East End Memories



If Johnny proved to be the original source of my learning of the existence of baseball, it was the film, The Kid from Left Field, that proved to be the key which unlocked this hitherto mystical game and allowed me to see it in a real situation and so help refine my somewhat fantastic ideas of the game. Not that I actually understood its intricacies after watching the film however, but it did serve to show me that it was a game that generated much passion and which was played not only by kids but by adults too, and most importantly, I learned that the game was fun!

To say that the film had a profound effect on my life may sound overly dramatic, but nonetheless, I believe this to be so. It should be remembered that I saw this film in 1953. At that time Britain was still living through austere postwar years. The average person was not well off and rationing, including sweets, was still in place. Working class people did not travel abroad. Most listened to the radio and did not, as yet, own a television. Housing was poor and many homes still lacked the simple amenities of life that everyone takes for granted today. Undoubtedly life was harder then, but there were certainly simple pleasures that gave people much enjoyment. One such pleasure was going to the pictures.

I saw The Kid from Left Field on a Saturday afternoon in 1953 at the Empress, Mare Street, Hackney, as part of a double bill with the 20th Century Fox’s production of The Virgin Queen. In 1953, few, if any, travelled to see a film unless they dressed themselves up in their best clothes and went to one of the showcase cinemas of the West End. Since it cost much more to see a film in the West End, the average cinema-goer, including me, were forced to wait for any film of choice to go on General Release and come to a cinema near you.

In 1953, the average cinema-goer did not feel the necessity to travel to see a film, as every borough, and many neighbourhoods within some of the larger boroughs, had a number of cinemas that offered the latest film releases for the residents’ pleasure. Each borough had cinemas belonging to the major circuits: an Odeon, a Gaumont, and an ABC, generally with a princely name. In addition, many boroughs also had a cinema belonging to one of the smaller cinema chains, such as Granada or Essoldo, as well as an occasional small independent cinema that was not associated with any chain and where lesser films were shown.

Although Bethnal Green had a number of cinemas, it quickly became apparent to any discerning cinema-goer that the area lacked a cinema that could by any stretch of the imagination be classified as a Picture Palace. Even those cinemas that formed part of the larger cinema chains were often of poor architectural design and were in a poor state as building materials were not available to the owners since these materials were needed to build housing. In addition, it also became clear that these cinemas were excluded from showing a number of films that I believed were important and needed to be seen. And so when such a film failed to come to my area, I decided that since Mohammed was not coming to the mountain, then the Mountain, namely me, would have to go to Mohammed (please make a link here to the Empress stories) and so I began my travelling to see films that I deemed of value!

Since I believed that The Virgin Queen was a film of value and so needed to be seen, I was compelled to travel to Hackney so as not to miss it. The Virgin Queen told the story of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh and boasted a cast including Bette Davis, Richard Todd, Joan Collins and Herbert Marshall. It could be reasoned that this was a film of importance since it portrayed a period of English history, right? However, this was not my reasoning for the sortie to Hackney. My interest in seeing this film did not have its origins in a desire to see history come alive, as one advertisement boasted. My interest in the film came from my interest in the process used to photograph it and in the fantastic effects that it would produce.

The spectacular scenes of The Robe and Demetrius & The Gladiators introduced me to the glory of CinemaScope. Without understanding why, I had stumbled across the value of sitting in the centre of the fifth or sixth row of a cinema. Such seating allowed my visual field to be filled with the events shown on the screen, thereby giving me the impression of being part of the scene. Naturally at my age I was not aware of such a concept as a visual field. All I wanted was to get in on the action! The official breakthrough of CinemaScope, and its major selling point, was that the process produced a photographic image to stand out and so allowed the viewer to experience this effect without the aid of special glasses! Now, how could anyone, let alone a child, resist such an invitation?

I am amused to see how many bad films are still skill-fully packaged and sold to the public in this manner. This advertising style is often used to peddle certain films specifically produced for young children. Today this method marketing ploy is used effectively to bedazzle kids with the glory of the new super-duper 3-D process and in so doing the producers are able to slip idiotic plots and heroes by their audience. This kind of hype worked well in the past and helped swell the coffers of many a Hollywood film studio and it obviously still works today.

Another selling point of the films that appealed to me and many of my classmates, besides the glories of CinemaScope, was the sound, for these films introduced to the audience the wonders of Stereophonic Sound. This too was a wonder of the times. From a marketing prospective, the Stereophonic Sound was still in its infancy at the time and the average consumer had not heard it, as only a few long-playing gramophone records had been released and these were purely to demonstrate its possibilities.

On that Saturday afternoon, I had gone to the Empress, Mare Street with a classmate of mine and had promised to be home before dark. My parents were under the impression that we were going to a local cinema, but although the distance from Stepney to Hackney is not far, since we were still very young, they thought that such a trip, which required taking a trolleybus and then crossing a major road, was too dangerous for us without parental supervision. Since Saturday was the busiest day for my parents in their pie ‘n’ mash shop, it was out of the question that either of them take us there. Although I cannot recall the reason why my classmate’s parents were unable to accompany us, I presume that they had good reason. And so, it was either not go at all or go without parental knowledge.

I do not advocate telling lies to anyone. Let us be clear on this. However, when I was a child and became filled with a wanting and a wishing to do something, I was remarkably determined to do so! Now I can understand why the casual observer might wonder what all the fuss was about, after all, it was only a film! And there, dear reader is the rub, our bone of contention and the difference between the casual observer and me!

Since early childhood, I was blessed with determination and tenacity. Once I set my mind to something, it had to be completed and I could not be turned away from a task. Of course, as a child, what I set my mind on were simple tasks that required a willingness to put in sufficient time to achieve the goal. This generally meant the building of a sandcastle before the tide came in and washed it away or perhaps completing the colouring of a picture in a book before being made to go to bed. Once I got older and moved on to more complex tasks, whenever some particular pastime appealed to me, I gave it my all and threw myself into its completion with equal determination and dedication and often at the expense of all else.

I had been exposed to both cinema and theatre at a very young age and quickly developed a keen interest in each. Most of my classmates were avid cinema goers and were also attracted by the possibilities of CinemaScope. And so, my wish to see a certain film came occasionally into odds with my wish not to go against my parents. I have to confess that the combination of my strong will and my determination often won when a conflict arose.

With the promise of CinemaScope and Stereophonic Sound, The Virgin Queen became a film of interest. And once it entered general release, it became a film that had to be seen and caused us to set out on our Saturday afternoon odyssey via trolleybus and across a dangerous road. No doubt we assumed that such trials were worth facing and worth the guilt that accompanied them. And indeed they were, however what proved surprising to me was that the prize that awaited me that afternoon was not the one that I had thought.

I remember being reasonably impressed by The Virgin Queen, but I cannot say that I was overly so. The other film shown that afternoon was one that did not appeal to my classmate from the onset. It was called The Kid from Left Field and was about baseball! I remembered Johnny and I thought about the braves playing a game while riding their horses. I told my friend about this and he laughed and we sat there with high hopes for the film. Once it began however, we were disappointed not to see any indians either on horseback or foot. My friend wanted us to leave, but I was determined to see the film to its end. I secretly hoped that the indians would appear sometime in the film.

The film told the story of a failing baseball team whose fortunes are suddenly reversed thanks to the pointers given by a little boy. What the team members do not know is that the boy is getting his tips from his father who once was a player, now fallen on hard times thanks to his manner. The story is basically a fairy story, a whimsical tale of fantasy, but one that allowed me to actually see baseball played for the first time.

I realised later that one of the reasons for my liking The Kid from Left Field was that it had a strong cast. At the time I only knew of Dan Dailey and this was from his musicals with Betty Grable and with others, however I later learned that he was also a serious actor on occasion and had made another baseball film previously about a real-life player (The Pride of St. Louis also-known-as The Dizzy Dean Story).

Click on the collage to see a clip from one of their films

The first that I remember seeing Dan Dailey was in a delightful film called Chicken Every Sunday, which also starred the actress Celeste Holm in 1949. I saw this film on a Saturday afternoon at the Plaza on Kingsland Road in Dalston. The Plaza although old and in a poor condition was one of my favourite cinemas since I would go there following wandering through Ridley Road Market, which was a great favourite of mine. The journey to the market was quite an adventure as it required the taking of a little red bus and passing over what I thought was a variety of canals to get there. To me, this seems like an exotic journey as, if one was lucky, one got to see a horse pulling a barge as one went over the bridge. The route was extremely twisty and turny and we were thrown from side to side as the driver manoeuvred his way through the streets. The market was a joy for me with all kinds of foods that I had never seen before. I note today that huge beef tongues and various species of brain and stomach are still for sale there. We would eat a variety of delicacies as we walked through the market. I was quite conservative in those days and feasted on saveloys, chips and cake followed by a pie-a-mash in Cooke’s on Kingsland Road. Once inside the cinema, an assortment of cake and ice cream were eaten. This cinema specialised in second run film releases. As a result, I got to see many great films here including Kings Row and Now Voyager.

Click on the pictures of Celeste Holm and Dan Dailey to see clips

Other members of the cast included Anne Bancroft, Lloyd Bridges, Ray Collins and Richard Egan. Anne Bancroft was a versatile actress who won an Oscar for her role in The Miracle Worker. She played a wide variety of roles in over fifty films including the iconic Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, an ageing ballerina in The Turning Point and a book collector in 84 Charing Cross Road. She also played Winston Churchill’s mother in Young Winston and a nun on two occasions in Agnes of God and Critical Care. Of all her roles, my favourites are as Mary Magdalene in Franco Zeffirelli’s television epic, Jesus of Nazareth and as the dying mother with the wish to meet Greta Garbo in Garbo Talks.

Lloyd Bridges played a baseball player who profits from the help given by The Kid from Left Field. He is at the end of his career and is tore between leaving baseball and taking a job selling insurance or cars or something, which I cannot recall. He befriends The Kid and the result is that they give believable performances. Lloyd Bridges was a great favourite of mine as a result of his television series, Sea Hunt, which I remember watching each Sunday evening before being made to go to bed.

Richard Egan plays the villain of the film. He is the manager who dislikes The Kid since he realises that he of more help to and so has a greater impact on the players than he. Ray Collins, a great veteran and character actor, plays the team owner who is prepared to elevate The Kid to managerial status. It is hard of course today to see him as anything but Lt. Tragg after his great performances in the Perry Mason television series.

The Kid is played by Billy Chapin, who went on to make a number of films as a child actor. He later moved into television, but was unable to make the transition to adult actor. His brother and sister were also child stars. His sister, Lauren Chapin, appeared in the television series, Father knows best (1954-1960), and is perhaps best remembered for writing her tell-all book on her life as a child actress. Apparently in her book she alludes to the difficulties that her brother experienced in his young adulthood. As a child, he appeared in There’s no business like show business with Dan Dailey once more, A Man called Peter with Richard Todd and Jean Peters and Violent Saturday with Victor Mature. His most famous role was in The Night of the Hunter, the only film directed by Charles Laughton. Apparently, Mr. Laughton chose him specifically for his role in the film since he was considered a good acting technician with flexibility and an ability to understand the construction of a scene. After this, he acting mainly in television.

Click on the colour poster to see the trailer of the film

Click on the black & white poster to see a clip from the film

Click on the lady with a gun to see a clip from the film

Click on the bottom right-hand picture for a clip of the finale of the film

My classmate did not enjoy this film at all and complained throughout the whole journey home about it. I, on the other hand, liked the film and could not understand why he was so opposed to it. Anyway, since we had stayed to watch this film, we arrived home after dark. My parents, and I assume his too, were not pleased and I suffered multiple restrictions to my movement for a while. Still, the punishment was worth it simply for seeing how baseball was played.

Although this was my first baseball film, I later learned that it was not the first one produced. There have been many film both before and after with baseball as a setting. Over the years, I have seen most of them and as good as many are I have a soft spot for this film.

My favourite pre-The Kid from Left Field-film is The Pride of the Yankees. Here Gary Cooper gives a brilliant performance while playing Lou Gehrig of The New York Yankees. Tragically, he is forced to leave baseball at the age of 36 after developing the neurological degenerative disease, amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is commonly known in North America as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The highlight of Gary Cooper’s performance is his parting speech to the fans following his final game. It is here that in spite of the tragedy that has befallen him he delivers the famous quote, "today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth".

My favourite post-The Kid from Left field-film is Field of Dreams. This is a film with a profound mystical quality. Baseball, known at the nation’s pastime, once inspired such thought and players once spoke of the game in hushed tones. Field of Dreams is the story of a farmer in Iowa, in the Mid-West of the United States, who is convinced that he must clear part of his corn fields and turn the area into a baseball field. He does this as he does not want to turn into his father, whom he resents for his lack of spontaneity.

The film is renowned for the quote, "if you build it, he will come". Once the baseball field is lain out, the great Shoelace Joe Jackson comes and asks if he can bring some of his friends to play there. These are the eight men banned from baseball following their conviction for throwing the 1919 Baseball World Series. They had played for the Chicago White Sox and following the scandal become collectively known as the Chicago Black Sox and were never allowed to play professional sports again.

At the heart of the film is the farmer’s regret that his relationship with his father, who was a baseball player, had not been better. Eventually it becomes clear to the farmer that the He who will come is his father whom he recognises as a young catcher collecting his things at the end of a game. Following some simple conversation, the two men, father and son, get the opportunity to do many of the things that they had failed to do when the farmer was a child. The film has a stellar cast who give great performances. It is also evident that each cast member loves baseball.

Another baseball film of note was the original version of Angels in the Outfield with the terrific Paul Douglas playing the manager of a losing Pittsburgh Pirates team. The manager has a terrible temper and he rants and raves at his players using foul language. His behaviour eventually causes an Angel to visit. After some discussion, the angel agrees to bestow some miracles on the team if the manager stops swearing. The Angel’s visits soon become national news, which brings all sorts of problems to the manager. Like all such tales, the ending is happy, I am glad to say, and all’s well that ends well. Angels in the Outfield was remade recently, but did not enjoy the same success of the original production.

Since living here in the United States, I look forward to each April, as this is when the Baseball Spring Training takes place and the members of the team are finalised. Soon it is Opening Day when the first home game of a team is played. This takes place in very much a carnival-like atmosphere. Following this, we all settle down to 161 additional games played between then and September. Games are shown on television most days and, at the end of the day, the games played are dissected by ex-players and sports writers ad nausiam and discussed at length. I used to watch the games of The Braves when they were shown regularly on television. When I moved to where I live now, I was overjoyed to learn that Braves’ games could be heard on the one of the local radio stations. Radio suits the speed of Baseball. Once people crowded around a radio to follow the progress of their team. Work used to stop as people listened to the games of the Play Offs and World Series. And now I have the opportunity to do the same and get to spend many happy afternoons sitting in my garden and imagine the game.

Thanks to Johnny, I learned that there was such a game as baseball and I will always be grateful to him for this. But sadly, he had not given us any information on how it was actually played. Fortunately this was to be the unexpected prize awaiting us at the end of our Saturday afternoon odyssey to the Empress, Mare Street, Hackney. For there on the screen I saw for the first time a group of men playing a game that I had assumed was only played by kids and by indians on horseback. It was a revelation and on that day my fascination with the game truly began and which has continued to this day.

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins