The Bootleg Files: King of the Pins

BOOTLEG FILES 813: “King of the Pins” (1950 short film).

On YouTube.



Not likely.

When people are asked to identify short films made by Columbia Pictures during Hollywood’s Golden Era, it is safe to assume that the majority of responses will be rooted in comedy – The Three Stooges, Andy Clyde, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase and Vera Vague will probably be cited most often.

However, Columbia produced other short films that were not associated with comedy. One of the studio’s short film series was “Columbia’s World of Sports,” which offered brief educational and travelogue-style glimpses into the athletics endeavor.

The 1950 short “King of the Pins” might be the most famous entry in this series, if only for the unlikely addition of a decidedly non-athletic participant in the short: Buddy Hackett, who made his first film appearance playing an incompetent bowler.

Sports broadcaster Bill Stern is the narrator of “King of the Pins,” and he provides a running commentary that is equal parts cogent and caustic. Stern points out how bowling has become increasingly popular at that time, with women and children joining men in the bowling alleys.

The short is devoted to a right way/wrong way demonstration of bowling. The right way is presented by Joe Willman, a bowling champion of the day, and Stern offers a step-by-step explanation of Willman’s technique, which is often presented in slow motion. For a serious student of bowling, “King of Pins” is a very good little film for detailing Willman’s skill in achieving difficult maneuvers to bring down erratically positioned pins that would defy easy toppling. And perhaps in a nod to the casual bowler who might become uncomfortable watching Willman’s abilities, the film offers one sequence where Willman winds up with a single pin standing.

However, much of the color in “King of the Pins” involves Hackett, who was 26 when the film was shot. Stern’s narration calls out Hackett’s heft, noting that he is “the heppest cat in the alley and twice as fat. Buddy’s full of spares and splits – spare ribs and banana splits.” Sadly, Hackett isn’t allowed to have dialogue in this short and has to rely on pantomime for laughs.

In the course of “King of the Pins,” Hackett gets his thumb stuck in a bowling ball, drops a ball on his foot, falls over himself while projecting the ball down the alley, and repeatedly tosses gutter balls. Ultimately, Hackett manages to score a strike by taking an oversized barbell and placing its ends into the gutters of the alley before rolling it down to the pins, thus ensuring the connecting bar will score him an elusive strike.

Hackett is amusing in “King of the Pins,” but for anyone who relishes his stand-up routines and his raconteur appearances on classic talk shows it is a bit strange to see him only doing dialogue-free physical comedy. Oddly, this one-shot appearance gave rise to an urban legend that Jules White, who produced and directed the Three Stooges shorts at Columbia in the 1950s, invited Hackett to join the slapstick trio as a replacement for Curly Howard, who was forced to retire in 1946 after suffering a stroke. Some sources claim that Hackett’s “King of the Pins” appearance sparked White’s invitation (ignoring the fact that Shemp Howard moved in immediately to replace his ailing brother Curly) while other sources say Hackett was recruited as far back as 1946, which was improbably since he was a struggling nightclub comic who had yet to achieve any degree of attention.

“King of the Pins” and the rest of the “Columbia World of Sports” has fallen into obscurity, but an unauthorized YouTube posting of the short managed to save it from being completely forgotten. Since it is unlikely this will ever get into a proper home entertainment release, this offering is the best we have to enjoy the unlikely big screen debut of the always delightful Hackett.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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