The Harlem Globetrotters, a 1951 film from Columbia pictures, if nothing else answers the question ``What would Sweet Georgia Brown sound like if played by a Studio System orchestra?'' The answer is: weird, like when you hear an orchestra trying to play The Kinks or Take Me Out To The Ballgame. It stars the actual Globetrotter lineup of 1951, plus Billy Brown as Billy Townsend, and Thomas Gomez as Abe Saperstein (and Dorothy Dandridge as Townsend's girlfriend Ann; the film appeared as part of a Dorothy Dandridge marathon). The story and screenplay is by a man named Alfred Palca, so I'm fairly sure what he was nicknamed in middle school.
The film starts with the Globetrotters stuck on a bus about twelve miles from the game; they push the bus out of the mud and change on the car so they can just run into the basketball court and start to play. This part --- and several bits of game footage running through the plot --- clearly star the actual Globetrotters, and look to be taken from their real performance/competitions and the movie comes to life whenever they do. It also raises in me the question of why the Globetrotters aren't studied by professional basketball. I mean, I understand why the NBA would resist having buckets of confetti tossed on opposing players, but a lot of the Globetrotter comedy is based on faking out where the ball is going, and faking that out has to be legitimate strategy.
Anyway, Billy Townsend is a college student, very skilled in chemistry, who's nevertheless quite good in basketball and who talks Saperstein into putting him on the team. Townsend's pretty smug about his own abilities, and spends most of the film rubbing everybody the wrong way. It's hard to say that someone would get into professional basketball, even the surprisingly ramshackle organization professional basketball was in 1951, without being supremely self-confident, but whereas some people are able to be self-confident in an inviting way, Townshend just isn't. A key part of this is that Townshend worries considerably about what he's getting paid to play, noting that the Globetrotters pay more highly than any other team, and pausing before he gets his big break as a starter to make sure that he's getting the higher starter's salary ($1200 per month!). This is meant to set him up as not truly committed to the team, although it's a natural thing to worry about.
There's a bunch of little slices of pre-big-money professional sports, such as the long bus rides and the close talk with the trusted reporter, and how important it is to hide things like how badly Townshend damages his knee while sneaking out after curfew (to get married). And this develops the plot in which Townshend manages to rub everyone the wrong way, including taking a last-second shot when the coach's order was to just hold the ball and run the time out (it works out, but as pointed out, if he'd missed the Celtics would have been had the chance to win it) and then --- since he doesn't own up to his injured knee (he ran into a garbage can, just after it'd recovered from an injury in playing) --- misses the last-second shot to produce a rare Globetrotters loss. When he's not devastated by the loss, pointing out that it really is just a game, he quits just ahead of being forced off the team, signs with another team for the start of next season if he stays off his wounded knee, and goes to teaching chemistry at a Baltimore college for a couple months.
Now here's the emotional crux, such as it is: the Globetrotters see their team not just as a quite good basketball team, but as a nearly holy calling, including one that serves as a great cause for Black America to believe in. Townshend doesn't share that attitude, insisting he's not a symbol or a cause or anything, just a guy who plays basketball well and whose life doesn't depend on winning games --- which, though a healthy attitude, seems like a rare one for an All-American who'll quit college mid-term to join a professional team. Of course, character is defined by having unusual attitudes. However, you can see where this is going: the climax of the story is how everyone at the Baltimore college --- which is, ah, not for white students --- is going up to New York for the big Globetrotters game against the Celtics, and Townshend realizes that the game is more than just basketball. He rejoins the team --- shredding his other contract --- and is able to help them win at the cost of wrecking his knee for good. He'll go back to chemistry and the Globetrotters go onto being icons.
It's nothing compared to the Joe E Brown baseball trilogy, of course; it hasn't got that dash or energy or comedy to it although of course it's not trying to be funny either. But it is a major motion picture (albeit one the studio didn't have much enthusiasm about) with only one important white character, and all the non-white folks are people. (Of course, the non-white folks who have any important parts are the protagonist and his bride, who pretty much have to have personality, and the Real Globetrotters, celebrities even then.) Can't be unhappy about that.
Interestingly, and against the conventions for this sort of thing, there's a gamblers subplot since after all it is a sports movie. But (and unlike the Joe E Brown baseball trilogy) the gamblers don't make any effort to fix the games, at least not that's shown on-screen. They don't do anything worse than scout carefully the evidence of Townshend going into and out of the hotel rooms and watching his injured knee, shuffling bets around as they're more or less confident in his health. Perhaps the screenwriter was afraid of offending an actual team. The way this obvious setup for something doesn't pay off, though, or at least doesn't pay off in the obvious way gives a curious plausibility to the rest of the plot. It doesn't build up to the high drama that a lazier script would, and somehow this un-fired pistol makes the rest feel more like something that actually happened.
Besides the Harlem Globetrotters, named teams include the Grand Rapids Wolverines, the New York Celtics, the New York Rams, raising the question of how many basketball teams New York City actually needs, the Cleveland Stags, the Beacons, the Cardinals, and the Wildcats.
Trivia: A trick secret for David Niven on I've Got A Secret was ``I'm sitting on a keg of ice.'' Another guest's trick secret was ``I have a live snake in my pocket.'' One contestant was the man who figured out Albert Einstein's income tax. Source: Quiz Craze, Thomas A DeLong.
Currently Reading: New Jersey Curiosities, Peter Genovese.
PS: , The Last Ride Of A Roller Coaster, probability inspired by this summer's emergency trip to Cedar Point. Enjoy!