Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Basketball Fix (Jack Broder/Realart, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran The Basketball Fix, an intriguing 1951 independent “B” from Jack Broder Productions and Realart Pictures (I’d assumed Realart was just a reissue label for Universal but it seems they did some initial releases as well) that listed as a film noir. It really isn’t — it’s not particularly inspired visually (despite the credit to Stanley Cortez as the cinematographer!) and it’s not morally ambiguous either: the good guys are very, very good, the bad guys are very, very bad and the only truly conscience-stricken member of the dramatis personae, high-school basketball star Johnny Long (Marshall Thompson), who as the leading scorer of the State College (state carefully unspecified) team has to wrestle whether to live in poverty and accept not being able to get married or even to buy his kid brother a Christmas present or to accept the bribes from the slimeball gamblers who want him to shave points off State’s winning margins, simply isn’t well enough written or acted for his dilemma to serve as the starting point for noir.

But it’s a well done movie for its budget and its time — the director is Felix E. Feist (best known for two credits that couldn’t be more different: the 1936 musical short Every Sunday with Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, and the 1953 version of Donovan’s Brain with Lew Ayres and Nancy Davis, later Nancy Reagan) and the writers are Charles K. Peck, Jr. and Peter R. Brooke — and the star is John Ireland as Pete Ferreday (that’s the spelling the filmmakers insisted on when we see his name in print, and since he’s playing a sportswriter we see the character’s name in print quite often), who discovers Johnny Long at a high-school game (all the high-schoolers in this movie look old enough to be in grad school, but that’s a common enough movie failing it doesn’t really matter) and recommends him to State College coach Nat Becker (Walter Sande). Becker is a decent guy whose one addiction is to food — an odd habit for a 1951 movie (his doctors warn him to get off his high-cholesterol diet, but he ignores them, not that Peck and Brooke do much with that as a dramatic issue) — and he has Johnny work with team captain Jed Black (John Sands) to get him to play more stylishly.

The plot has Johnny as the sole breadwinner of his little family; his dad is in a sanitarium, his mom is presumably dead (we don’t hear anything about her but that’s the usual presumption in a 1950’s movie since divorce, outside of deliberately raffish romantic comedies, was hardly ever heard of in films back then no matter how large it may have loomed in the actual married lives of the stars), and he’s supporting not only himself but also his kid brother. During the off season Johnny works as a lifeguard and swimming teacher at the Cresthaven country club, so he gets to observe the lives of the rich just close enough to get a big-time case of status envy and to meet Pat Judd (Vanessa Brown), whom he falls in love with even though she’s pretty ditzy and has the most annoyingly grating voice I’ve heard from a female lead in the movie since the days of Dorothy Lee at RKO in the early 1930’s. Johnny also meets the two people who will ultimately ruin him, gambler Mike Taft (William Bishop) and his girlfriend Lily Courtney (Hazel Brooks). The scenes early on in the high-school locker room offer us some nice shots of shirtless guys (though Johnny himself is pretty scrawny-looking — oddly, he’s about the only person on the basketball team who has the tall, thin physique that’s the current stereotype of what all basketball players look like) and the Cresthaven scenes give us some more beefcake as well as some cheesecake as well — though I found William Bishop and Hazel Brooks considerably sexier than Marshall Thompson and Vanessa Brown (and in Bishop’s case that was largely because he had chest hair — woof!), and indeed it was nice to see the principal villain played by someone genuinely attractive rather than the overweight middle-aged guys with raspy voices who usually got cast in parts like this in 1951.

Anyway, Johnny gets tempted down the primrose path by Mike and Lily — mostly Mike (indeed, some of their scenes together look almost like Gay seductions!) — and at first he resists, but his inability to afford either to take Pat on dates at swanky nightclubs (well, as swanky as Jack Broder’s production budget could afford, anyway) or to buy his little brother a toy for Christmas ultimately leads him to take Mike’s dirty money. (So does the fact that team captain Jed is already on Mike’s payroll.) Johnny’s undoing comes when he gets $1,000 worth of Mike’s dirty money together to buy Pat an engagement ring; he tells the jeweler (Lester Sharp) to have it engraved “J. L. to P. J.” but then suddenly decides to give his name as “Walker,” and the jeweler recognizes him and reports him to the police — who immediately start an investigation based on nothing more (or less) than the suspicion of a (presumably) amateur college athlete coming into the store with enough money to pay cash for a $1,000 ring. (All this suggests that Johnny would have escaped unscathed if he’d merely had the wit to think up an alias beginning with the same last initial as his real name.)

Johnny goes along with the point-shaving scheme for a while but then has an attack of conscience and gives it up — and Mike, who in his smarmiest moment in the film has warned Johnny, “I’m not a man of violence; don’t make me become one,” sends two goons to beat up Johnny on the eve of the national championship game. (The idea that the national basketball championship is determined by just one game itself dates this movie big-time! So does the fact that all the basketball players we see are white.) Hounded by Ferreday’s suspicions that he’s taking bribes and shaving points, Johnny is determined to play the championship game all-out, but when he sees the seat he saved for Pat empty, he assumes that the baddies have kidnapped her and will harm her if he doesn’t keep the point spread down — so State ekes out a five-point victory and it turns out, in the most legitimately surprising aspect of the script, that Pat had been taken not by the bad guys but by the cops: they were grilling her to get the last piece of evidence they needed to bust Johnny and Mike, and in the fashion that’s become standard on the Law and Order TV shows, Johnny is actually pulled off the court while the game is still going on and put in handcuffs in front of everybody.

The Basketball Fix isn’t a particularly good movie — though it’s at least entertaining and holds the interest through the workings of its all too predictable plot — but it’s almost astonishingly prescient; in a town where members of a major college basketball team (the University of San Diego’s) have recently been arrested on strikingly similar charges it’s almost impossible to miss the parallel, and the fictitious Pete Ferreday has had plenty of real-life counterparts in and around the sports world who have made the same demand that the sponsors of so-called “amateur” college sports drop the pretense and allow colleges to pay the players openly and thereby share some of the revenue high-level college athletics bring the schools with the people the ticket buyers pay to see. Just as the cycle of college-football exposé movies in the early 1930’s (serious ones like College Coach, The Big Game and Saturday’s Heroes as well as the Marx Brothers’ spoof Horse Feathers, which took the same real-life scandals as a premise for the Marxes’ zany comedy) seem all too relevant today as major schools like USC are found to have violated the Byzantine “recruiting rules” in getting the star players they needed for championship-contending teams, The Basketball Fix seems all too current even though one gets the impression that the way to end point-shaving would be to run bets on team sports the way horse-racing bets are run — in which your horse actually has to win, place or show for your bet to come in and the odds rankings determine how much you make on your bet rather than how many seconds your horse has to win, place or show by to pay off.