The Great Olivia Re-Watch: Alibi Ike

The photo shows Olivia de Havilland and Joe E. Brown in Alibi Ike (1935).

Olivia de Havilland was one of old Hollywood's legendary stars. The actor, who passed away at age 104 on July 26, leaves behind a legacy of 49 films and several TV appearances that include eight wonderful films with Errol Flynn and Oscar winners like Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Heiress (1949). For the next several months, we'll take a journey through Olivia's filmography. Today, we're taking a look at the baseball comedy Alibi Ike (1935).

Alibi Ike begins at the spring training camp of the Chicago Cubs, where manager Cap (William Frawley) is anxiously awaiting a new rookie pitcher named Frank X. Farrell (Joe E. Brown). Frank arrives in a runaway car that nearly takes out half the team, and the high-jinks continue from there with Frank getting unwittingly involved with gangsters and starting an awkward romance with Cap's sophisticated niece Dolly (de Havilland). Frank seems to have a colorful excuse for every scrape he gets into which leads his teammates to dub him "Alibi Ike."

Brown is best known today for playing love struck millionaire Osgood Fielding III in Some Like It Hot (1959), but in 1935 he was a popular comedian at Warner Bros. (The New York Times critic Frank Nugent compared his star power to that of Greta Garbo and Shirley Temple in a review of Alibi Ike). Brown, who was  a talented athlete off screen, had already made two popular baseballs comedies -- Fireman, Save My Child (1932) and Elmer the Great (1933) -- when Warner's put Alibi Ike, which is based on a short story by famed writer Ring Lardner,  into production.

The studio needed a pretty ingenue to play Brown's love interest. They selected de Havilland who had just completed her film debut, A Midsummer Night's Dream (you can read about that movie here). Olivia wasn't happy about her casting, according to her biographer, Victoria Amador. She wanted to be a serious actress in top-quality films, and she didn't think appearing as a naive love interest in a roustabout baseball comedy was the best way to advance her career.  "I began this career in the most illustrious terms -- with Shakespeare -- and I had quite other ideas about my own career," she said.

Olivia de Havilland in one of her costumes for Alibi Ike (1935).
Olivia shared her objections with her bosses at Warner's, but she was a relatively untried contract player and, at this point in her career, had to take the parts she was assigned (there will be much more about Olivia's battles with Warner's as we go through her films). Despite her misgivings, Olivia turns in a professional performance. She doesn't have much to do besides look excited/lovestruck/concerned, but she does her best with part, amiably responding to Brown's awkward courtship and even getting drenched onscreen twice without complaint (once in a rainstorm and once in a boating mishap).

Alibi Ike is a pleasant-enough comedy that has a few belly laughs and quality work from Brown, who is great as an aw-shucks rube, and I Love Lucy alum Frawley, who is his typical crusty self as an exasperated manager. De Havilland fans won't find much to divert them other than her chic costumes, but, if you like baseball, it's a pleasant way to spend 72 minutes. We give it 2 and 1/2 stars out of 5 stars.

More thoughts on Alibi Ike:

-- Brown was a talented baseball player who reportedly gave up the chance to sign with the New York Yankees to pursue his show-business dreams (if I were Joe E's life coach/financial adviser I wouldn't have recommended this move, but I guess everything worked out OK). I'm no expert on baseball, but, at age 43, Brown still seems to be a pretty good pitcher.

-- The Internet tells me that several well-known '30s ballplayers appear in Alibi Ike. I don't have a clue who they are, but I'm sure baseball fans will be able to recognize at least a few faces.

-- Lardner's short story made the term "Alibi Ike" a catchphrase for someone who always comes up with excuses for their bad behavior/mistakes. 

Alibi Ike is available on DVD.

Next time we'll tackle another boisterous 1935 comedy, The Irish in Us. To read the previous article on A Midsummer Night's Dream, click here


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