Sunday, May 5, 2013

'Angels in the Outfield'



The strangest feeling of nostalgia recently hit me like a line drive.

It was about baseball, a sport I don’t follow. As a kid, I went through the requisite baseball phase but because I was never any good playing it, I quickly lost interest. Sometimes my older siblings occasionally reeled me in with their enthusiasm for the game, and I remember playing Wiffle ball, baseball and even softball with them.


With the late arrival of spring just hitting the Chicago area, my thoughts inexplicably turned to baseball. As I fondly remembered a few childhood memories, I also thought about a few great baseball movies I had seen. I also discovered that I had not seen a slew of others.

So, over the summer, I’m going to play ball at Classicfilmboy, periodically mixing some fleeting memories with a review. This week, I’m inspired by the large front yard in which my siblings and I along with the neighbors would play ball. We lived next to the main road through town, and if one of my brothers managed to hit the ball over the road, it was a rare thing – and miraculous that the ball didn’t hit a passing car.

Just as miraculous are the angels seen by Guffy McGovern in “Angels in the Outfield,” a delightful 1951 comedy starring Paul Douglas as the manager of the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates. Guffy’s foul-mouthed tirades (imaginatively presented, due to the Production Code, by garbled, echoing sounds coming from his mouth) and temper-induced scuffles have won him few fans, especially sports announcer Fred Bayles (Keenan Wynn). When Guffy gets him fired, Fred vows vengeance by becoming an announcer for the rival Giants. 


One night alone on the field, Guffy is visited by an angel (voiced by James Whitmore), who tells Guffy if he cleans up his act, the team might start winning with the help of ball players who are now part of the heavenly squad. Guffy begins displaying restraint, and soon enough the team responds by showing signs of life.

Meanwhile, plucky Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh), the local Household Hints editor, has been tracking Guffy and notices the change in his demeanor. Then Bridget (Donna Corcoran), a girl at a Catholic orphanage, claims to see angels in the outfield. Jennifer writes a story about Bridget, and Guffy seeks out Bridget, whose vision validates his own conversations with an angel.

Many of the game scenes were actually played at Forbes Field, home to the Pirates until 1970 when the team moved to Three Rivers Stadium. Two fires struck Forbes Field, and it was demolished in 1971. What may be lost today is the fact that the Pittsburgh Pirates had not finished first since 1927 and had been a sub-par team for years, without a winning season between 1948 and 1958. Pirates fans must have been praying for angels for years after this film was released.

One fun sequence in the movie involves interviews with notables after the Pirates begin winning. These include Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb and Bing Crosby, who was part-owner of the Pirates from 1946 until his death in the 1970s.

The story sags slightly toward the end, when a hearing is called to determine if Guffy is fit to lead the team. The central point comes down to whether angels exist, and it feels like a pale imitation of the debate regarding the existence of Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street.”
  


Otherwise, the film works, in large part to a cast that is clearly having fun. Leigh is as delightful as ever, Corcoran (whose brother Kevin found fame at Disney) is the rare child actor who is charming without trying to be so, and Wynn is a nasty delight. Bruce Bennett, Spring Byington, Ellen Corby and Lewis Stone (not to mention Mrs. Cleaver herself, Barbara Billingsley as a hat-check girl) round out the strong supporting cast.

However, it’s the affable Douglas who is the film’s MVP. Known for playing gruff and belligerent men, especially in his breakout role as Harry Brock in the original Broadway production of “Born Yesterday,” Douglas is the ideal actor to play Guffy. He’s completely believable as a sour baseball manager who loves his steaks more than his players, and he’s just as believable when he softens and begins to let down his defenses.

In 1959, Douglas was finishing up work on an episode of “The Twilight Zone” playing an umpire. The episode was written for Douglas by Rod Serling, who was inspired by his performance in “Angels in the Outfield.” Sadly, Douglas died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 52, and the episode was reshot with actor Jack Warden.

Disney remade the film in 1994, adjusting the story and moving it to Los Angeles. I remember it as pleasant but not quite up to the 1951 version, which was made for MGM and directed by Clarence Brown, known for his sensitive touch behind the camera. The original “Angels in the Outfield” is a charmer. It’s also a great way to kick off the baseball season.

10 comments:

  1. As they say in another baseball show it's "got heart". And that heart carries it a long way.

    Gee, remember when people used to dress-up to go to a ballgame?

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    1. It does have heart. And I do remember those days. As a kid my mother would dress us up to do anything ... I was so embarrassed because my friends would be in jeans and I'd be in slacks (usually plaid ... even worse!).

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  2. "Angels in the Outfield" is one of my favorite baseball movies and what a perfect cast.

    I remember the days when my son was growing up, my husband and I would take him to watch professional baseball game. After, the game we stayed to watch country western bands such as, Sweethearts of the Rodeo perform.. those were the days..

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    1. It's a great film, so I'm glad you liked the review. That's fun about staying to see the bands ... it's so different these days.

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  3. I like this one too. Not a classic, but if I had seen it when it was first released, I would have not felt cheated. I'll watch Paul Douglas in anything, and this is one of his most likeable performances.

    Since baseball is the only sport I follow, I like a lot of baseball movies, and this is a particularly charming one. I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

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    1. You should check it out. I really had fun watching it, and Paul Douglas was great. He died far too young.

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  4. I must admit, I've been a baseball fan for years, and I love baseball movies. While this one isn't in my top 5, it doesn't miss that list by much. I think it's a delightful film...better than the remake.

    Adding to the charm for me is the fact that I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and the Pirates were my team. (I was a huge fan during their 71 World Series win.) My dad had taken in games at Forbes Field, but I was just a bit too late for that. I would take in my games at Three Rivers.

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    1. That's a great memory you have of Pittsburgh and the Pirates. I grew up in a Cardinals household, and one of my brothers is still a rabid Cardinals fan.

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  5. I am a huge baseball movie fan. Hooray for your new series on these films!

    "Angels in the Outfield" is a real gem. I love the way the movie presents Paul Douglas' swearing; it never gets old for me.

    I agree with you about the trial re: existence of angels. While theological debates are always interesting, it doesn't fit well in this movie.

    Looking forward to more of these posts!

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    1. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed this first entry.

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