Show taken on the road

Lots of heart along with authentic soul

Published: Nov 03 2020, 01:01:am

Tuesday, April 26, 1976

THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS. Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins. Based on the 1973 novel by William Brashler. Music by William Goldstein. Directed by John Badham. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated Mature entertainment.
BY GEORGE, I THINK he's got it! Berry Gordy, the entrepreneurial genius behind Motown Records (and, by extension, behind Diana Ross) has been trying to make a name for himself in the movie business for more than five years now [1976].
    In 1971, he put up the money for Ross's big screen debut. Although Ross won an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, the film itself was an uninspired backstage drama.
    Strike one.
    Last year [1975], Gordy made his own debut as a movie director. Again, Ross was the star, and again the film, this time called Mahogany, was a black-cast version of a tired old plot. It was the shopgirl's dream, rags to riches with the familiar moral: money can't buy happiness.
   Strike two.
    Gordy might have been making money, but his movies were strictly from hunger. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings changes all that. The story of a barnstorming baseball team, it is all new, all black and all hit.
    Home run!
    Screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins (whose last "road" picture was 1974’s The Sugarland Express) have set their tale in the summer of 1939.
    The U.S. major leagues still maintain a colour line. For black baseball fans, there is the Negro National League, with franchises in places like Chicago, Atlanta, Cincinnati and St. Louis. It has its own stadiums, its own stars and its own troubles.
    The film introduces Ebony Aces pitching star and soon-to-be trouble-maker Barnett "Bingo" Long (Billy Dee Williams). He is playing to the crowds in St. Louis’s run-down Luther McAdoo Memorial Stadium.
    A 15-year veteran of the league, Bingo makes a show of pitching to his long-time rival, Elite Giants slugger Leon Carter (James Earl Jones). Off the field, the two conspire against the penny-pinching rule of the team owners, deciding to form their own all-star squad.
    Gordy's film, directed by TV veteran John Badham, traces their high-spirited progress against the background of a pre-war (and pre-civil rights era) America. Photographed in period style, it comes complete with visual effects straight out of the 1940s.
    The movie's tone of haunting nostalgia perfectly complements the dated attitudes and characterizations that are used here for comedy.
    Thus it is funny, rather than offensive, that the Ebony Aces owner Sallison "Sallie" Potter (Ted Ross) should be a black entrepreneur right out of Amos 'n' Andy. A funeral parlour magnate, Sallie may have a couple of goons working for him, and he may try everything short of murder to put a stop to the All-Stars, but he remains a comic character throughout.
    The main focus, naturally enough, is on the barnstormers, and they are a personable lot. Foremost among them is third baseman Charlie Snow (Richard Pryor), who is studying Spanish so that he can "pass" as a Cuban, and thereby join the white leagues.
    Charlie's dream — historically Jackie Robinson was the man who first crossed the colour line, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941 — is not taken seriously by his teammates. They pretty much accept the status quo, and work at learning the lessons necessary for winning in their own world.
    One thing they learn is that, as barnstormers, they are part of show business. Another lesson is that everybody loves a clown, and that when they lace their powerhouse playing with humour (a la the Harlem Globetrotters) even losing home teams will love them.
    Bingo's story is full of highlights. When the owners's machinations make it difficult for them to book games with black teams, the All-Stars learn how to exploit another American resource: "white folks." It is during their first game against Southern white crackers that they learn the soothing powers of comedy.
    Later, following the hospitalization of Charlie Snow, Bingo sets out to steal back a car sold at auction to cover some team debts. Here, director Badham makes delightful use of vintage radio shows to provide both background and counterpoint to the action.
    Eventually, the dial comes to rest on an episode of The Lone Ranger, and the familiar hoofbeats of the great horse Silver keep pace with a marvelously funny chase scene.
    The story ends, appropriately enough, with a grudge match. The league owners field a team of their remaining, best players.
     The prize, should the All-Stars win, is a permanent berth in the league. Mysteriously missing from the line-up, however, is super-slugger Carter . . .
    With warmth, wit, and a touch of wonder, producer Gordy's film explores a corner of black experience that any audience can share. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor-Kings is a comedy with lots of heart and authentic soul.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1976. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Some years ago, when the Internet was new and online magazines were testing the waters, I ran across an opinion piece that argued that baseball, with its emphasis on cooperation, appealed to socialists. Football, more aggressively focused on leaders, was the fascist’s game. The idea made sense to me, a political progressive — Canadians tend to be further left than their American cousins — who has always preferred nine innings on the field to the gridiron’s two halves.  
    No surprise, then, that I’m also inclined to believe that baseball inspires better movies than football. That said, I was surprised to discover that Wikipedia lists significantly more pictures about (American) football — more than 175 — than baseball: about 150. The stats suggest that filmmakers prefer football. Me? I still prefer quality to quantity.
    My own unscientific survey is based on the reviews of six sports-themed films already posted to this Reeling Back archive. Two of them are football movies: director Roger Spottiswoode’s The Best of Times (1986) and Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout (1991). The first one prompted a negative review, the second got a positive notice. A 50-50 split.
    The baseball titles include Michael Richie’s The Bad News Bears (1976); John Sayles’s Eight Men Out (1983); Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham (1988) and Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own (1991). All four notices are positive, with the last a positive rave. So, baseball movies are best. QED.
    As the above review of The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars And Motor-Kings is also favourable, there’s nothing more to say. Except, of course, that when I wrote the piece some 44 years ago, I did so from the point of view of a privileged white male who was nowhere near as critical as he might have been of the casual racism prevalent in the popular culture of the day. That kid still had a lot to learn. He was right about baseball movies, though.

A Bushel of Badham: Today’s five additions the Reeling Back archive celebrate the cinema of John Badham. Included are his 1976 debut feature, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings; the 1981 drama Whose Life Is It Anyway?; the 1986 sci-fi comedy Short Circuit; the 1993 thriller Point of No Return; and the action adventure Drop Zone (1994). And, of course, there is my review of his new book, John Badham on Directing - 2nd Edition (2020).
Wait, There’s More: The six John Badham features previously posted to Reeling Back are his 1979 adaptation of Dracula, as well as Blue Thunder and War Games (both 1983); Also included are the made-in-Vancouver Stakeout (1987), Bird on a Wire (1990) and Another Stakeout (1993).