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.”