This post is part of the Children in Film Blogathon, hosted by the lovely and talented Comet Over Hollywood. It runs May 24-26, 2013.
Some kids are born with old souls. You know these kids – they act in an oddly responsible manner and they look at you as though they feel a little sorry for you. (Which they probably do, who are we kidding.)
This is the type of kid Billy Chapin portrays in the 1953 comedy-drama, The Kid from Left Field. Chapin plays Christy Cooper, a nine year-old who gets a job as a bat boy for a losing major league baseball team.
In an early scene, the team’s owner (Ray Collins) reveals his discouragement about the team’s record, and lets us know how bleak the situation is.
Collins: Ty Cobb. There! There was a ball player.
Chapin: No one’s ever gonna beat all the records that he set.
Collins: Nobody in my ball club is, I’ll tell you that.
Eventually, with the help of his father, Chapin begins to coach these hapless players.
Okay, we can tell by the raspberry you’re blowing that you’re not buying the idea of a child coaching professional ball players.
But this is exactly where Chapin’s performance makes the plot believable. Chapin wears a serious expression and has slightly sad, soulful eyes; when he says you’ve gotta choke up on the bat, you find yourself taking his advice.
Chapin’s father/mentor (Dan Dailey) is a failed major leaguer who was sent down to the minors and never made a comeback. Even though he is relegated to selling peanuts, he is a brilliant baseball analyst. He easily identifies the team’s weaknesses and shares practical solutions with his son.
Chapin and Dailey have a respectful, tender, father-son relationship. (The screenplay makes no mention of Chapin’s mother.) Dailey is a flawed but sympathetic character: he sometimes disappears in the evenings to drink at the bar, and he has a testy relationship with his boss. It pains us a little to see how much love Chapin displays for his father because it can’t be long before disillusionment whacks the poor kid in the gut.
Chapin is a serious boy with a serious job. He doesn’t mug for the camera or do anything to draw undue attention to himself. He may not be the best child actor Hollywood has ever produced, but he has enough integrity to comfortably carry the movie.
(Digression: Chapin’s more famous role was as the defiant John Harper in the uber-creepy The Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton.)
The movie loves to poke fun at Chapin’s age. In one scene, Chapin and the umpire get into a heated argument during a ball game. The umpire orders Chapin off the field and, when the lad refuses, the ump simply picks him up by the waistband and carries him off the field.
The Kid from Left Field has a more complex script than many baseball movies. Lloyd Bridges plays an aging ballplayer who benefits from Chapin’s coaching. Anne Bancroft, in one of her earliest film roles, is the front office secretary in love with Bridges. And Richard Egan, in a Golden Globe-winning role, is superb as the slick manager who takes all the credit for the team’s winning streak.
This film was remade in 1979 as a made-for-television movie starring Gary Coleman, and a similar story was produced again in 1994’s Little Big League. The 1953 version, however, is a thoughtful look at fathers and sons, forgiveness and missed opportunities. The Kid from Left Field is a warm, hopeful film that reminds us redemption comes in unlikely ways.
Another review of The Kid from Left Field is available at Classicfilmboy’s Movie Paradise.
The Kid from Left Field: starring Dan Dailey, Anne Bancroft, Billy Chapin. Directed by Harmon Jones. Written by Jack Sher. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1953, B&W, 80 mins.