We can't never lose.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings was the debut film of Director John Badham, who would move on to helm such "new" classics as Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, and my own personal favorite, Blue Thunder. It is also a fictionalized account of the trials and tribulations of a renegade All-Star troupe of the best players from baseball's Negro Leagues. Making its DVD debut courtesy of Universal, Bingo Long has a surprisingly clean looking transfer and a very informative commentary from Mr. Badham.
Facts of the Case
It's the late 1930s and in the world of professional sports, America is still very much a black and white place. No matter that some of the greatest baseball talent alive is segregated to its own league, but these great players also have to play for owners whose generosity would make Leona Helmsey look good. So what is any star ball player going to do to change this? Well, if you are Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams, The Empire Strikes Back), you gather up other great players like Leon Carter (James Earl Jones, Field of Dreams) and start your own club touring the South while putting together pickup games with other teams. The owners, being the cruel people that they are, set out to make this upstart team a failure. So, this being the kind of movie that it is, it ends up having a winner take all showdown between our heroes and the All-Star team fielded by the owners. I don't really have to tell you who wins, do I?
Bingo Long is a lighthearted affair that deals with stand-ins for a couple of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game. Bingo Long, Billy Dee Williams' character, is based on Satchel Paige. Paige is quite possibly the best pitcher ever to hurl heat off a mound. This man once pitched 64 consecutive scoreless innings, threw 21 straight wins, and had an incredible 31-4 record in 1933. If Paige was a remarkable hurler, then Leon Carter, the James Earl Jones character is based on, was an equally impressive hitter. Carter is based on catcher Josh Gibson. Gibson was known as the black Babe Ruth and if you look at his numbers, it is easy to see why. In a 17-year career, Gibson was a .391 hitter with a home run total that is believed to be a staggering 392! Paige may be better known because he ended up playing in the majors, but Gibson never really had his shot as he died far too young.
So, together we are talking about two players who are the stuff of legend, and both Williams and Jones do an excellent job of conveying the wit, determination, and athleticism of each man. Williams has the swagger and charm that I normally associate with him, which left Jones as the big surprise. Long one of the most gifted of American actors, it is still somewhat of a shock to see Jones in some of his earlier film work. He has always had a presence through the gift of his voice, but it's remarkable to see it matched with the physical strength here. It makes me sit back and wonder where his career would have gone if he had continued to get leads instead of moving into character actor territory. Other faces worth noting are Richard Pryor, who is hysterical as Charlie Snow, and Stan Shaw playing Esquire Joe Callaway, the film's Jackie Robinson stand-in.
Coming out of episodic television, director John Badham made an interesting debut with Bingo Long. He shows great skill in dealing with actors while also getting the most out of a limited budget. There is an economy to his direction that can probably be traced to his television roots, and his briskness serves the film well. When the screenplay of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins starts to lay it on a little thick, Badham does not allow the movie to overstay its welcome. Even while keeping the train moving, Badham has the confidence to allow the film to develop a good sense of place and of period. A lot of this atmosphere can surely be credited to the warm cinematography of Bill Butler (Jaws) while there is excellent attention to detail to be found in both the production and costume design. All of this speaks well of Badham and the team he assembled.
If I have spoken so highly of the movie's acting, its direction and production quality, then why was I let down by the whole affair? I used the word lighthearted earlier, and I think therein lies the problem. There is a kind of old time, breezy feel to Bingo Long that when taken in context to its subject matter just does not feel right. This "Jim Crow" era of baseball was not all fun and games. Throw into the mix the idea of those owners allowing their bread and butter to break away and compete with them is somewhat absurd. It's why the one part of the movie that is so jarring—the brutal attack upon Pryor's character—is also the one scene of the movie that is its most honest. Yet, with the overall tone of Bingo Long, this scene sticks out like a sore thumb and no matter how hard the movie tries to deal with it, the happy, joking tone never again seems appropriate. This attack, even though it was edited to a bare minimum, brings darkness to the film that simply does not jive with what the movie appears to want to be. The film seems to long for a return to its happy-go-lucky ways, but that image hangs like a shroud over the rest of the proceedings. It's clear that the attack is supposed to show how right our protagonists are while also cementing their resolve. It also serves the purpose of spinning the movie to its final third, but all it really does is make the rest of the movie feel hollow and false. It's a pity, because up until that point the movie is an easy view, one with enough charm and vigor to make one forget how ludicrous the basic conceit of Bingo Long really is.
For a fairly minor film, Universal's treatment of Bingo Long is pretty good. For starters, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer looks great. For a 25 year old film, this was a pleasant surprise. There is evident wear and tear on the source material and it does display a slight amount of grain, but overall these imperfections are not enough to bring down the positives that are clearly visible. Colors are strong and warm, flesh tones appear lifelike, and there is a surprising amount of detail to be discovered. Nighttime scenes do appear muddled, but Badham makes reference to this in the commentary and this was indeed how the movie appeared in theaters, so the transfer remains accurate.
Sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, and like the picture it is also of very high quality. Everything is well mixed with dialogue easily heard, music nicely balanced, and sound effects like the cracking of all those bats popping through loud and clear. I like a good 5.1 mix like the next guy, but it is still nice to hear what a well done mono track could accomplish.
Again, for a fairly minor film there are some good supplements attached with this release. Top of the heap is a very good commentary from John Badham. Mr. Badham has obviously taken the time to go through and prepare himself, because he offers up quite a lot of information as well as several stories concerning Bingo Long. Since this was his first movie, it's pretty clear that he feels a great deal of warmth towards the film and it comes through on the track. While there are some gaps in the discussion, they are fairly brief and don't detract from a good and informative listen. The disc also contains production notes, cast and filmmaker bios, a theatrical trailer, film highlights, and DVD-ROM features. None of these features are earth shattering, but taking into account what most other studios would do with a film like Bingo Long, its extras seem like a gold mine.
I'm of two minds regarding The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. On one hand, it is a well made, breezy good time of a movie, while on the other it teases with the notion that it could have been so much more. It's rare to see a film from this period of American cinema being carried entirely by an African-American cast and they do a fabulous job. The movie has its fun moments, some good acting, and some great production design. John Badham gave a great preview of coming attractions for his big screen career, and any movie showing Richard Pryor with a mohawk can't be all bad. Still, in the end the movie is undone by the weaknesses in its screenplay. Universal has done a nice job with this disc. If you know and love this movie, your money would be well spent. Otherwise, this movie is very much a rental.
The deliberations over The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings have ended with a hung jury. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director John Badham
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