stealing from the till in order to bet on himself in the Big Game – Haverlock vs. Highland (note that the original name of the Yankees was the “Highlanders,” so there’s an inside joke here for fans). Harry sees to it that Babe won’t be able to play, but Babe warns him that one day he’ll be playing the Majors while Harry sells peanuts. His mother assures him he’s right and we see a flash of him playing in Yankee Stadium again. When the Highland team show up, the pitcher buys some ad booze off the barber, and is soon in no condition to play. The manager, desperate, asks Babe to play for his team against his own home town. At first, when he tries using the bat provided, he holds it awkwardly and can’t seem to hit anything, but then he gets out his hand-whittled bat and knocks it out of the park and through one of the new stained-glass windows at the church! Of course, his team wins, and this is followed by a comic chase by his townfolk out to mob him for hitting for Highland.
This is portrayed as the beginning of Ruth’s success, and with this game behind him we are told he rapidly makes the big time, leaving home to play professionally. Now there comes a curious sort of epilogue, which shows why the movie gets its name, and resolves each of the conflicts set up in the script. Mildred tries running off with Harry, but when he tries to put moves on her before they’re married, she resists and Ruth finds them at the train station, running Harry off, but her father thinks she ran off with Babe, only making things worse. Babe makes it to the city and meets Mildred’s brother, getting him away from the clutches of a “vamp,’ and convincing him to move back home. This, along with his successful career, puts him back in good with the family and with the town in general. He starts to get reminiscent about his mother’s pies, and so goes back to Haverlock himself. This time, he’s treated as a success and the town hails him as a hero. And, of course, he gets the girl.
The last paragraph of my summary is actually nearly half of the film, and it seems to go on forever. The true climax is Babe’s winning the game for Highland, but apparently the writer (sports writer Arthur “Bugs” Baer) thought the real interest was in the prodigal son returning home. In case there’s any doubt, none of this story is true to Ruth’s life. He was born in Baltimore, not “Haverlock,” and learned baseball while in a youth reformatory. His German ancestry would have made him suspect at a time that was still quite uncertain about immigration, and the “all-American” setting was part of his myth-building public relations. He was also famously untrue to his real (first) wife, who was far from the lovely rich Mildred, and who left him in 1925.
Speaking of “Bugs” Baer, he was integral to the building of the Babe Ruth mythos, as well as the popularization of baseball in the 1920s. He apparently coined the phrase “Sultan of Swat” for Ruth, and was famous for lines like “his head was full of larceny, but his feet were honest” in regard to a failed attempt to steal a base. There’s a lot of that kind of cute language in this movie, often with “wuz” substituted for “was” and other deliberate misspellings. This was probably part of its appeal with younger viewers and sports fans familiar with the style.
Director: Lawrence C. Windom
Camera: Ollie Leach
Starring: George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Ruth Taylor, William Sheer, Margaret Seddon, Frances Victory, James A. Marcus, Ralf Harolde, Goerge Halpin, Walter Lawrence
Run Time: 55 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).