Babe Ruth in “Babe Comes Home,” Motion Picture News.
Play ball! This week sees the start of another baseball season in the United States, once the most popular pastime of average Americans and considered as American as motherhood and apple pie. The sport jumped from the major leagues to national hearts in the 1920s thanks to radio broadcasting, advances in the game, and the batting prowess of George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr.
Though a successful left-handed pitcher in the 1910s, Ruth’s slugging skills with a bat brought him international fame and cemented his place in American folklore and sports history. Beginning in 1918, the Babe tied or established home run records that would stand for decades. HIs dominating skills at the plate helped usher in power and high scoring into baseball, driving its popularity.
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By 1921, thanks to superstar Ruth, the “Sultan of Swat,” and the power hitters of their roster, the New York Yankees would be established as of the greatest sports dynasties with their domination of the baseball post season for decades to come. The team would win seven pennants and four World Series after Ruth joined the team, establishing attendance records that required the construction of a new stadium in 1923, “the house that Babe built.”
Capitalizing on the Babe’s popularity, Ruth’s manager and advisors sought out extracurricular ways for the hitting machine to earn extra cash. Ruth endorsed products, barnstormed around the country performing in exhibitions, and even starred in a feature film as himself called “Headin’ Home.”
As his celebrity status grew during the 1920s, so did his batting prowess, as the slugger established records for home runs, runs batted in, and slugging percentage. By the 1920s, the Babe ranked as one of the world’s greatest superstars, thanks to his athletic skills and his larger than life personality.
In 1927, First National motion picture executives approached his manager and former journalist Christy Walsh, negotiating a deal for the Babe to star in another film as himself, per the January 22, 1927 Los Angeles Times. Based on the short story “Said with Soap” by the late sports journalist Gerald Beaumont, “Babe Comes Home” would show the sports hero falling in love and dealing with the possible loss of his girl due to his use of chewing and spitting tobacco. Ruth would earn $76,000, almost what he earned playing for the New York Yankees.
Babe Ruth with Col. Rupert, announcing “Babe Comes Home,” Motion Picture News.
First National bought out his vaudeville contract with Alexander Pantages and pushed for a February 4 start date in order for Ruth to complete his scenes in three weeks before the start of spring training. The contract specified that filming would not detract from Ruth’s training or off-season preparation.
The studio borrowed director Ted Wilde from Harold Lloyd, and hired Wid Gunning to serve as producer/production manager for the film. Photographer and cinematographer Karl Struss handled camera work. Actress Anna Q. Nilsson reluctantly signed to play his love interest, with actors such as Ethel Shannon, Louise Fazenda, and Arthur Stone filling out the main cast.
A four-year-old Helen Parrish landed her first acting gig as Ruth’s daughter, before she would move on to success playing against Deanna Durbin at Universal. The LA Times notes that three ballplayers, James Gordon, James Gradbury, and Big Boy Williams (later gaining fame as actor Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) would round out the cast. First National filmed at LA’s famed Wrigley Field in south Los Angeles for actual game scenes.
An ad for “Babe Comes Home” in Motion Picture News.
During production, Ruth completed his scenes and departed Burbank on the train February 26, working with his trainer Artie McGovern to condition himself for spring training. Complete filming wrapped on March 8. The studio rushed to finish post-production and ship the film to theaters during the baseball season, especially as Ruth was setting home run records left and right.
To help drum up publicity, Ruth spoke to reporters in New York before a May game. The Brooklyn Standard Union on May 6 quotes Ruth as stating “I like the movie much better than I expected,” and describing filming it as great fun. He claimed they shot a sequence where he crawled under a bed chasing a rat twelve times until it came out just right.
“Babe Comes Home” opened June 24 at Los Angeles’ Uptown Theatre, earning mediocre reviews from an uncredited Times’ review. It states that “knocking ‘homers’ and spitting tobacco juice prove that it takes more than an act to make a movie star.” The review cynically suggests the studio produced the film solely to capitalize on Ruth’s name recognition, calling it a series of loose jointed scenes. They described an elaborate amusement park sequence as the film’s standout, and included only because “it happens to be the most amazing episode” in the whole picture. Wilde’s work was described as perfect for a Harold Lloyd film, just not for this one.
Promotional items for “Babe Comes Home,” Motion Picture News.
Educational Screen trashed the film, calling it “worthless” in their ratings system and finding it “Pretty vulgar stuff as a whole.” Photoplay reviewed it as “not much of a comedy but an ingenuous and moving performance by Babe Ruth helps it over.” The magazine felt Ruth’s “good-humored, never quite grown up personality” shown through.
Many others praised “Babe Comes Home,” with the June 5 Film Daily stating “Babe Ruth Hits a Home run and Scores Some Laughs.” The film earned enough laughs not to disappoint fans, and felt the strong cast surrounding Ruth helped provide him a good screen opportunity.
Per Exhibitor Herald, small towns seemed to love it, with exhibitors writing the film packed audiences and gained lots of laughs, a good family film. To help score up huge box office tallies, exhibitors arranged to bring in little league players and tie-in with local ball games.
First National also devised elaborate baseball displays to help drum up advertising. Life-size cutouts of Ruth decorated many a sporting goods store, along with colorful lithographic posters and pennants.
Babe Ruth leaves for the East after completing “Babe Comes Home,” Motion Picture News.
A censor outside of Chicago however banned it from showing in that city’s suburbs due to Ruth’s spitting of tobacco, requiring artful negotiations by the studio.
New York’s Longacre Theatre booked “Babe Comes Home” to run in conjunction with a new film audio system called Voca-Film in late June. Exhibitors Herald described Voca-Film as a disc system with a horn in front of the screen. Problems with the system delayed synchronization until July 25, when the sound process failed on its opening night. After many delays, problems with some musical numbers barely audible, some blaring, and some numbers out of sync, the system finally worked with the film. Unfortunately only half of the audience remained after grumbling gave way to chuckles and then uproarious laughter, much like the disaster of the sound synchronization sequence in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Babe Ruth set not only box office records that season but also baseball records, slamming 60 home runs in 1927, a record which stood 34 years until Ted Williams remarkable 1961 season overwhelmed Ruth’s record.
Though Ruth would make an hilarious cameo in the 1928 Harold Lloyd film, “Speedy,” and appear in several more shorts, the Home Run King never starred in a motion picture again. Collectors pay top prices for posters and lobby cards for “Babe Comes Home” when they appear at auction, the only surviving artifacts from the movie, as the film is no longer believed to exist.
That wasn’t Babe’s first involvement in Los Angeles. Found a Times article of Jul 20, 1920, where Babe had sent an autographed baseball bat to be auctioned at a children’s welfare benefit baseball game between the Angels and the Vernon Tigers. Game was held at the old Washington Park.