The Babe Ruth Story: The Worst Biopic Ever Made

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The Babe Ruth Story: The Worst Biopic Ever Made

Nobody expects biopics to be great. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but whenever we see the release of yet another glossy biographical drama on the horizon, a slick production that promises a carefully curated glimpse into the life of a well-known individual, we know exactly what to expect. The formula of the biopic is so familiar, so well-worn and risk-averse, that you could set your watch to it: The sad childhood, the rise to the top, the drug/alcohol/money problems, the sad but supportive spouse watching from the sidelines (who’s almost always a woman because these films prize male genius) and a triumphant comeback that ends the story early enough to avoid fewer cinematic troubles.

It’s boring and thoroughly, proudly middlebrow, but you don’t fuck with the formula for a reason. Biopics make money, win awards and ensure that the central figure’s legacy (and profitable estate) lives on for a few more years. Audiences seem to prefer this curated version of history over the hard and messy truths. Hey, if we wanted the real story, that’s what the documentaries are for, right? Even the least discerning viewers, however, have their limits. There’s only so much historical whitewashing one can stomach before rejecting the semi-truths as outright lies. The limit can be hard to define. Queen fans seemed generally okay with Bohemian Rhapsody changing the timeline of Freddie Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis, while Cole Porter devotees revolted at De-Lovely downplaying his sexuality. But it’s unlikely that even the most zealous fandoms would be all-in on something like The Babe Ruth Story, one of the worst biopics ever made.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth remains one of the true legends of baseball, a player so iconic that he remains one of its towering figures. Even people who don’t know anything about baseball know who Babe Ruth is, even if it’s only for the candy bar named after him. He certainly lived a life worthy of a fascinating biopic, and a few have been made over the decades hoping to capture some of his unique magic. The first one is easily the worst, the kind of biopic that feels like a prequel to Walk Hard or an extended joke about the ways that American culture canonizes celebrities. 

Released in 1948 and directed by Roy Del Ruth (no relation), The Babe Ruth Story was originally supposed to star Babe as himself, but by that point in time, his ill health had made it impossible. Instead, Oscar nominee William Bendix was hired. He plays the role of Babe from the age of 18 onward. At the time of the film’s release, he was 42, and he doesn’t look a day over 56 in the movie. Bendix’s strategy for playing Ruth as a young man was to talk like an especially stupid toddler, a choice he maintains even as Babe ages into his late 30s. Indeed, the entire film seems to view Babe Ruth as a by-golly, gee-willikers naïve child, and it wears thin very quickly.

Like many a biopic, The Babe Ruth Story goes out of its way to clean up the life of its subject. Ruth was as notorious for his partying and womanizing as he was for hitting a ball with a bat. Not here though. His first wife Helen Woodford is entirely cut out of the film, and so is Dorothy, the daughter Ruth had with his mistress Juanita Jennings. All of his infidelities and neglect are shoved to the side in favor of a cutesy true-love romance with Claire, his second wife. This Babe is so passive and emotionally immature that one wonders if he even knows what sex or booze are. This Babe goes to the bar and orders milk. Also, there’s not a single hooker in this film! That alone is a crime against history.

But The Babe Ruth Story’s Babe Ruth isn’t just the best baseball player ever: He’s also basically Jesus. His mere presence at a game causes a sick child to be healed. To really drive home his godly abilities, the Babe heals a second cute kiddie on the verge of death through his famous called shot during the 1932 World Series. Oh, and Babe also risks his career to save a dog he almost killed with his powerful ball-hitting prowess. He’s constantly buying meals for orphans, overtipping waiters and even joining in on choreographed stage shows. Every person he meets is either patting him on the back or talking about how everything he says and does is just wonderful, by gum! You wonder if an early draft of the script had Babe framed with a halo in every scene. 

The climax sees Ruth on his deathbed, on the verge of succumbing to throat cancer, receiving thousands of letters from his devoted fans urging him to keep fighting. When the film was released, Ruth was still alive, but only just, having struggled with throat cancer for years. A doctor tells Ruth’s wife that there’s a new experimental treatment—“a serum, untried”—that could give him a chance at survival. They’ll do it, and as Babe is wheeled into surgery, the narrator assures audiences that Babe’s legacy is too mighty for even death to quash it. The Babe Ruth Story was rushed into release as news of Ruth’s declining health became well-known, and they wanted to make sure he could see the final product, which he did. Babe Ruth died three weeks after its premiere. Knowing this, watching that “just in case” ending is undeniably ghoulish.

And, to rub salt into the wound, there’s very little baseball in this movie about a baseball icon. Then again, maybe that’s for the best. If his unshown skills can cure multiple sick kids, then perhaps his powers were too potent for us mere mortals watching the movie to see. The majority of his sporting achievements are summed up via newspaper headlines, including Ruth leaving Boston to join the New York Yankees. That’s an event deserving of an entire movie, but here, it’s a sentence. The performance slumps over his career are straight-up dismissed by other characters, including one who declares that Babe saved baseball and every player in America should “kiss Ruth’s big fat mug every time the Babe pulls on a pair of spikes.” “Don’t blame Babe Ruth” for the Yankees’ failed seasons, he declares. The Babe Ruth Story is too enamored with its hero to even give him a traditional sports movie arc. 

Biopics tend to lean towards the saccharine, but The Babe Ruth Story is so mawkish that watching it feels like being smothered by cheese. The soaring violins and deifying of its subject start to feel like a propaganda film for a dictator. Like the most whitewashed of biopics, The Babe Ruth Story removes all the prickly edges of its subject but renders him so uninteresting as a result that the film feels pointless. Saint Babe the Child Healer is far less intriguing than the hard-drinking, hooker-loving lothario who still managed to change baseball forever. Its cavalcade of clichés embodies the logical conclusion of the entire genre: When you’re more concerned with appeasing estates than extracting the truth from your subject, you shouldn’t be surprised when you end up turning a celebrity into God.

Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.

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