Hollywood in the early 1950s saw a handful of odd little films based around animals. For example, there was You Never Can Tell (1951), in which a murdered German Shepard comes back to life as Dick Powell in order to find his killer. Then there was The Great Rupert (1950), about a squirrel coming to the aid of Jimmy Durante. There was also the successful series about Francis, the Talking Mule, beginning in 1950, directed by Arthur Lubin - coincidentally, the man also responsible for Rhubarb.
This is a strange, rather frantic but enjoyable enough movie, not believable in the slightest, but for sheer, off-the-beaten path entertainment, it's pretty interesting. Taken as a sort of shaggy dog (or in this case, cat) fable, it's pretty diverting, full of crazy incident and imaginative plot turns. At the very least, it's never boring.
Director Lubin obviously had an affinity for movies about and featuring animals; not only did he bring Francis and Rhubarb to the screen, he also directed the equally odd animation/live action hybrid The Incredible Mr. Limpet, not to mention being the mastermind behind the Mr. Ed TV series. One imagines his long experience directing Abbott & Costello movies prepared him for the challenges of handling wild things.
Rhubarb starts the film as a feral cat living on a golf course, stealing golf balls off the green. One of a group of golfers gets fed up with losing well-placed shots to the cat and sics his two German Shepards on him. However, old Rhubarb has a mean streak a mile wide and sends the two hounds yipping away back to their master. Eccentric multimillionaire T.J. Banner (Gene Lockhart) watches this with relish. He admires the cat's fighting spirit. Les Sickles, manager of the Brooklyn baseball team Banner owns, and team press secretary Eric Yeager (Ray Milland) are less impressed.
Banner orders Yeager to catch the critter. After several failed attempts, Eric finally snares the creature, and brings the spitting feline to Banner's palatial home. The old man names the cat Rhubarb and soon the cat becomes his constant companion.
A year or so passes and Banner dies, leaving the bulk of his estate, including the baseball club, to Rhubarb. His cold-fish daughter Myra (Elsie Holmes) is livid, left with only a small stipend insufficient to continuing living the lavish lifestyle, complete with athletic boy toys, to which she's been accustomed. Much to his chagrin, Eric is named guardian of Rhubarb and only agrees to the job after Myra threatens to ruin him. Like Banner, Eric doesn't like being pushed around...
Unfortunately, Eric's kind gesture soon brings him a whole host of problems, one of which is dealing with the recalcitrant players on the team, who refuse to play for an owner that's a cat. Banking on the players' superstitious natures, Eric tricks them into thinking petting Rhubarb will bring them good luck. This ploy works a treat, as the team goes on an instant winning streak, but it backfires regarding Eric's personal life. Eric happens to be engaged to the team manager's daughter, Polly (Jan Sterling), but it seems she's violently allergic to Rhubarb. Fearing the couple's impending nuptials will spoil their run of good luck, the players sabotage any of their attempts to get hitched.
The devious Myra (Elsie Holmes)
Myra also has a dastardly plan to eliminate Rhubarb and get control of her father's money, which falls to her if something happens to the cat. She brings a case of fraud against Eric, in an attempt to prove that the cat in question is not the original Rhubarb at all, but an imposter. As the rivalry between the team and their cross town rivals heats up, gangsters also get involved, kidnapping Rhubarb on the eve of the final pennant championship game, in order to fix the odds in their numbers racket.
The movie concludes with a wild chase through the streets of NYC, as Eric and Polly race to save Rhubarb and get him to the game in enough time to rouse Banner's players to victory...
As you can tell by now, this is one wackadoodle story. Each crazy plot spin or contrivance piles on top of the next, in a house of cards conceit that any attempt at logic or realism would blow over in a flash. How much you enjoy it will depend on how willing you are to just go with the goofy scenario. I found the movie pretty silly overall, but not without some redeeming charm.
Some of the baseball stuff is fun, especially Strother Martin (already demonstrating his considerable skill at smarmy scene stealing) as one of the first players convinced of Rhubarb's good luck possibilities. While the team isn't named, it's clearly supposed to be the Brooklyn Dodgers, with the NY Giants as their rivals. There's a lot of actual baseball footage mixed in, and some nice behind-the-scenes observations, including a few choice jabs at the players' fragile egos and quickness to claim injuries when unhappy. There's also some sly humor aimed at the early stages of television, with bits about annoying commercials and imperfect TV signals during crucial parts of the aired games.
The rest of the supporting cast does dependable work, despite the silliness. Gene Lockhart is delightful in his brief bit as the eccentric old millionaire, the lovely Jan Sterling is a game, bright presence as the long-suffering Polly, and the great William Frawley has some good moments as her father, the ball team manager. The standout, however, is the main star, Ray Milland. Usually known for depicting cold, calculating SOBs, here Milland's in full-on charming mode, handling all of the film's antics with excellent screwball comic timing.
Apparently 14 different cats were used to portray Rhubarb. Animal lovers may find some of the scenes of cat manipulation disturbing (the cats are obviously manhandled into certain actions to fit the plot, and not always gently - such as various capture scenes, etc. Who knows what the ASPCA made of all this...)
While there's some good, snappy dialogue and skillful performances in the film, ultimately the story is all just a bit too ridiculous and unbelievable to claim Rhubarb as some sort of lost classic. It's an interesting enough Hollywood curio, however, and worth watching as a reminder of just how strange a product the mainstream movie studios (in this case, Paramount) could churn out from time to time.
DVD note: Available on a nice-looking, reasonably-priced disc from Legend Films. In fact, of all the animal-themed films mentioned in this post, only You Never Can Tell is unavailable on DVD.
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