Ralph Greenleaf is on YouTube. It is optimistically called a “Highlight Reel.” It is not. It is an odd assemblage of a few newsreel clips and outtakes. They are snapshots of a great champion, wishing he were anywhere else, going through the motions. We, the audience, are never engaged. We stumbled upon something we were not meant to see. The first clip is of a world’s straight pool championship final between Greenleaf and the “Chicago Wizard,” Erwin Rudolph. Likely from the mid 1930’s, held at Dwyer’s Billiard Club in New York City. Rudolph defeats Greenleaf. Greenleaf seems defeated from the start. Rudolph opens with a classic safety. Greenleaf thinks he sees a dead combination and fires at it. It is not dead. The shot misses, Greenleaf slouches back to his chair and Rudolph begins his run. Spliced in with Rudolph’s great pattern play are some absurd shots probably meant to show us his “Wizardry.” The Chicagoan gets the trophy and we see little else of Greenleaf. Greenleaf’s single shot is hard to watch. He doesn’t even LOOK at it. He just takes a couple perfunctory strokes and slaps at it. What was he thinking? Was he overconfident against the “Chicago Wizard”? Did he not care? Was he thinking of his next drink? It is puzzling. In our sweet, forlorn game, Ralph Greenleaf owns a mythic stature. His name is a spoken talisman. This crappy clip of a disinterested man in a sharp looking suit just makes me sad.
The film’s next segment is of Greenleaf shooting trick shots on an empty sound stage. He is tall, with a handsome, boyish face. The sharp suit is there and the hair (perhaps somewhat anachronistically) is slick with pomade. He goes through the basic canon of the time; the “Hat Shot”, the “Handkerchief Shot” and the “Rack Shot”. He makes three rail lags, finds disguised combinations and strokes a beautiful masse. End results. All well and good. Next, however, we see process. This is not so good. Greenleaf tries and fails multiple times to execute the shots (not uncommon), gets fidgety and gestures in annoyance (again, not uncommon). Here’s the thing; players hate doing trick shots. The very name connotes something of the trained monkey. Players labor for years, honing their skills in this most subtle game and then, when they get truly great, they are asked to perform a bunch of nonsense to an often wildly uninterested public. We can see the “Aristocrat” bored, frustrated, pandering to a movie camera that has already dumbed down and recast our heroes as “celebrities.”
The final clip offers the sad, staged, denouement. Greenleaf is in Hollywood performing his shots for a glittering, politely applauding, small crowd. Most everyone feigns a good time except a slender dude with his arms folded at the far left. He is resolutely unimpressed and even seems disdainful of the champion. Asshole. The film literally ends with an extra doing a dopey, slapstick, pratfall.
Pool has always straddled purity and shtick. Indeed, a great part of its appeal is found in the con man, the shameless self-promoter, the American original. It is as true today as it was in the Roaring Twenties. The game is hard and there is such little reward. Our champions have to shill all the time. I get it. Not too long after Greenleaf performed for the selection of Hollywood B-listers he had a stomach ache, went to a hospital in New York City and died in the waiting room at age 51. The historian loves the information found in the “Highlight Reel.” The poet does not.