Judge Christopher Kulik warns you to pet this Rhubarb before you rub him.
It's the funniest picture in nine lifetimes!
Despite its title, Rhubarb is about a tabby cat, not the vegetable. According to author H. Allen Smith, Rhubarb was so named by a baseball broadcaster's colloquialism: "a noisy altercation, a broil, a violent emotional upheaval brought on by a epical dispute—-such as whether one grown man had touched another man on the body with a ball the size of a smallish orange." While long out of print, Smith's novel remains insanely funny and gloriously goofy. Paramount evidently thought so too, and secured the rights to adapt the film. Now arriving on DVD courtesy of Legend Films, does the film hit a home run?
Facts of the Case
A dirty alley cat causes mayhem at an NYC golf course, by stealing all the balls. Aging Thaddeus J. Banner (Gene Lockhart, Carousel), owner of the third-rate Brooklyn Loons baseball team, looks on one day in amazement while the feline fends off two ferocious dogs. As a result, he orders his ball club press agent, Eric Yeager (Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend), to snatch the cat so he can keep it as a personal pet. At first, Rhubarb is quite cantankerous, but soon warms up to Banner and Yeager. However, he doesn't like Banner's spoiled and obnoxious daughter Myra, who doesn't give a damn about her father.
When the old man dies, his will leaves the team and his millions to the only real friend he ever had: Rhubarb! To avoid legal wranglings, he makes Yeager the cat's caretaker. The news more than upsets Myra, as she intends to murder the cat at all costs. What's worse, the Loons feel embarrassed and refuse to play ball for a cat. Yeager convinces them otherwise by saying Rhubarb can bring them good luck. The Loons amazingly start to win games, but when Yeager's fiancee, Polly Sickles (Jan Sterling, Ace In The Hole), realizes she's allergic to Rhubarb, their impending marriage is soon in crisis.
The plot synopsis should clue readers into one fact: Smith didn't exactly write this book for young children. In the text, he uses several profanities and the initial meeting between Eric and Polly has an erotic quality which is difficult to ignore. In short, it may be accessible to younger readers but it's full of adult sensibilities, as is the film. Screenwriters Francis M. Cockrell and Dorothy Davenport never enter Disney territory with this story. In fact, some scenes may frighten children, most of them involving Myra's murder attempts and an invented subplot involving some dangerous gamblers. Nevertheless, Rhubarb remains genuine fun from start to finish.
There are many funny moments sprinkled throughout. There's the will reading scene where Myra freaks out; the Loons' being hazed for having a furry boss; Yeager's reactions to his fiancee's sneezing; and the explosion by the press. I laughed more than I expected I would, even when Rhubarb skirts believability a bit too much, like when the cat makes international headlines or the injection of ganster-like gamblers. As long as you don't read too much into the film, it's all harmless and highly enjoyable; credit Arthur Lubin (director of all the Francis the Talking Mule films) for making everything lightweight and fun.
Rhubarb also has one of the most electic casts I've seen. This doesn't seem like the type of the film to have an Oscar winner in the lead, but this is Ray Milland at his best. (Ironically enough, there is a moment in Smith's book in which he writes: "Eric got him [Thad Banner] to go one evening to a domestic comedy in which Ray Milland was the star.") Jan Sterling is pretty, but doesn't do much as the sneezing love interest. Lockhart is grand as Thad, Elsie Holmes is quite good as his upset daughter, and the Loons manager is delightfully played by William Frawley (I Love Lucy). Blink twice and you'll miss Leonard Nimoy, in only his second film, as one of the young Loons.
Thankfully, the actors are not upstaged by Rhubarb's star player. The cat is billed as "Orangey," although at least 14 tabbies were utilized to achieve the required tricks. However, Orangey owns the most screen time and, evidently, this feline had quite a career afterward. Not only did he win a Patsy (animal Oscar) for Rhubarb, he also won a second as the cat that Audrey Hepburn visits in Breakfast At Tiffany's. Over 15 years, Orangey would appear in numerous films and television shows, usually accompanied by trainer Frank Inn, who also worked with Benji, Lassie, and many other famous animals.
Paramount has done an exceptional job preserving the film. The black-and-white print is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33, and aside from some expected age defects, the picture quality is outstanding. The mono sountrack is also excellent. Unsurprisingly, there are no bonus features, which is too bad. I was hoping for either a lobby card recreation of Orangey's "signature" paw print, or a Leonard Nimoy commentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Rhubarb accomplishes its mission, I wish the filmmakers transferred more from Smith's book. In general, the adaptation is faithful, with the exclusion of two wacky characters. Smith wrote a hilarious "cat expert" of sorts who goes ballistic when she finds out Rhubarb isn't neutered. The other is the totally insane judge presiding over Rhubarb's case, who doesn't take the trial seriously for a second.
Adults and kids should get a kick out of Rhubarb, as it remains a winning farce after all these years.
Rhubarb is free to go, and Legend is commended for getting this fun feline flick out of the Paramount vaults. Court is adjourned.
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