Stream On: ‘Rhubarb,’ the cat that inherited a baseball team

By on March 30, 2023

The books of the journalist and humorist H. Allen Smith (1907-1976) were, during World War II, ubiquitous in America, popular not only on the home front but also on troop trains and at military camps. My parents owned Low Man on a Totem Pole and Life in a Putty Knife Factory, that I remember, and in the ’sixties, I bought a trade paperback of Poor H. Allen Smith’s Almanac, all of which practically defined American humor in the mid-twentieth century. He wrote one novel, Rhubarb, in 1946, which was made into a movie in 1951, about a cat that inherits a baseball team.


/Amazon /Streaming /Scene /⭐6.8/10 /1951 /NR

“Oh, that cat! That horrible cat!”

On a golf course, Thaddeus J. Banner (Gene Lockhart), the eccentric owner of an unhappy Brooklyn baseball team, is showing his unimpressed manager Len Sickles (William Frawley, I Love Lucy) a cat that’s stealing golf balls to the consternation of the players. “Why Len, you’ve just seen the greatest battle since David and Goliath! How much money do you think is in that foursome,” indicating the cat’s latest victims. “About 200 million dollars. Does it mean anything to that cat? No, sir! He thumbs his nose at ’em! Thumbs his nose at 200 million! That’s what I like to see: Fight … spirit … guts! There’s too much bowing and scraping going on today. That’s why I like to come out here and watch that cat. He’s a symbol, a symbol of something there’s not enough of these days.” When Sickles says, “I guess you’re right, chief,” Banner continues, excitedly, “That’s what I mean! ‘I guess you’re right, chief.’ You think I’m dead wrong, and yet you still ‘yes’ me. If you disagree, what d’you want to knuckle down for? Fight with me, Len!”

“Okay, T.J., I will. I think this is about the daffiest morning I ever spent in my life!”

“Now you’re talking!”

“You own a ball team, and I manage it for you. I leave the team and fly out here from St. Louis to talk business with you. Then you drag me out here to show me a moth-eaten ball of hair pick up a slow roller to third.”

“It’s more than your infield can do.”

“That’s why I’m here: You’ve got to buy some ball players. We’re in seventh place, and the only thing that’ll keep us out of the cellar is if the rest of the season is called off on account of rain!”

The team’s publicist, Eric Yeager (Ray Milland) pipes up: “They don’t need a press agent; they need an obituary man. I can’t get ’em mentioned in any paper in the country. They couldn’t find their seats if their pants were on fire.”

Banner nods toward where the cat has disappeared to. “Our club lacks only one thing: scrappers. Like that cat. He’s mangy, broken-down, comin’ apart at the seams, but he’s still a champion. And why? Because he’s got fight … spirit! I like things that fight back! That’s why I eat artichokes all the time. An artichoke doesn’t just lie on a plate like a mess of spinach, waitin’ to be devoured—it gives you a battle. And it doesn’t give up ’til you eat its heart out!”

They watch as some caddies bring a couple of German shepherds to the golfers. A ball is hit, the cat comes out, and the dogs are let loose, chasing the cat into some brush, from whence come the sounds of a fierce battle. Out come the dogs, whining, who head for the hills, and out comes the winner of the “rhubarb,” still growling—the moth-eaten ball of hair—that cat!

“Eric,” says Banner, “that cat, I’ve got to have!” At great personal risk, Eric drops a series of butterfly nets on “Rhubarb,” which are shredded, until he buys an expensive trap and baits it with golf balls, finally bringing his prey to his boss. The two scrappers, Banner and the cat, bond, and when Banner dies a few years later, it’s discovered that his last will and testament made Rhubarb his sole beneficiary, and the cat inherits thirty million dollars and the baseball team. Yeager, whose fiancée is allergic to cats, is named his guardian, Banner’s will concluding, “There is only one thing that I regret, that I won’t be here to see the fun!”

And fun there is. Rhubarb is a screwball, wise-cracking sports underdog (pardon the expression) comedy with a big heart below its hard-boiled surface and a great cast, including Elsie Holmes as Banner’s daughter, Rhubarb’s nemesis, who tries to impugn Rhubarb’s provenance and worse, and Orangey Minerva in the title role, one of legendary animal trainer Frank Inn’s (The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres) protégés, the only cat to win two PATSY Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year, an animal actor’s version of an Oscar), the first for Rhubarb, and the second for his portrayal of “Cat” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961. Frank Inn said that he got more money for his work on Rhubarb than H. Allen Smith did for writing the book!

Next time, why not? Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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