There's this little kid, see, and he's crazy about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. He and his father—his mother is dead—live on this boat in Florida. But they used to live in New York, and so one day in the Little League the kid boasts that he knows Mantle and Maris, and he says that he'll get them to come to the Little League banquet they're about to have. Now he's in the soup, because he's lying, see? He really doesn't know Mantle and Maris at all. So the kid runs away and goes down to the New York Yankees' spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale and he manages to meet Mantle and Maris and he explains what happened and he asks them to get him off the hook. But they tell him, no, they won't come to the banquet because he has told a lie. So then the kid goes back home and bravely admits that he lied, and then Roger and Mickey invite the whole damn Little League down to Lauderdale to watch spring training and everything comes out O.K. Oh, it ought to make a hell of a picture, a real grabber.
Safe at Home!, starring Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, is a Naud-Hamilburg production (their first), a Columbia Pictures Corp. release (their 1,706th), a classic B picture; it was designed for cheap, quick filming, an April release date and a fast buck. It is not quite the same sort of thing as Twist Around the Clock, which is known in the trade as Son of Rock Around the Clock. It is in a grander tradition, in the hereditary line of epics like Babe Ruth in The Babe Comes Home, Lou Gehrig in Rawhide, Jack Dempsey in Manhattan Madness. True, the plot has a familiar ring: kid gets in trouble, kid runs away, kid is befriended by gruff but kindly hero who solves his problem, kid ends up smiling with happiness as his father holds hands with Johanna. (Johanna? You don't know about Johanna? Why, she's the subplot: handsome widower father vs. pretty girl owner of the boat next door. "That boy needs a mother. What's the matter with Ken Lawton? Why doesn't he marry Johanna?" Law-ton (smiling): "I guess I've sailed with one mate so long I find it hard to get used to the idea of a new one.")
Still, it is different. There are two gruff but kindly heroes instead of one—three, if you count William Frawley, who plays a Yankee coach—and the trouble the boy gets into is in the contemporary, downbeat mode—it's all in his mind.
Essentially, the movie is like all movies starring nonacting celebrities: it's a guest appearance, designed to draw the crowds while the celebrity is still of red-hot interest to the public. Tom Naud, the dark-visaged, good-looking, 35-year-old producer of the film, says the idea came to him last summer. "Every headline you saw said M & M," he said in Fort Lauderdale a few weeks ago during the filming of the picture. "You couldn't buy that kind of publicity for a million dollars." Naud, a television man (in the past an associate producer of the Dave Garroway and Steve Allen shows, among others), had presented NBC's Salute to Baseball in 1957, which may have helped light the Maris-Mantle movie idea in his mind. He called Frank Scott, the ballplayers' agent, and sounded him out about a movie. Even now, Naud smiles in bemused amazement because no one else had suggested the idea to Scott. "It seemed so obvious," he says.
Scott was interested. Naud then talked to Mitch Hamilburg, a burly, bespectacled man who runs a talent agency in Hollywood and who has had considerable experience dealing with people in the movie business. Naud and Hamilburg joined forces—Naud as the idea man, Hamilburg as the business-detail half of the partnership—and Columbia Pictures agreed to finance the film. Naud worked up an outline of the story they proposed. Scott didn't like it. "'It had the boys cast as deaf and dumb brothers," he said indignantly in Fort Lauderdale. "I turned that one down right away. I think the movie people were afraid the boys were too stupid to learn lines. You know—that they'd be safer if they had nothing to say. You've seen them before the cameras here. They're not so bad. They're pretty good. I couldn't afford to have them in something that made them look like dopes." Naud tried again. "This one was better," Scott said, "because the boys played themselves." (Mickey: What's your name, son? Hutch (slowly): Hutch. Roger: Well, Hutch, what are you doing here?) "So we were interested, and then they came up with a finished script and we liked it.
"It wasn't so much a sport story as it was a kid story. Sport movies never do very well, as a rule, but this one was different. Mickey and Roger hadn't been too enthusiastic about doing a movie, but they liked it, too, and the Yankees gave their O.K. That was back in November, and we worked out a deal."
It was quite a deal. Scott, who doesn't let excessive modesty interfere with business, says that while he isn't positive he's pretty sure it's the biggest money deal any ballplayer, and maybe anybody in sport, has ever made. "At first they just wanted to give us a guarantee," he said. "But while I always insist on a guarantee I want a percentage, too, in case a thing goes over big. In clothing tie-ups, anything. We asked a guarantee of $25,000 each, against 25%—or 12½% each—of the net profits. I figured that Naud and Hamilburg would be getting 50% of the net from Columbia, and I thought the boys should get half of that. [Columbia actually retains only 40% of the net.] I talked to the vice-president of another movie company, a close personal friend of mine, and I told him what I was asking for. I said did he think it was a good deal. He said if you can get it, it's a hell of a deal."
No one knows now what the net profits will be, of course. Tom Naud, watching his two stalwarts acting before the camera in Florida, shook his head, chuckling, and said, "All I know is, these two guys can make a fabulous amount of money out of this. A lot more than they're making from baseball this year." At worst, they will have to bite their lips and fight back their tears and be content with a lousy 25 grand each.
Roger has made so far about $120,000 from last summer's big home-run splurge, Mickey about half that. But if Safe at Home! were to do a $2 million gross the movie alone could bring them each about $125,000—more, indeed, than either is making from baseball this year. Or any other year. "Our next picture is going to be a western," said Mickey, grinning at the ease of it all.
Of course it wasn't that easy. Nobody works harder than movie people, despite the hallowed myth that they lead lives of hedonistic luxury and comfort. Every morning during the 10 days of shooting in Fort Lauderdale the movie troupe was up at 6, out of the motel at 7 and on location well before 8, and so were Mantle and Maris on the days they were needed. Much of the film has an outdoor locale—a boat, a dock, a Little League field, the Yankees' training site—and so shooting went on all day long each day, with a half-hour break for lunch, until sundown. And then, on several occasions, they went on working far into the evening, doing the various night sequences.
The first day Mantle and Maris actually went before the cameras was for publicity shots—trailers, as they're known to movie people—that would be shown to distributors and Columbia salesmen all over the country. Mantle and Maris sat patiently in the third-base dugout as Guy Del Russo, the bearded makeup artist, gave them a glowing artificial tan. Then they went out to home plate, the focus of most of the publicity shots. They delivered their lines, in the various bits developed for them, with surprising ease. In one sequence they worked with Rube Jackter, Columbia vice-president and general sales manager, who was dressed as an umpire. Jackter, who's been doing this sort of thing for years, blew his lines several times, which delighted M & M.
The sequence was an eminently forgettable bit of film footage. Jackter exchanged some snappy dialogue with the ballplayers ("You're out!" "What do you mean, out?" "I said out—you fellows are out to make a great new moneymaking picture for Columbia." "What's the name of the picture?" "Safe at Home! "That's what we said, we were safe at home."), and then, hardly gagging at all, he turned and made a sales-meeting pitch directly into the camera: "I'm talking to you, Milt Goodman...Jerry Safron...Sam Galanty...Ed McLaughlin [he mentioned nearly two dozen names, all belonging to salesmen and distributors]. This is a great box office picture. This is big league. And you're all long-ball hitters, home run hitters! I expect you to do a great gross—for Mickey, for Roger, and for Columbia Pictures!" Jackter had to go through this several times, but when he finished his last take, the good one, he turned to the director and asked, pleased with himself this time, "How was that?" As if on cue, the crowd of Floridians and visitors watching from the stands burst into applause, possibly the first time a commercial has ever been voluntarily cheered.
The crowd cheered again a few days later when Mantle and Maris did their first scenes for the picture itself. The closing scene was being shot. The Little Leaguers burst onto the field, surround Mantle and Maris and then scamper out to their various positions to take lessons from the Yankees while little Hutch introduces his heroes to his father and Johanna: "This is my dad, and maybe my new mom." ("That's the worst line in the whole picture," a newsman said to an assistant director. The assistant director replied patiently, "You know, we don't expect this picture to play the Music Hall or win any Academy Awards. But you know, it's going to make a lot more money than some that do.")
It was a fairly easy sequence, with mostly action and very few lines, but it took all morning to film it, right up to and past the 11:30 deadline the Yankees had set for the movie equipment to be off the training field. A dense fog had settled over Lauderdale during the night (newspapers noted the next day that the area averages only seven days of fog a year, an encouraging statistic but one that failed to impress the movie people), and it didn't burn off completely until almost 11. The sun's fitful attempts to get through the haze caused a constant change in light values, sometimes during the filming of a sequence, so that the takes had to be done over and over. Tom Naud, his face set in a worried scowl, paced back and forth. Ralph Houk, the Yankee manager, had been drafted to play himself. In one scene he has one line, which he delivers to William Frawley, who plays a fictitious Yankee coach, Bill Turner. "Bill," says Houk, pointing to the mob of Little Leaguers surrounding the two Ms, "get out there and take charge of our new farm club." Houk and Frawley walked through the scene two or three times in rehearsal, as the director checked angles and the cameraman checked exposures and had the big spotlights and reflectors shifted to various positions. Then they went through it for real, and it wasn't 100% perfect, so they went through it again, but the light changed, so they went through it again, but the camera's motor reversed and the film began to go backward, so they went through it again, and it wasn't just the thing the director wanted, so they went through it again, and the sound failed for just the briefest part of a moment, so they went through it again.
Houk was magnificent through the whole mess, saying his dozen words perfectly each time the director cued him in, pointing manfully to the Little Leaguers and sending Frawley out from the dugout. But after the fifth or sixth take he began to rebel. "Can you find out if we're finished?" he asked plaintively, "because if we are I want to go get a chaw of tobacco." And, "Can't I get this stuff off my face?" indicating the makeup that had been applied around his cigar in the locker room earlier, as his rookies gathered to grin at him. And as they dragged him back to the camera again he said, "Oh, shoot. What a way to make a living." When finally Director Walter Doniger called, "Cut," and said, "Good for me," his way of indicating a satisfactory take, the crowd broke into loud and somewhat mocking applause, like that in a ball park after the third out of a 10-run inning.
Mantle and Maris, who had been remarkably calm and patient most of the time—as visions of dollars danced in their heads—got just a little tired, too. They took with good-natured grins the broad humor of their confreres in the locker room as they were being made up ("How you like my suntan?" Mantle asked late arrival Bill Stafford), and most of the time on the field they were fine with the Little Leaguers, who had been instructed to inundate the two players with questions. Like all Little Leaguers en masse, they were loud, persistent, repetitive and impossible ("Do you think you're as good as Ted Williams?" "Who's the best player in the league?" "How come you hit 61 home runs?" "Why didn't you hit 61 home runs?" "Do the Yankees own their own airplane?"). It got to be nerve-racking because there was no end to it. After each take, when the others—Houk, for example—could relax for a minute or two, the kids stayed glued to Mantle and Maris, stepping on their feet, pulling their sleeves, firing questions. The kids hardly seemed to notice when they were on camera and when they were not. Earlier, when they had first arrived at the ball park and had been brought into the locker room to meet Mantle and Maris, they had been subdued and polite and, when they were called out onto the field again, had filed past the players as though they were on a receiving line. One kid said, "Goodby, Mr. Maris," and another, furtively touching Roger's biceps as he passed, said quietly, "Wow." But outside they were loud and aggressive, and after an hour of it Mantle finally complained with some anger to an assistant director: "How long do we got to stand here?" Later, in a corner of the field, alone with Maris, he said wonderingly, "I never saw such a business. Seems you stand around all day doing nothing and then do about five minutes of the show."
The kids—Little Leaguers from Lauderdale and Pompano Beach who had been pressed into service as extras—were always eager but never easy to handle. "All right, boys," said one of the assistant directors, herding them into position. "Back here, now. Come on, now. It's hard work, but if you want to be movie stars it takes hard work." One boy, the tinsel dropping from his eyes, muttered, "It sure does." A Lauderdale youngster, a somewhat truculent type, noticed a strange boy in uniform standing next to him. "What's your name?" he said. The stranger, who plays Hutch Lawton's close friend Mike in the film, pretended not to notice. "Hey," said Lauderdale, "what's your name?" "Scott," the Hollywood boy said reluctantly. "Scott what?" There was a pause. "Scott Lane," the boy said. "You a movie star, too?" asked the blunt Lauderdalian. The Hollywood boy looked embarrassed and moved away.
For the beginning of the final sequence—for long shots—the kids were piled back into the tunneled runway under the stands that leads from the locker room to the dugout. On cue they were to pile out of the tunnel, race up the dugout steps, charge across the field and surround Mantle and Maris, yelling all the way. They rehearsed it two or three times, which was something to see, the kids roaring out and racing, yelling, across the grass. "Fellows, take it easy," cried an assistant director. "We don't want to know who's the fastest boy." The effort of getting the Little Leaguers back into the tunnel after each repeat was a tremendous one, like forcing 50 blown-up balloons back into the box they came in. "Back, boys! Back! Back up, now! Boys! Back up there!" "Hit 'em with a bat," a member of the camera crew suggested. "Boys," finally spoke Doniger, the director, a soft-voiced man who seemed the antithesis of the tyrant the director is traditionally supposed to be. "Now, boys," he said like a teacher, "when I talk you have to listen to me." They listened, sort of, and slowly retreated into the tunnel.
"O.K., now," said the first assistant director. "Quiet behind the camera."
"All right, Howard."
"Here we go, Burt."
Out of the tunnel the boys poured, and up the steps of the dugout. Bryan Russell, the 9-year-old actor who plays Hutch, led the mob, but he tripped on the top step of the dugout and fell flat on his face.
"Cut," ordered Doniger dejectedly, and everything stopped—except the Little Leaguers, who roared past the fallen Bryan and continued their wild charge towards Mantle and Maris.
"Hold it!" yelled Doniger. "Hold it!" And he and an assistant director, trying to save time, raced out in front of the horde waving their hands, trying to stem the tide, yelling, "Hold it, hold it," slowing and finally stopping the boys.
Behind them, Mantle spoke. "One got through," he pointed out cheerfully.
Another bit had the boys leaving the athletes and running out onto the playing field. They disappeared from camera range as they crossed the baselines but, baseball players all, they kept right on running until they got to their positions, including distant left, center and right fields. Tongues began to hang after two rehearsals, since the boys—with the exception of the three who were professional actors—ran back in at full speed, too. Doniger spoke to them. "Fellows," he said, "don't run all the way out. Just run out past the baseline. Stop right out there in the middle, near the—uh, uh—near the—uh...."
"The pitcher's mound," Mantle helped out.
Doniger smiled. "I would have figured that one out myself, Mickey."
Mantle, smiling, cocked a glance at Tom Naud.
"Honest, Mick," Naud said. "Wally knows where first base is."
The 70-year-old Frawley knew where first base was, and more. Veteran of countless movies, and more recently a star on the I Love Lucy and My Three Sons television shows, he was a favorite of everybody in the Yankee camp because of his wit—which was earthy and sharp—and his knowledge of baseball, which was genuine. In uniform he was the very pattern of the veteran baseball coach, his ample lines calling to mind the figure of James J. Dykes standing in the third-base coach's box, looking with utter disdain at a base runner just picked off second. As Frawley was being made up the first day, he asked, "Is this stomach all right? Should I wear one of those belts to pull it in?" A man watching said, "Your belly? I thought it was part of your makeup. You look perfect." Frawley wore his hat at a slightly rakish angle. "Acey-deucey, they call this," he said. "Rip Collins used to wear his cap this way."
Frawley was a delight to watch in his scenes—roaring in his bull voice when he was on camera, and making asides to the ballplayers and the spectators when he was off—but the most bizarre and distressing episode during the making of the film involved him. He had been ill Saturday afternoon and his malaise had been aggravated by the news of the death of an old friend, Joseph Kearns, who played Mr. Wilson on the Dennis the Menace television show. Frawley called in a doctor and received medicine and a sedative to make him sleep Saturday night. He slept but, as he said Sunday morning, "It was a drugged sleep," and when a car came by his hotel at 6:55 in the morning to pick him up and drive him out to location he was still woozy. In a scene with Mantle and Maris, Frawley kept forgetting his lines, and suddenly there was the extraordinary sight of the two amateurs, letter-perfect, patiently repeating their lines in rehearsal after rehearsal while the professional labored to remember his. Finally they went before the camera and Mantle, after all this, blew his first line. He broke up laughing, Frawley seemed to relax, and after that everything was on the upgrade. Frawley thrust his hands in his hip pockets, struck a Stengelian pose, and said, "I'll do it like Casey." Tom Naud grinned and said, "He's feeling better."
But the confusion and the delays and the repeated takes of the same scenes, over and over, never seemed to stop. The voices of the assistant directors, pleading with the crowd to be "quiet, please, just for a few minutes, folks, please!" seemed to echo all week. The set, even when it was roped off, seemed always to be crowded with nonessential people. At one point during the filming at the ball park the very long bench in the dugout was completely filled. Maris and Mantle and Houk and Yankee rookies working as extras were sitting along the step, but the bench itself was occupied by boys, girls, women, newspapermen, photographers and friends. Only one person in a baseball uniform was on the bench—and that was Bill Frawley. "I've heard of guests on a movie set," said a member of the Hollywood contingent, "but this is ridiculous."
And yet right through the last day of shooting, when Maris and Mantle and Frawley and the boy were playing interior scenes, the two top players remained startlingly professional and serious, except for their moans about the delays. There was almost no horseplay on the set, and few wisecracks—except from Frawley. When the makeup man would move in quickly, in an interval between takes, to fix Mantle's makeup or mop some, sweat from Maris' forehead, they submitted quietly, with no resentment or embarrassment. When a sportswriter called Mickey "Marlon Mantle," Mickey smiled as though it were a good joke but a pretty old one. When Maris blew a line he walked away from the camera a few feet muttering in disgust, as though he'd just got a bad call at home plate, but there was only irritation at himself, no panic, no petulance. "We've been in a movie before," he said. "Last summer in Los Angeles. Mickey and I and Yogi Berra were in a scene in That Touch of Mink. It's not so bad."
Their big dramatic moment was played in the Yankee locker room when the boy, Hutch, asks Mickey and Roger to come to the banquet.
Mickey (gently): Hutch—you lied when you said you knew Rog and me. (Hutch nods, ashamed.)
Roger: And you lied when you said we would come to your banquet. (Hutch nods again, more ashamed.)
Mickey: If we showed up—we'd be trying to make your lie good. It'd be like making a foul ball fair by moving the baseline. It just isn't in the rules.
Roger: More than that, Hutch—it'd mean we were lying to all your teammates, too. We'd just be making it worse. When a lie starts—it involves everyone. (Pause.) You understand, Hutch? (CLOSEUP of Hutch. He lifts his head. He is biting back tears of shame.)
Hutch: I—I didn't mean it—to be—so bad. (CLOSEUP of Bill Turner. He is fighting back his own tears, CLOSEUP of Hutch—a cry for help.)
Hutch: What am I going to do? (ANOTHER ANGLE. Roger leans forward and takes him by the shoulders.)
Roger (gently): There's only one thing you can do—face up to what you've done.
Mickey: You know, every man has to take the responsibility for what he's done. And if what he's done is wrong, he's got to undo it, Hutch.
Hutch: You—mean—tell them? (Roger nods. So does Mickey, CLOSEUP of Hutch.)
Hutch: I—I'll—try. (He looks down and wipes at his eyes, TWO SHOT of Ken Lawton and Bill Turner.)
Lawton: Son—it's time to go home.
And maybe a violin, playing softly in the background.
Mickey and Roger each had a complete script, of course, with the lines and cues clearly delineated, but although they'd gone through it at a preliminary reading before shooting started they didn't bother with it once filming actually began, depending instead on the quick rehearsals the director would put them through before each scene. They had little trouble. "They take direction well," said Doniger, "and they know their lines. There's not much more you can ask for." Tom Naud said, "We tried to make it clear to them in New York, and again down here, that we didn't want them to act. We didn't want them to think they had to do something special. They're playing themselves. I don't know, I think they've done it. They've been great."
The film is scheduled for release in April, to coincide with the opening of the baseball season—which seems logical: if interest in baseball is high, interest in the film should be equally high. A baseball man in Fort Lauderdale, who chose not to be quoted, shook his head at this. "I don't care how good or bad the picture is," he said. "Baseball is not a good draw in April. We don't draw at the gate, and our rating for the games we televise is low. There's no big interest in baseball in April. They'd be better off if they held it for a couple of months." A movie man in Fort Lauderdale, who also chose not to be quoted, shook his head right back. "We have to open in April, when last season is still fresh in people's minds. We have to. Suppose we hold off, and then one of them gets hurt and doesn't play? Suppose they both go into terrible slumps? Suppose some other player does something terrific and everybody forgets about Mantle and Maris? And then we come out. We'd be dead. On the other hand, if we open in April and they start out hot or get hot after a month or so this little picture of ours will play right through the summer."
And then will come true the dreams of Tom Naud and Frank Scott and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. And of the Little Leaguer from Fort Lauderdale who sat on the bench in the dugout one day watching his heroes go through take after take of the same scene. "Would you want to be a movie star?" he was asked, in the fond delusion that he would respond like a true-blue, red-blooded, 100% all-American boy and say, no sir, he'd rather be a big league ballplayer.
"You bet," he said.
"Even after seeing all that stuff they have to go through?" he was asked.
"Sure," he said.
"Why, for Pete's sake?"
"You make a lot of money."