A pioneer of the animal mixed with sports genre, the 1951 comedy Rhubarb at least blazed the trail for other one-word titles to follow, including clunkers like Gus and Ed. Sometimes imitation maybe isn't the sincerest form of flattery. The movie's namesake here, however, isn't an athlete, but an unlikely owner of a professional baseball club. Our titular feline, who went by the name Orangey away from the screen and appeared most famously with Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, manages to go from being a kleptomaniac golf course scrounger to possessing a $30 million fortune that includes Brooklyn's baseball team. Star Ray Milland operates on an entirely different career curve, as he spirals down from winning an Oscar in 1945 for The Lost Weekend to working beside a tough-looking tabby cat. Grrowl. When Milland tells girlfriend Jan Sterling he's plastered, you just want to nod your head in understanding support.
It's not that Rhubarb, which was produced by the very capable team of William Perlberg and George Seaton, is really a bad movie. It's actually a pleasant and harmless bit of fluff that grows increasingly silly and ridiculous. But what is Ray Milland doing here, or even Sterling, who had perhaps the finest role of her career the very same year as the unbelievably cold-hearted wife of a man trapped in a cave in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. Milland may have been trying to single-handedly combat the notion that the British don't appreciate baseball after also appearing in the Perlberg solo production It Happens Every Spring a couple of years earlier. If so, it was a fine effort even though both films are now largely forgotten. Regardless, the old adage usually credited to W.C. Fields warning against working with animals or children proves to be correct here. You don't watch Rhubarb and remember anything except the cat. For cat lovers, that's warm and cozy, but everyone else may find the film too predictable, if still family-friendly.
It does start off promisingly, with the feral cat content to snatch golf balls and take them to his tree-shaded lair, where he also somehow has rounded up an eight-ball. The mental image of a crazy, completely undomesticated cat hauling in that eight-ball from who knows where makes me laugh for some reason. I wish more of the film was at least somewhat funny, though, because it's mostly content to cruise through shots of the cat looking cute and letting the viewer create the jokes on his or her own. Gene Lockhart, as Rhubarb's eventual owner Thaddeus J. Banner, is also quite effective playing a man who so dislikes humankind that he leaves nearly his entire fortune to the cat instead of his weightlifting-obsessed daughter. The quirkiness of all this is certainly charming, but it quickly devolves into something that feels like standard fare, albeit while somehow accumulating detours into courtroom proceedings, a tonal surprise of an attempted murder, and numbers running gangsters.
Director Arthur Lubin and his editor really like those cutaway shots to their furry star. Lubin's approach seems to favour a heavy reliance on the cat, not surprising since he fit Rhubarb in between helming a total of six Francis the Talking Mule features. The director, a veteran of Abbott and Costello comedies, also made a pretty good Burt Lancaster picture called South Sea Woman. His participation here seems somewhat farmed out as a reliable alternative to Seaton, who was a first-time producer but had already directed several films, including Miracle on 34th Street. The impetus for wringing every last bit of comedy potential, which Rhubarb fails to do, lies with Lubin, but also depends on the source material. The film was based on a popular novel written by H. Allen Smith. Without the constant fallback of close-ups on its animal star, there must have been something present in the book that got lost in the adaptation. Another take on the material was apparently even less successful, as a 1967 television version never made it past the pilot stage.
Still, there's something almost apologetic required when actively disliking a movie of this sort. A lot of people like, or at least used to like, this type of picture and it's an innocuous enough way to spend an hour and a half. Perhaps it could have been better, but the material also has its limitations. Milland's charm hardly gets dusted off, and I'd hope only his completists would feel compelled to pick up the DVD based solely on the actor's presence. Sterling too is largely wasted, though it's nice to see such a rosy contrast against her Ace in the Hole character (and her real-life husband Paul Douglas fits in a cameo at the very end). Fans of Orangey will, no doubt, be thrilled, even if there may be a hint of the little furball phoning his performance in at times. His lines certainly sound dubbed more often than not. I also suspect the eyelashes on Rhubarb's female admirer to have been artificially enhanced. Typical Hollywood.
Rhubarb was released on DVD over the summer, but I've only now mustered the courage to watch and review it, mostly out of withdrawal from baseball. It's one of a number of Paramount titles licensed from Legend Films. Especially notable is how terrible the cover art is. It obviously is meant to bring in a more modern audience, but the image of a man in a bow tie holding the cat on a platter covered with money is simply asinine. Would it be that difficult to make older films look like they were made decades ago? It seems like studios and labels have trouble embracing their movies' age. The wrinkles hardly show, I promise.
Occupying a single-layered disc, the 1.33:1 image looks quite good actually. The transfer isn't progressive, but the combing is mild. Print damage is at a minimum, mostly a few speckles here and there. Grain isn't obtrusive and detail and sharpness are more than satisfactory. The contrast is fine, as well. If you enjoy the film, its presentation and affordable price tag should be pleasing.
The Dolby Digital two-channel mono track sounds mostly clear and at a consistently strong volume level. There are times when you can hear a crackle in the track, but it isn't distracting. As with other Legend releases, there are no subtitles.
There are also no special features, not even a trailer.