Sunday, August 25, 2013

'Take Me Out to the Ball Game'

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is an engaging musical released by MGM in 1949. It’s all in good fun, even if the plot – what little there is of it – offers nothing new and becomes absurd by end.
But what’s significant is the pairing of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen as the film’s choreographers, which would pave the way to greater projects.
As a baseball movie, the film offers little in the way of the great American pastime. Set after the turn of the century, Kelly plays Eddie O’Brien and Frank Sinatra is Dennis Ryan, two men who work the vaudeville circuit during the off-season and play on the infield for the champion baseball team The Wolves. The film’s major thrusts are as follows: Will O’Brien and Ryan show up to play ball? (They do.) Who is the new owner, K.C. Higgins? (Turns out to be a woman, played by Esther Williams, who knows a thing or two about baseball.) Will O’Brien successfully woo Miss Higgins? (Is there any doubt?) 

These minor plot points provide the loose structure that holds plenty of music and dancing – the exuberant “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” featuring Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munshin; the romantic “The Right Girl for Me” crooned by Sinatra; the lively “It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate” with Sinatra and Betty Garrett; and Kelly’s exuberant solo “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick's Day.”
It’s unfortunate that this thoroughly likable film has so little plot, because it needs to all end somehow. What happens is rather silly, involving gambling and corruption that throws away all logic. The final number even breaks free of the plot by naming the actors rather than the characters within the lyrics of the song!
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy, thanks to the cast and the breezy nature of the plot. Kelly is at his roguish best, while Sinatra is winning as a wide-eyed innocent. If Williams lacks the presence of a Judy Garland or a Cyd Charisse, she’s still a charming presence. She appeared in 16 Technicolor extravaganzas for MGM and was one of its biggest stars. In “Ball Game,” she even gets a brief pool scene where she swims and sings the title song.
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game’s” biggest achievement may be the pairing of Kelly and Donen. When Donen was a dancer in the chorus of the Broadway production of “Pal Joey,” Kelly took him under his wing. They continued their association in Hollywood, and when Kelly was loaned out to Columbia for “Cover Girl,” Donen went with him. After a few films at Columbia as dance director, Donen went back to MGM – at Kelly’s request – to work on dance numbers for “Anchors Aweigh.” The two men put together a synopsis for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” that they submitted to famed producer Arthur Freed, who bought it for Kelly, even though he recognized it would not be original or inventive.
Kelly and Donen actually wrote the synopsis with the third ball player identified as Leo Durocher, famed ballplayer-turned-manager who was also married to actress Laraine Day at that time. Munshin would take the role. The duo also wanted Kathryn Grayson for K.C. Higgins, but Freed originally assigned the role to Judy Garland. When she became unpredictable, he gave it to Williams, who reportedly did not get along with Kelly. 

But Kelly and Donen demonstrated such skill that Freed allowed them to co-direct a film for the first time. That movie was “On the Town,” which they began after finishing “Ball Game” and also included Sinatra, Munshin and Garrett, as well as Roger Edens, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote many of the songs in “Ball Game” and would work with Leonard Bernstein on “Town.”
Freed had a phenomenal 1948-49 run, with the success of “Words and Music,” “The Pirate,” “Easter Parade,” “The Barkleys of Broadway,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “On the Town.” One of MGM’s top producers, Freed was one of the overall best because of his ability to assemble a coherent group of talent for both in front of and behind the camera.
I don’t want to forget the director of this film, Busby Berkeley, who was no slouch. It was his films in the early 1930s that resurrected the musical, and he had previously worked at MGM as director of a number of films, including several of the Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals, although his relationship with Freed and MGM would be stormy. “Ball Game” would be Berkeley’s last film as director, but he would return to choreograph musical sequences, memorably for Williams in her favorite film, “Million Dollar Mermaid.”
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was a huge hit for MGM and an example of the studio’s gift for making Technicolor musicals. As a baseball film, there’s not much drama surrounding the game, but it’s really meant to be colorful fun, which it definitely is.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

'Damn Yankees!'

NOTE: I do apologize for not blogging more this summer. I’ve been assigned several major writing projects at work, which leaves me with little enthusiasm to write for fun in my spare time. Also, I’ve been enjoying my free time this summer – the trip to Paris which I mentioned in a previous post, along with some fun outings, most recently to see “The Book of Mormon” in Chicago, which was terrific. I highly recommend it. As for my previously mentioned series on Ginger Rogers, I’ll get to it soon. However, I’m now returning to my baseball theme with a pair of baseball musicals.

I had never seen “Damn Yankees!” in any form until I recently watched the 1958 movie version. Unfortunately, to use a bad baseball metaphor, it’s strictly minor leagues as a film.
As I watched it, I could imagine seeing it on a stage. And with much of the talent from the original Broadway production involved with the film, you would think it would be outstanding. But such is the pitfall of adapting stage to film – something that works on stage doesn’t necessarily work as a movie, and here it was a slew of contrasts, from oversized performances that felt constrained on film to musical numbers that either felt stage-bound or ill-at-ease in a realistic setting.
That’s not to say the film has no merit. Its charms are there; it’s one of those films where certain scenes and performances are more enjoyable than the film as a whole.
It’s a straightforward plot, and one that’s typical of a baseball film – someone helping their favorite losing team win again. This time it’s middle-aged Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) frustrated that his beloved Washington Senators are stuck in seventh place. After his faithful wife Meg (Shannon Bolin) goes to bed one night, Joe wishes he still had the youth and energy to become a slugger and help the Senators break free from their slump.
Enter the devil in the form of Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston), who agrees to make Joe young again in exchange for his soul. Joe, using his good business sense, asks for an escape clause: If he agrees to quit the Senators before they play the final game of the season, he will be allowed to walk away. Otherwise, his soul belongs to the devil. 

Mr. Applegate agrees and turns Joe into Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), becoming his agent and showing off his phenomenal talent to the team, impressing manager Benny Van Buren (Russ Brown). Reporter Gloria Thorpe (Rae Allen) picks up the story of this mysterious yet appealing player and helps turn him into a fan favorite. When Joe begins to miss Meg and even decides to take a room in her house, Mr. Applegate calls in reinforcements: Lola (Gwen Verdon), the best homewrecker he owns, is told to distract Joe away from Meg.
The original Broadway production that opened in 1955 was an immediate hit and cleaned up at the Tonys, with awards for Best Musical, for actors Verdon, Walston and Brown, and for choreography for Bob Fosse, with Allen also nominated. All of this talent is showcased in the movie, with direction by George Abbott, who directed the Broadway version. Stanley Donen helped Abbott with the film direction.
Only Hunter is a newbie for the film, and that’s part of the problem. While the attractive Hunter has the right looks and is extremely likable, he’s not an actor on the level of the others. For example, when Joe Hardy starts to spend time with Meg, who has no idea that this is her husband, there’s no chemistry between the two, and there should be something there so we understand the strong bond these characters share. Hunter and Verdon have great fun but not great chemistry. 

As for Verdon, her “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” number is dynamic, but I can see it working better on the stage, where her caricature of a seductress would play to the rafters but is too much of a caricature within the confines of the movie’s locker room set. She’s actually at her best in a number with Bob Fosse, “Who’s Got the Pain,” a showcase for the two (and a rare opportunity to see Fosse in front of the camera). The number itself has nothing to do with the plot, as it’s performed as part of a show put on for Joe Hardy, but it’s a lot of fun.
Conversely, the exuberant “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” featuring Gloria and the Senators probably flies on stage. But when you see the team dancing on an actual baseball field, it’s a bit ridiculous. Plus I was distracted by the three or four random people each sitting alone in the stands and wondered what that was about. At times there is a theatricality about this film that’s at odds with the realistic settings, and the pacing seems a bit off at times.
 Still, there is enough to enjoy – the strong score, the vibrant and colorful production, Walston’s delectable turn as Mr. Applegate, the only lead movie role (and rare big-screen movie appearance) from Verdon, and a delightful turn from Jean Stapleton in a pre-Edith Bunker appearance as Sister Miller. 
Next up is another baseball musical – “Take Me out to the Ball Game.”