The great comedian and filmmaker Buster Keaton loved baseball. So much so that, when he had his own production company in the 1920s, the job application consisted of two questions: (1) Can you act? and (2) Can you play baseball? (50% was a passing score.) Amazingly, Keaton made only one movie built around the sport, the Educational Pictures two-reeler One Run Elmer (originally released on Feb. 22, 1935).
Before we talk about One Run Elmer, however, let’s get something out of the way first. Just about every time Keaton’s low-budget shorts for Educational and Columbia in the 1930s and early 40s are mentioned in a book or article, they are belittled as being unworthy of his talent. Admittedly, they have nowhere near the breathtaking brilliance of Keaton’s silent work, but viewed on their own merits, these shorts (which initially introduced a lot of us Baby Boomers to Keaton’s work on television) are still pretty damn funny. So you purists shut up while we laugh our butts off!
One Run Elmer was directed by Charles Lamont from a screenplay that’s credited to Glen Lambert, but Keaton undoubtedly had a hand in the script and sight gags. The 19-minute short begins in a desert out in the boonies of the Southwest. Buster plays Elmer, proprietor of a tiny gas station roughly about the size of an outhouse in the middle of nowhere. He might not have many customers, but he sure doesn’t have any competition either. Until one day, a truck pulls up and a prefabricated modern gas station is hastily erected right across the dirt road from Elmer’s. (“I knew when I picked this location there’d be a boom here some day,” Elmer says.) The owner of the new station is Jim, played by Keaton’s friend Harold Goodwin who often played heavies in his films.
When Elmer sees his rival is undercutting his prices, the two of them get into a pricing war. When Jim is down to 29 cents a gallon (ah, those were the days), Buster cuts his price to 17 cents. A car pulls up. “No, I don’t want any of that cheap gas,” the driver growls, “Gimme ten gallons of that good gas!” Another car pulls up. Elmer runs over first, but the hose on his pump stops just a few inches short of the car’s gas tank. (Keaton later did an astounding variation on this gag for a gasoline commercial in the late 1950s.) Jim’s hose reaches the gas tank just fine.
An attractive young lady who is billed as The Girl (Lona Andre) pulls up next. Elmer runs up and she orders ten gallons. A sale at last! But, in an attempt to impress the woman that he’s immediately smitten with, Elmer tries to clean off her car, only to create a cloud of dust that envelopes her. While Elmer tries to repair the damage, Jim makes the sale himself. The Girl asks Jim for directions to the Deadwood Inn. It seems she’ll be staying in the area all summer. When Jim tells her about the local entertainment, she reveals that she has a particular fondness for baseball. “Wait here,” Elmer says and runs into his station. He emerges just a few seconds later in his baseball uniform, but Jim, who has miraculously managed to change into his baseball uniform in the interim, is flirting with his new flame. The Girl says she’ll see Jim at the game as she pulls away.
Jim asks Elmer if he wants to warm up. Elmer agrees and they throw the ball at each other with increasing ferocity, resulting in much damage, including a broken window, to Elmer’s property. Elmer tries to retaliate, but his fast ball winds up going through the window of a car owned by the one of the locals (Dewey Robinson) that’s driving by. The guy is not pleased.
The climatic ball game has a rather dreamy, surrealistic quality thanks to the desert setting at twilight. The Bearcats are up against the Rattlers. (Elmer acts as the Bearcats’ catcher and Jim is the Rattlers’ pitcher.) Much to Elmer’s dismay, the guy whose car window he broke turns out to be the umpire. (Legendary All American athlete Jim Thorpe has an unbilled role as the Second Baseman for the Rattlers.) Jim tries many a dirty trick against Elmer. While pitching to Elmer, he puts his chewing gum on the ball. Elmer bunts and heads for first base, but the umpire sees that the ball is stuck to the bat and calls him back. Elmer hits the next pitch and heads for first base, turns around and runs back to make sure the ball isn’t stuck to the bat this time and then heads back for first base.
By the bottom of the ninth inning, the score is Rattlers 3, Bearcats 0. The Bearcats have a sudden stroke of luck and soon the bases are loaded. Elmer’s up to bat next, so he decides to fight fire with fire. He plants a bullet into his bat which literally explodes when he sends the ball flying. Thorpe gets the ball and throws it to the Rattlers’ catcher just as Elmer is rounding third and The Girl is cheering him on. Elmer races for home and avoids being tagged out by giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “spikes up.” Safe!
One Run Elmer is not available for rental, but can be purchased as part of the The Buster Keaton Educational Shorts set from Looser Than Loose. Footage from the climax of One Run Elmer can be viewed on-line for free in this tribute to Jim Thorpe on YouTube.