Saturday, June 15, 2024



DEATH ON THE DIAMOND is a 1934 MGM mystery-comedy that stands out for mixing murder with Major League Baseball. The story follows the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, which is fighting for the National League pennant. 

The team's fortunes are of great concern to the manager/owner, Pop Clark (David Landau). Pop has had to invest everything he has to keep the Cardinals running, and if the team falters, he'll have to sell it. One of Pop's main investments for the new season is the contract of a promising pitcher from the Texas League named Larry Kelly (Robert Young). The somewhat cocky rookie becomes a star, and even starts dating Pop's daughter Frances (Madge Evans), who is the club secretary. The Cardinals start to rise in the standings, but a number of shady characters are hanging around the club, and an attempt is made on Larry's life. As the end of the season nears, and the Cardinals are closing in on the pennant, players actually wind up being murdered, while Larry and the police try to find the culprit. 

One thing that must be said about DEATH ON THE DIAMOND is that it isn't the most realistic movie in the world. The thing is, it moves along so fast, and is so entertaining, that even a hardcore baseball buff like myself doesn't mind. The murders are quite grotesque--one player is shot by a sniper while heading for home plate, and another is killed after eating a hot dog covered with poisoned mustard! Another player is strangled while in the clubhouse, and his body is stuffed in a locker--and when the locker is opened, the corpse falls right toward the camera, much in the same manner as the famous shot in THE CAT AND THE CANARY. 

This grotesqueness, however, is matched by a snappy comic sensibility, no doubt provided by director Edward Sedgwick, who had experience with fast-moving humor. There's so much sarcastic dialogue, and so many smart aleck characters, that this film feels more like it was made by Warner Bros. than MGM. Among the scene stealers are Nat Pendleton as a dopey Cardinal, Ted Healy as a goofy umpire, Edward Brophy as a dull-witted cop, and Paul Kelly as a snoopy sportswriter. There's also C. Edward Gordon as a shady gambler, and Mickey Rooney as a clubhouse boy. Playing bit parts are Walter Brennan and Ward Bond. 

Robert Young is effective enough in the starring role, and his pitching motion is acceptable enough, although it must be said he probably couldn't break a pane of glass with his throws. Madge Evans is cute and perky as the obligatory love interest, and David Landau does very well with the role of Pop. (By the way, the situation of Pop needing the team to win the pennant in order to keep control of it is very much like the plot of the film of THE NATURAL--where the name of Wilford Brimley's manager/owner was also Pop! Also remember that in THE NATURAL a player dies on the field as well.) 

Madge Evans. Robert Young, and David Landau

One thing baseball geeks will love about DEATH ON THE DIAMOND is getting to see the accurate 1934 uniforms of the teams shown in the film, and the footage taken at Sportsman's Park, the Cardinals' home field at the time. What baseball geeks may not appreciate is the climax of the film. The pennant race is going down to the wire, and the Cardinals are in the thick of it--but, despite players actually being murdered on the field and at the park, the games are allowed to continue! There's even a meeting at the league offices, where a Commissioner Landis-type figure called "The Judge" is talked out of canceling the remaining games by Pop and Frances. (Their excuse is that it will be detrimental to America if the season was stopped!) 

The final game, in which the Cardinals must win, has police stationed all over the park, in the hope that the murderer will show himself. It naturally falls to Larry to not only discover and stop the killer but to also save the Cardinals season. How this is accomplished is by an astounding series of events that even Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani combined couldn't even pull off. You'll just have to see it yourself to believe it. (I honestly did guess who the killer turned out to be, going by the old movie adage "it's the least likeliest suspect". But when you do find out who the killer is, you start to realize how much more improbable the murders really were.) 

DEATH ON THE DIAMOND is pretty ridiculous, but it's so fast-moving and fun that the viewer won't mind. I might as well mention that the real 1934 St. Louis Cardinals not only won the National League pennant...they also won the World Series. Obviously DEATH ON THE DIAMOND didn't jinx the actual Cardinals, and obviously some MGM executive picked the right team to feature in a full-length film. 

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