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His Last Game (1909)
The story is pretty simple. Choctaw has a big game against Jimtown, and they count on their star pitcher, Native American Bill Going, to lead the way. But gamblers enter the scene to fix the game. They try to bribe Bill with money. After about 10 seconds of melodramatic temptation, he turns them down. So they offer booze. Same deal. Finally, they attempt to get him drunk anyway by fixing him the era’s version of a roofie. But he outsmarts them, switches drinks, and then throws the booze-filled drink into the gambler’s face. A fight breaks out and the gambler draws a gun. It’s wrested away from him and he’s shot and killed. For this, Bill Going is led away by the authorities for murder. Well, “authorities.” “Swift western justice” the title card proclaims, and we next see him in front of an open grave, with the sheriff and a firing squad nearby.
But wait! A letter!
If Bill Going wins this game, there’s new evidence in his favor and I demand a REPREEVE.
Signed by 604 of Arizona’s best cityzens an Yuba Bill, Sherif
Why is this new evidence going to surface only if he wins the game? Stop asking questions.
So the Choctaw chief stands in for Bill, who rides back to town, wins the game, and is about to celebrate with his teammates when he remembers the chief. Then he rides back and stands before the open grave. He asks for, and is granted, a pipe for a last smoke.
But wait! The Chief puts his ear to the ground and hears a coming horse! Maybe it’s a reprieve! No matter. The sheriff, standing behind Bill, signals for the firing squad to fire. They do, and Bill slumps into the grave ... just as, oh no, a man rides up with Bill’s reprieve! So sad! But, yeah, kind of telegraphed by the title.
C’mon, it was 1909. What did you expect—“Casablanca”?
People were obviously still learning the camera—or baseball—back then, as they tried to fit everything into the small frame. As a result, the ump stays off to the left rather than crouching behind the catcher, and it looks to be maybe 10 feet—rather than 90—between bases. Worse, when the catcher and ump aren’t in the frame, you have almost nothing in the foreground. Yet they didn’t move the camera for those shots. So the bottom third of the screen contains nothing while the top two-thirds contains everything—including a lot of characters who essentially have their heads cut off. It’s as if your grandmother photographed the movie on vacation.
IMDb is a bit sparse on the details behind the production, and Wikipedia is worse: only an Italian entry—so I’m not sure who made it or why or why they chose Native Americans. Did they think, “Hey, let’s mix westerns with baseball”? Or was the prevalence of Native Americans in early baseball—including Charles “Chief” Bender, a future Hall of Famer—a factor?
Italian Wiki claims that Harry Solter, a silent film director with several dozen credits, directed the thing, but IMDb simply leaves the credit blank. At the least, we know it was produced by Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Co. of America (IMP), which, in 1912, merged with several other production companies to form Universal Pictures, which is still one of Hollywood’s “Big Six” studios, having produced, among others, “The Sting,” “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Bridesmaids.” Laemmle’s first big success was “Hiawatha,” based on “The Song of ...” so maybe that’s the reason for the Native American focus.
“His Last Game” isn’t quite the first baseball story on film—that would probably be Edison’s “How the Office Boy Saw the Game” from 1906—but it is interesting as an historic artifact. Should we be surprised by the fairly positive portrayal of American Indians? Not according to Dave Kehr, who, in his review of “Reel Baseball: Baseball Films of the Silent Era,” which is where I saw this, writes, “The pro-Indian stance is quite typical for westerns, which have been caricatured for years as racist and genocidal, though I have yet to find an early one in which those sentiments were not placed in the mouths of villains.”
July 24, 2014
© 2014 Erik Lundegaard