“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.