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January Critters: Rhubarb (1951)

W.C. Fields may not have liked them, but who else doesn't like a good animal movie? This month we watch movies starring a variety of different animals.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Rhubarb (1951) tells the story of a wealthy, eccentric man (Gene Lockhart) that owns a baseball team. He takes a liking to a stray (feral?) cat appreciating the spunk and survival instinct of the critter. After coercing his publicist to capture the feline, he builds a close and unorthodox friendship with the animal, and surprises his heirs when he dies and bequeaths his considerable fortune to Rhubarb. His publicist, Eric Yeager (Ray Milland) is named the guardian of the cat in another twist. Finally, Yeager’s fiancé, Polly is terribly allergic to Rhubarb, which creates complications as does the wrath of a greedy, entitled daughter, Myra (Elsie Holmes) determined to off Rhubarb once and for all.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The idea of Polly literally sniffing out the bad guys is funny on paper and even funnier on the screen. I laughed the hardest when the police lineup was subjected to her olfactory 3rd degree.

It was also a laugh that a couple routinely brought their female cat to baseball games in hopes of setting her up with Rhubarb, and they put mascara on her!

RB: This is an easy, breezy film with lots of fun sequences and parts for character actors. Willard Waterman pops up as Myra’s lawyer attempting to prove that the cat purported to be Rhubarb is an imposter. Waterman is probably best known (to me anyway) as the actor to star in The Great Gildersleeve on radio and television from 1950 on. His voice is unmistakable. Non-radio fans may still recognize him from The Apartment and Auntie Mame. William Frawley, whom has gained immortality as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy, has a good turn as the manager of the baseball team, often at odds with his players who don’t take kindly to the concept of playing for a team owned by a cat. Through all of this, while a good time, it should be noted that this isn’t the most clever or original concept in a movie, even by 1951.

SG: We once screened You Never Can Tell at Cinevent, a movie about a German Shepherd who inherits a fortune and then is targeted, as Rhubarb is in this movie. It is like those writers saw this movie and took it a step further.

"He ain't made of China like those cats they're making lamps from!"

This isn't your usual cute cat movie. Rhubarb is prickly and feral and apparently lucky for his team.

RB: Seeing the baseball team members come around to the good luck that Rhubarb brings them is another fun turn of events in the film.

SG: H. Allen Smith was a best-selling author and humorist whose works were so popular, three of his books were printed in Armed Services Editions for easy transport for soldiers on active duty: Life in a Putty Knife Factory, Low Man on a Totem Pole, and Lost in the Horse Latitudes. His book Rhubarb was released in 1946 and spawned a sequel in 1954 called Cat Stories and another in 1967 called Son of Rhubarb.

Although the opening credits list SPCA approval, there were many times watching this movie that I felt the cat was in distress. He does a lot of hissing and growling and receives a lot of manhandling. Rhubarb is played by Orangey, a name that doesn't ring a bell with movie-lovers the way Rin Tin Tin or Asta might, but his furry mug is one many people will recognize. Orangey also played Butch in The Incredible Shrinking Man and Cat in Breakfast at Tiffany's. He was handled by Frank Inn, who was an assistant trainer to Asta AKA Skippy and Lassie AKA Pal in the earlier part of his career.

RB: I have to admit that I thought that the cat was just a really good actor. This is also the same cat that played Minerva on the TV series Our Miss Brooks for eight years, a show that ran in reruns for so long that I remember seeing it in reruns in the 80’s. I doubt it’s playing anywhere these days though.

SG: I love the art for the ads with the cute smug fat cat, nose in the air without a care in the world.

RB: There is a real midcentury vibe to the art advertising this film, and it captures the spirit of the proceedings pretty well. I agree with you that it’s very attractive.

SG: "It's too long for one thing, the story fails to make the most of its cat star, and the baseball sequences are stretched too far," wrote the reviewer for The Film Bulletin. "BUT, and the 'but' in caps is deliberate, Rhubarb is still lots and lots of fun."

Photoplay named this film among the best pictures of the month and called it, "a riot on wheels."

Focus Film Review said, "I heartily recommend this nonsensical and wholly delightful film to any reader who wants an afternoon's light entertainment. Even if, like myself, you don't know the first thing about baseball you can't help being amused, as the jaded critics at the press show showed by their laughter that they were."

The Globe Theater in New York offered free admission to the first thousand kids who brought a photo of their cats to the show. They could also snag Rhubarb autographed photos (a paw print) and a Rhubarb Fan Club button.

"If this one won’t go you might as well close your doors," said James Hardy of the Shoals Theatre in Shoals, Indiana.

Marcella Smith of the Vinton Theatre in McArthur, Ohio said, "In my opinion, Rhubarb is a far better actor than [Betty] Grable-- more versatile and not quite so sexy. My audience must be somewhat peculiar however -- they prefer cats to blondes."

I had fun with this one; a zany plot and a tough cat, what's the harm? Three stars.

RB: While I wouldn’t consider this film to be well known among those who are not classic film devotees, it probably should be. Populated by Hollywood favorites and character actors, this charming story directed by Arthur Lubin (known for the Francis films and a bushel of Abbott and Costello movies) of a cat with an eccentric owner (and baseball!) would be a homerun for casual fans. I’m going to go a little higher than you on this one and go three and a half stars for the breezy good time that I had with it. But unlike Marcella Smith, I don’t have anything against Betty Grable either.

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