Underdog Cardinals try to make it through one killer of a baseball season…
Death on the Diamond (1934) concerns the St. Louis Cardinals, trying to rebuild while in the middle of a league wide gambling scandal. David Landau acquires a Texas star pitcher to save the team, played by Robert Young, and in so doing, he’s gone totally in debt. If they don’t start turning things around, by the end of the season he’ll lose the team to a slimy new owner.
Landau’s daughter, played by Madge Evans, is involved in running the office and brings her usual cool been-there-done-that, down to earth elegance to the movie, attracting Young on first meeting. Meanwhile, C. Henry Gordon, a notorious better and fixer, starts nosing around to see who’s good for the season and who could be bought, setting his sights on Young. The brash new pitcher is even more green when it comes to knowing Gordon’s bad news, and inadvertently casts suspicion on himself that’s hard to shake for the rest of the season. As the games pile up, The Cards start winning, and by the regular season’s end are sitting comfortably near the top. Now Gordon, who went for long odds based on the hopeless team he saw in training, suddenly has a lot to lose, and starts his all out assault to ensure the Cards get no closer to the pennant. Young is caught discovering a $10,000 payoff with a directive to throw the next game, and the only way he can prove himself uninvolved is to win, which he does in stunning fashion by pitching a no-hitter.
Things escalate from there to murder and sabotage, car “accidents,” shootings, bombings and even poisoned mustard! It gets so that whenever Landau asks “where’s so-and-so?!” you just know it means they’re either murdered or missing. One by one the players are bumped off and tension builds until a crucial game where Young has to play and win, and he’s the only big target left. The mystery is light and set up pretty well, presenting many possible suspects, and when the culprit is revealed you may have already guessed who it is from well-planted clues, so it’s a fair and satisfying solution.
There’s some cute romance as Young puts the moves on Evans, some comic relief from the players interacting and believable baseball scenes. Above all there are really good, tense moments and nonstop goings on as people are gunned down rounding the bases or found in the stadium’s innards. One thing that really stood out for me were the many varied, surprisingly creative and impressive shots: camera pans, angles and tricks that are different for the time and make the movie very interesting to look at; for example the staging of a body falling out of the locker where it’s been stashed could easily have come from a top notch horror film. No wonder it’s all handled so skilfully, since the director is Edward Sedgwick, former vaudeville acrobat, actor, writer, helmer of Tom Mix westerns and most notably, Buster Keaton films including The Cameraman. Sedgwick was a huge baseball fanatic, and put his love and knowledge of the game on display here (as well as in Slide, Kelly, Slide). Interesting fact: he “discovered” Lucille Ball and after his death Lucy took in and cared for his widow.
Sedgwick, with Keaton.
As if all that wasn’t fun enough, there is a huge roster of faces familiar to movie buffs, whether it’s one of my faves Paul Kelly as a hardnosed reporter digging into the gambling scandal, hounding the Cards and then looking into the murders, whether it’s characters like Nat Pendleton as the catcher and hot dog addict (he seems to produce them from thin air), his nemesis Ted Healy the “Empire,” Willard Robertson as the detective, little Mickey Rooney as the bat boy who uncovers a poisoning attempt using the players’ gloves (he totally steals that scene by making everyone wait for his lines while he dramatically catches his breath), Robert Livingston as another murder victim, plus Ed Brophy, Ward Bond, Bruce Bennett and Walter Brennan and more who appear uncredited. All in all, Death on the Diamond is a very entertaining and light look at one one heck of an underdog team trying to make it through one killer of a baseball season.
some of these pix come from Immortal Ephemera’s post on this movie