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Director John Badham started his Hollywood career with an enormously entertaining story of an all-black traveling baseball team in the 30s. To use the vernacular, he knocks it out of the park as Camus finally catches… up with THE BINGO LONG TRAVELLING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS on Indicator's new Blu-ray.
 
  “I just watch the way films are being made nowadays. Studios are making nothing but big cartoons that they can make franchises out of. They don’t want to make anything that smacks of just being a one-off. Nobody wants to make the Robert Altman-type films, like the films of the 70s, where you make one of them, and they’re great and everybody’d love it. But now, if you can’t look forward to making four or five, they don’t want to do it.”
  Director John Badham*

 

There are certain titles of albums, TV shows and films that you come across during a lifetime that stick in your mind. They floated past as you stalked the aisles of the once ubiquitous Virgin Megastores and the legendary Tower Records. Bingo Long is a name that’s been on the outskirts of my radar since the 70s so it is a particular joy to finally see it and bring it in a little closer. The principal creatives are well known to me though not through this early film in their careers. Director Badham’s second feature catapulted him into the A List, an affecting study of young machismo via the blinking floor lights of the disco in Saturday Night Fever. Writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins were part of Steven Spielberg’s inner circle and Spielberg himself considered helming Bingo Long until the fish movie gave him carte blanche to make anything he wanted for his third official theatrical film, Close Encounters. John Badham was a good fit for Bingo Long. His childhood was spent in Alabama and so he was probably steeped in the baseball leagues of the time and living in the south, racial segregation and racism was built into southern society. Forgive a tangential thought but it has relevance. When I happened upon The National Society of Black Physicists some time ago while searching for online pieces by Neil deGrasse Tyson, I was quite taken aback. I thought scientists (being scientists) were indifferent toward identity. Didn’t they all speak the same language of evidence-based, verifiable truth? This opinion, as anyone reading this will probably agree, was a deeply naïve one. The afore-mentioned organisation was not about segregation. It was founded for the advancement of people of colour whose achievements could rarely break through because of systemic racism in the physics community. However true, that last phrase seems even more egregious because of its setting in a scientific context. Of course, racism is not confined to neat subsets of US societies. It was also a similar shock realising that the great game of baseball, the USA’s national and beloved sport was a segregated game until undeniable talent forced the white game to bring in black players in the 1940s. There were a few exceptions before 1947 but that is the year that the ‘colour line’ was finally, officially breached. Before then, black baseball clubs formed into several Negro Leagues which operated concurrently with the all-white Major and Minor Leagues.

Billy Dee Williams as Bingo Long

It’s 1939 with the world on the brink of war. In the south of the US, star pitcher Bingo Long, plying his trade for an unappreciative and exploitative owner (all black team owners are black in the movie, just for the record), decides to break away from what he sees as just another form of slavery and recruits other players from other teams in the Negro Leagues. This band of ‘All-Stars’ goes on the road to play local teams and provide exhibition matches. Think Harlem Globetrotters but baseball not basketball. After tests of friendship, hardship and living a hand to mouth existence, Bingo and his players are given the chance to enter the League as a bonafide team (if they win) or go back to being badly paid players for their original teams. The fictitious players all have real world counterparts and none of the events in the film ever feels fanciful, too Hollywood or unlikely. The casual racism, deeply embedded at the time, was something the black players could only push back at with entertainment. There seemed to be no other relationship – except audience and performer – possible between the races. To a viewer in 2021, this is consistently heartbreaking but you have to accept what was a sad reality at the time. A warning for sensitive souls; overt racism and uses of offensive language are part of the All-Stars’ story. We can’t really get away from this.

At the beating heart of the film is a friendship between star pitcher Bingo and star hitter Leon. Both actors have buckets of charisma and star quality and have a tenuous but amusing career crossover. Billy Dee Williams, famously known to those of my vintage as The Empire Strikes Back’s Lando Calrissian, plays the lead with an infectious enthusiasm, a real gift for leadership and a sometimes reckless disregard for consequences of spur of the moment actions. The Star Wars nods abound because playing Leon is an actor most famous for being the voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones. Here he is at 44 years old, long in the tooth for a baseball player but with a real twinkle in his eye. He got his screen debut courtesy of Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove as one of the flight crew. His performance in Field Of Dreams, “Peace, love, dope!”, is still a stand out for me. Some actors, as Orson Welles pointed out, are ‘king’ actors and it’s hard to cast them in unassuming roles. It’s just so nice to see James Earl Jones as a vibrant, physical presence after too long being associated with a Bristolian body builder under a black mask.

Even though Jones and Williams are the leads, the film doesn’t scrimp on spending time with the other characters and as they make up a full team, there are quite a number to keep track of. Some are actors with some baseball skills and some are baseball players with some acting skills. The stand-out third star is of course Richard Pryor before he became the leading stand-up of his time and a butt of a thousand jokes after setting himself on fire either freebasing cocaine or pouring rum over himself and setting himself alight. Even Wikipedia doesn’t commit to one story or the other. In the movie, Pryor’s character, Charlie Snow, wants to break into the (then white) Major League so attempts to learn Spanish to pass as Cuban or shaves his head retaining a Mohawk to claim Native American heritage. In fact, although these tactics were apparently really employed, they come off as comically ludicrous despite their apparent authenticity. We learn in the commentary that Pryor mostly  improvised his scenes. As brilliant as he was at improv, I can’t imagine his acting colleagues being too enamoured of this skill. How does an actor reliant on a script act in tandem with someone improvising their performance? Tricky.

James Earl Jones as Leon Carter

The low budget film seemed like a fun shoot (have a listen to Badham’s commentary) apart from almost killing his leads in a vehicular cross over shot. Several of the actors have beads and lines of sweat on their faces in a lot of the scenes. Adding to the intense heat, the poor sods have layers of fancy clothing on and as Badham reminds us, temperatures outdoors sometimes got up to 100° Fahrenheit (38° C). I would not be able to work at that level of discomfort. Can you imagine what it takes to look this good in those conditions? It seems when extras were needed, it’s the crew doubling up with their partners too if dancing in the background was required. Finally a name crops up that had me replaying to confirm. Research has revealed that the actor John McCurry plays a player whom I thought had to be based on a real player but the character’s name had to be an inside joke. It was 1975/6 and a certain sound and picture editor had made his name in the business, well within the orbit of writers Barwood and Robbins, and in 1978/9 would establish himself as the one true star of a mostly invisible craft. This is why I did a double take hearing the name ‘Walter Murchman’ as one of Bingo’s players. The editor of course is Walter Murch. If I get the chance, I’m going to ask him about that.

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & The Motor Kings (never sure who the Motor Kings were supposed to be) is a joyous celebration of a national sport seen through the lens of racial tension and bigotry in the southern states of the US at the end of the 1930s. At its heart is the friendship between two men who saw futures for themselves and others with better eyes than many and for a brief while, were able to live their dream. I had a smile on my face almost all the way through this charming film, one with both heart and grit.

sound and vision

Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio with thin letterboxing on standard 16:9 TVs, the restoration looks lovely. The film actually starts with real black and white Universal Newsreels unsurprisingly scratched, one announcing Hitler’s take-over of Czechoslovakia and then in true absurdist style, we meet a man who chews up razor blades, lays on a bed of nails and then stubs his cigarette out on his tongue… That’s entertainment. Just before the film starts, we get a newsreel outlining the lower status of black players but to the newsreel’s credit, there is implied criticism of the unspoken rule. This is probably because the commentary has been rewritten to include the fictitious characters of Bingo and company together with their real life counterparts. I’m not sure why, (film stock types?) but 70s cinema has a 70s look and I love it. It’s a little soft here and there and in one early shot I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. I was looking at film damage known as tramlines but moving from left to right (tram  line damage is always north to south). The lines were the joins of the protective netting to stop baseballs braining the audience. Doh! The print shows some standard damage, mostly dust and other negligible scratches but none deters from the enjoyment of viewing. As is often the case due to the optically printed 2nd generation footage – a necessity for mixes and title overlays – more dirt and damage lurks in these shots through extra handling.

Richard Pryor as Charlie Snow

The mono soundtrack, specifically the 1.0 DTS-HD MA Mono, leaves no words unintelligible but due to some slang and names which an American ear is more attuned to, there were some things I didn’t catch but that’s my ignorance not the film’s responsibility.

There are new and improved subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

extra features

Audio commentary with director John Badham (2007)
This is a hugely satisfying commentary (performed by Badham ported over from the 2007 DVD release) mostly because all the questions you have watching the film are answered in turn as we get to the relevant scenes. The historical detail is both desperately depressing and deeply fascinating. His memories of the shoot (31 years ago from his 2007 perspective) are all either superbly researched or remembered with great fondness. Badham notes that the black players felt they had to ‘clown around’ to entertain white audiences because any other potential relationship was too fraught. Certain white southerners and their beliefs were what passed as ‘normal’ back in the day and today’s liberal-minded people may be shocked at this history. Some may even have problems actually watching the film which is a shame as it’s quite light-hearted but also big-hearted.

Badham brings up product placement and how (if it was invented in 1975) they may have had endless supplies of Jack Daniels and Baby Ruth chocolate bars. He also gives away a little of his own past saying that like Bingo’s car stealing, he was able to start his father’s car with chewing gum silver foil and got into so much trouble, he couldn’t sit down for a week. Corporal punishment within families is also an aspect of the past I don’t miss. He’s prone to an exaggeration or two (a location where he and the crew were “…eaten alive by mosquitoes the size of a house.”) but on the whole this is a great commentary by a man still profoundly passionate about his subject.

There Was Always Sun Shining Someplace: Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues (1983): documentary by Craig Davidson chronicling life in the segregated Negro Leagues, narrated by James Earl Jones and featuring archival footage and interviews with numerous baseball players (59’ 10”)
This starts with a wonderful story of how talent exposes how thin racism actually is. And it’s hysterically funny. It is appropriately narrated by All-Star Leon Carter himself, James Earl Jones. When a door opens on a subject one has very little knowledge of, I tend to walk in. Although it has an undercurrent of the darker side of history, this documentary is a fitting celebration of black baseball. It was quite the surprise to find the black teams were monetarily lured to South America and Mexico and the connections to the game that numbers racketeers made. As black players found their way into the Major League eventually, the black leagues disbanded while the players themselves were finally inducted into the game’s Hall of Fame. Fascinating stuff.

 

Original theatrical trailer (2’ 46”)
With a voice over reminding us of the uglier context of history, we are introduced to the three main stars and the pitch via this trailer (which looks like it may have originated off a VHS tape) which is one promising fun with a little side plate of danger, thrills and spills.

John Badham trailer commentary (2013)(2’ 50”)
A Trailers From Hell commentary, this is a lovely, personal reminder to the audience that this story and these people are very dear to Badham’s heart and as a filmmaker this is a prime requisite. Kudos to the talent scouts who actually found talent and didn’t give a damn whether you were “…black, white or purple.” Lovely stuff.

Radio spots
There are 10 of these, the first few starring Richard Pryor as a fake preacher doing his bit for the publicity of the movie. The announcer seems on the verge of cracking up on a few of them. The 4th one plays with stereotypes a little too awkwardly. A prisoner, presumably black, talks about wanting to see this film when he gets out. It ends with him announcing he’s going to beat his wife. What? Unfortunate. From the 7th approximately 30 second radio spot, we have a female announcer giving us a few choice press quotes.

Image gallery: promotional and publicity material
This features  2 black and white production stills and 22 in colour. Then we have colour Front of House stills, 2 per screen, 8 in total. 4 examples of publicity artwork is next topped off with 3 posters that complete the collection.

Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet featuring a 1978 retrospective article on the film by Michele Russell, an archival report on a promotional baseball match between the casts of The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings and The Bad News Bears, an archival interview with actor Billy Dee Williams, an overview of contemporary critical responses, new writing on There Was Always Sun Shining Someplace, and film credits
Michele Russell’s Second Look retrospective of the film was penned only two years after its release. She is taken by how it manages to work both as an entertainment and a history. It’s a detailed examination of what the film does almost by accident by simply existing and pointing out shameful behaviour as the DNA of its narrative. I was also humbled by my thinking that the writer had misused the word ‘conk’ to indicate a head rather than the nose (in my experience). But if Google is good for anything it’s expanding our horizons. A ‘conk’ as correctly used and stupidly misinterpreted by yours truly is naturally curly hair straightened which is what used to exist on Richard Pryor’s head until he Mohawked it (a cunning piece of bald cap make up work).

 

The report on the stunt match between the All-Stars and the stars of The Bed News Bears has a few amusing moments but the event is significantly undercut by Bingo being unavailable (Williams was on a theatrical tour) and the Bad News Bears stars Tatum O’Neal and coach Walter Matthau (recovering from heart surgery) were also unavailable. Several Hollywood personalities were roped in to support the Bears predominantly 12 year-old girls. It seems to be remarkable for the fact that two studios were selling their wares by directly supporting (or competing with) their rivals. The last coverage is essentially an interview with James Earl Jones.

How Williams Found Peace with the World by Marilyn Beck is another article written at the time of Bingo’s release. In it Williams credits an unnamed woman for exorcising his demons when at a very low emotional ebb. He never commits to explaining this relationship beyond the fact that she was a former prostitute and drug addict and now a Buddhist and presumably was able to pass on her enlightenment to her younger charge.

Critical Response features the usual suspects, The Monthly Film Bulletin, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. None are real raves. Ebert wanted more depth, Siskel, more reverence and Tom Milne less frivolity ending scenes when more development was promised.

The full documentary extra, There was Always Sun Shining Someplace gets full specs and credits together with a page explaining the film’s content and significance to the main feature.

Bingo’s disc details and technical credits end the booklet.

summary

There are few films that take on the weight of an historical narrative while telling a joyous story and managing to pitch (!) both just right. There’s humour, slapstick, friendship, drama, car chases, and baseball exhibitionism and pure entertainment on and off the field. The absurdly titled – but one that grows on you – The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & The Motor Kings is one such film. Very warmly recommended.

 


* http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com/2008/08/john-badham-hollywood-interview.html

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings Blu-ray cover
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

USA 1976
110 mins
directed by
John Badham
produced by
Rob Cohen
written by
Hal Barwood
Matthew Robbins
cinematography
Bill Butler
editing
David Rawlins
music
William Goldstein
production design
Lawrence G. Paull
starring
Billy Dee Williams
James Earl Jones
Richard Pryor
Rico Dawson
Sam 'Birmingham' Brison
Jophery C. Brown
Leon Wagner
Tony Burton

disc details
region B
video
1.85:1
sound
DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Jahn Badman audio commentary
There Was Always Sun Shining Someplace: Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues documentary
Trailer
John Badham trailer commentary
Radio spots
Image gallery
Booklet

distributor
Indicator [Powerhouse Films]
release date
30 August 2021
review posted
25 August 2021

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