‘Babe Comes Home’ a keeper for collectors

The year 1927 was a banner season for George Herman “Babe” Ruth. The statistics tell the story: a .356 batting average, 192 hits, 60 home runs, 164 RBIs and 158 runs scored. In addition, his New York Yankees were on top of the world, winning the American League pennant and going on to sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1927 Fall Classic.

That same year, perhaps as an omen of good things to come, the vaunted “Sultan of Swat” appeared in the second feature film of his career. Titled “Babe Comes Home” and released in the spring of 1927, this silent effort went on to become one of the most important movies in the history of the cinema, at least as seen from a collector’s point of view.

“Babe Comes Home” was based on the short story “Said With Soap” by Gerald Beaumont, which first appeared in the April 1925 edition of Red Book. Producing the movie for First National Pictures was Wid Gunning, with Louis Stevens penning the screenplay, Ted Wilde directing, and Karl Struss serving as director of photography.

Heading the cast was Babe Ruth as Babe Dugan and Anna Q. Nilsson as Vernie. Others appearing in the film included Louise Fazenda (laundry girl), Ethel Shannon (Georgia), Arthur Stone (laundry driver), Lou Archer (Peewee, third baseman), Tom McGuire (Angel team manager), Mickey Bennett (mascot), James Bradbury Sr. (baseball player), Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (Big Boy Williams), James Gordon (baseball player), and Ralf Harolde and Helen Parrish in uncredited bit roles.

Billed as a romantic comedy, “Babe Comes Home” told the story of Babe Dugan, a home run slugger for the Los Angeles Angels, an actual baseball team at the time which played in the Pacific Coast League. The Babe, however, has a bad habit: he chews tobacco when playing. This makes him the object of scorn for the Snow White Laundry, which has the task of cleaning his dirty, juice-stained uniforms. A laundress at Snow White named Vernie decides to check out an Angels game in order to determine just how untidy one player can be.

During the game, Babe swats a fly ball which happens to connect with the unfortunate Vernie’s eye. Babe later calls Vernie, apologizing for the incident. The two then go on a date to an amusement park, where a roller coaster ride throws Vernie into Babe’s strong arms. A romance soon blossoms, with Babe and Vernie becoming engaged. Also getting bit by the love bug is Babe’s pal Peewee, who falls for Vernie’s friend, Georgia.

All is not well between the principal lovebirds, however, when Babe receives a number of pre-wedding gifts in the form of tobacco cubes and spittoons. A major-league rhubarb then ensues, with Vernie taking a walk. Distraught at the thought of losing Vernie, Babe decides to reform his tobacco-chewing ways, but soon goes into a slump. During a key game, Vernie finally shows up for her man.

With the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, a nervous Babe comes to the plate. Vernie then relents, tossing Babe a plug of tobacco. Babe then delivers the game winner in the form of a grand slam. However, he soon realizes that it was Vernie’s love which helped him to overcome his batting slump and not the plug of chew. Thus, Babe swears off his nasty habit forever.

“Babe Comes Home,” a 60-minute, six-reel silent movie comprised of 5,761 feet of black-and-white footage, was released to theaters on May 22, 1927.

“Babe Comes Home” proved to be a hit at the box office, thrilling both movie and baseball fans alike. Adding to the picture’s authenticity was the fact that the baseball scenes had been filmed at Wrigley Field, located in south-central Los Angeles. L.A.’s Wrigley Field, named in honor of William K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum tycoon who owned both the Chicago Cubs and the minor-league Los Angeles Angels, would be the chosen location for a slew of future baseball films, including “Fireman, Save My Child” (1932), “Alibi Ike” (1935), “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942), “The Stratton Story” (1949), “Kill the Umpire” (1950), “The Winning Team” (1952), “The Kid from Left Field (1953) and “Damn Yankees” (1958).

Robert W. Creamer writes in his definitive 1974 biography: Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (Simon and Schuster) that “toward the end of August (1920) he (Ruth) spent a lot of time driving back and forth to Haverstraw, N. Y., to make a motion picture called ‘The Babe Comes Home.’”

In order to clear up a longstanding error, Creamer should have designated the preceding picture as “Headin’ Home,” another starring cinematic vehicle for Ruth which had been released by the Yankee Photo Corporation on Sept. 19, 1920.
 
Proving to be one of “Babe’s” biggest fans was the star himself, the Bambino, who reportedly made more money from this one film appearance than his yearly baseball salary at the time ($70,000 in 1927). He later admitted that he had watched the movie at least 10 times.

As might be expected, all of the principals associated with “Babe Comes Home” have passed on to that great movie palace in the sky. Writer Gerald Beaumont (1880-1926) died of pneumonia before he could see his short story brought to the big screen. Director Ted Wilde (1893-1929), who also helmed the 1928 Harold Lloyd silent film classic “Speedy,” succumbed to a stroke two years after “Babe’s” release. Other deceased production crew members include screenwriter Louis Stevens (1899-1963) and cinematographer Karl Struss (1886-1981), whose later credits included such notable films as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931), Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940), the early science-fiction favorite “Rocketship X-M” (1950), and the Vincent Price horror classic “The Fly” (1958).

Babe Ruth (1895-1948), baseball great and sometime movie star, was diagnosed with throat cancer in the fall of 1946. He died at age 53 at New York’s Memorial Hospital on Aug. 16, 1948. One of his last public acts was attending the New York City premiere of “The Babe Ruth Story,” the 1948 biopic starring William Bendix. Following his death, Ruth’s body lay in state at the entrance of Yankee Stadium on Aug. 17 and 18, where it was reported that more than 100,000 mourners came to pay their final respects to the fallen baseball idol. On the day of his funeral, thousands of fans congregated outside New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and lined the route which took the Babe to his final resting place at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N. Y.

The Babe’s costar and romantic interest in “Babe Comes Home”, the blond, Swedish-born beauty Anna Quirentia Nilsson (1888-1974), enjoyed great success in the silent cinema, despite a near career-ending accident at the height of her popularity. In 1925, the actress had been thrown into a stone wall by a horse and temporarily paralyzed. An invalid for a year, Nilsson diligently worked with specialists and physical therapists in Sweden and Vienna until she was able to walk again.

“Babe Comes Home” marked one of her comeback films in 1927. Nilsson, who was the first Swedish actress or actor to receive her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, died of heart failure at age 85 in Hemet, Calif., on Feb. 11, 1974.

One of the most interesting supporting players in “Babe Comes Home” is Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Jr. (1899-1962). The son of a rancher and Texas congressman (Guinn Sr. served from 1922 to 1932, representing the 13th Congressional District), the burly, muscular, 6-2 Williams had entered films in 1919 as a stuntman where he was spotted by Will Rogers. “My, you are a big boy,” the famed humorist and film star reportedly commented upon meeting Williams, and the nickname stuck.

According to several sources, Williams worked on the professional rodeo circuit and played both semi-pro and pro baseball (ostensibly for the Chicago White Sox) before entering silent movies. A search of a number of baseball databases, including MLB.com, however, has failed to document the professional baseball connection. The actor was also known as something of a prankster, having once cut the necktie of Hollywood’s boy wonder at the time, Orson Welles, in a confrontation at a parking lot. Williams, the father of  actor William Tyler, died of uremic poisoning (an accumulation of waste in the blood due to advanced kidney failure) at age 63 in Burbank, Calif., on June 6, 1962.

Other deceased cast members from “Babe Comes Home” include Louise Fazenda (1895-1962), Ethel Shannon (1898-1951), Arthur Stone (1883-1940), Lou Archer (c.1874-?), Tom McGuire (1873-1954), Mickey Bennett (1915-1950), James Bradbury Sr. (1857-1940), James Gordon (1871-1941), Ralf Harolde (1899-1974) and Helen Parrish (1923-1959).

As for First National Pictures Inc. (originally known as First National Exhibitors Circuit), the distributor of “Babe Comes Home,” it too has passed into history. Founded in New York City in 1917 by a group of movie theater exhibitors who were fed up with the heavy-handed booking tactics of studio mogul Adolph Zukor and his Famous Players-Lasky studio (later merged with Paramount Pictures),  First National set out to make its own films. One of the new distribution company’s first releases was “My Four Years in Germany” (1918), which was followed that same year by the very first Tarzan film, “Tarzan of the Apes,” starring Elmo Lincoln. First National eventually became a major player in the film industry, adding to its fold such Hollywood superstars as Charlie Chaplin (signed in 1917 for a then-staggering $1.2 million to make eight, two-reel comedies per year) and “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford. First National Pictures, along with another rival studio, Vitagraph, was acquired by Warner Bros. in 1925. Warner continued using First National Pictures as a distribution subsidiary through 1935.

Sadly, “Babe Comes Home,” along with other countless silent films, has been lost to the ages, with no copies known to exist today. Accounting for this tremendous cultural loss are several explanations: many prints were intentionally destroyed after use in order to save on studio storage and archival costs; movies were produced in small quantities; with the advent of the sound era in 1927, silent films were later deemed worthless; prints simply wore out from use; the majority of silent pictures were made using cellulose nitrate, a highly flammable and unstable compound with a shelf life of between 30 to 80 years, which has resulted in irreversible chemical decomposition.

When it comes to sports film collectibles, “Babe Comes Home,” quite understandably, is a real heavy hitter in the hobby. Leading the way is the vaunted one-sheet poster (27-by-41 inches) which features a stunning illustration of Ruth, sporting a Los Angeles Angels cap, making a catch with his worn fielder’s mitt. To date, only two of these extremely rare posters have surfaced. One is owned by noted Texas movie poster collector/dealer Bill Hughes, who purchased his example in a November 2003 offering by Heritage Auction at Wizard World Texas. When the ball diamond dust had settled, Hughes had his poster, in very fine+ condition, for which he paid a whopping $138,000. “I was willing to go to $175,000,” Hughes said following the auction. “In my opinion it’s one of the top five most valuable movie posters of all time.” (For comparison purposes, Hughes himself recently sold a super rare 1931 “Frankenstein” one-sheet poster – one of only five known copies – for even more money, a staggering $235,000.)

The $138,000 “Babe” one sheet, which bears the name “Morgan” in the lower right hand corner (which refers to Morgan Lithography, the original printer of the poster, and not the poster artist, who remains unknown), is now residing in a vault in Texas. The poster is linen-backed for preservation purposes, but presently remains unframed and is available for trade.

The other “Babe Comes Home” one sheet was offered at auction by Sothebys.com on Dec. 2, 2004. Carrying a pre-sale estimate of $150,000-200,000, this example failed to make the team by not meeting its reserve bid.

Right behind the “Babe” one-sheet posters are the film’s lobby cards – so named because they were displayed in theater lobbies in order to generate interest in the current feature film. A title lobby card from “Babe,” considered by many collectors to be the most coveted in the series, sold for $12,650 in 2002. Another “Babe” lobby card, this one picturing the Bambino circling the bases, sold for $2,587 in a 2004 Sothebys.com auction.

One of the genuine treasures to surface from the Babe’s second feature film was a one-page handwritten letter circa 1927 in which Ruth touched on his latest cinematic venture.

Addressed to the Peacock Motion Picture Corp., Shanghai, China, the Babe wrote: “I am extremely enthusiastic over the picture ‘Babe Comes Home’ which I made for First National and am glad that Peacock is releasing the same in China. Very Sincerely Yours, Babe Ruth.” The Bambino also touched on the subject of autographed baseballs in the letter which he was donating to teams in China “to stimulate interest in the grand old game.” Written on the Babe’s personal stationery, this gem sold for $29,900 at a Dec. 2, 2004, auction conducted by Sothebys.com.

On the more affordable front, a cardboard poster from Park Theatre in Barre (Massachusetts or Vermont?) for the week of Sept. 26, 1927, touting coming movie attractions, including “Babe Comes Home,” Tom Mix in “The Outlaws of Red River” (like “Babe,” this western was also based on a story by Gerald Beaumont) and Dorothy Gish in “Madame Pompadour,” was offered in a December 2004 auction by Lelands.com. Bearing no images, this rarity, missing a small piece from the right corner, brought a reasonable $235.

On March 11, 1992, the nation of Guyana released a baseball stamp featuring the poster from “Babe Comes Home.” These “Babe” com-memorative stamps can usually be picked up
for a few dollars.

A number of outlets currently offer “Babe” reproduction items. So-called art prints featuring the original one-sheet poster’s graphics can be purchased for as little as $15. Reproduction lobby cards, including the title card which pictures the mighty Babe at bat, can also be bought at approximately the same price.

“Babe Comes Home” may have left the movie house for all eternity, but the 1927 silent film remains close to the heart for many collectors.

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