Friday, February 3, 2017

Damn Yankees (Warner Bros., 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Damn Yankees (the original credits don’t contain an exclamation point at the end, though the page does), the 1958 adaptation of George Abbott’s hit 1955 Broadway musical with virtually the entire stage cast. It was also a follow-up to Warner Bros.’ film of The Pajama Game the year before, with songs by the same team (composer Richard Adler and lyricist Jerry Ross) and, most important, choreography by the young Bob Fosse, who was making the transition from dancer himself to director, first on stage and then on screen in five surprisingly compelling movies about the sordid underbelly of show business (Sweet Charity — despite the producing studio, Universal, insisting that Fosse cast Shirley MacLaine in the lead instead of the person who’d created it, Gwen Verdon, also Mrs. Bob Fosse — Cabaret, Lenny, the overrated All That Jazz and the woefully underrated Star 80). Damn Yankees was a comic adaptation of the Faust legend; Washington, D.C. real estate salesman Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) watches telecasts of the Washington Senators baseball games every waking moment he isn’t working, talking back to the TV about the rotten quality of the Senators’ playing and the even more rotten quality of the umpiring (“You’re blind, ump, you’re blind, ump, you must be out of your mind, ump!”) while his wife (Shannon Bolin) complains, in a contrapuntal duet, “Six months out of every year/When I’m with him, I’m alone.” (That dates this movie; today there are so many big-league sports available to TV viewers that a modern-day sports wife would complain that “Twelve months out of every year/When I’m with him, I’m alone.”)

Joe stands on his front porch, reminiscing that in his youth he had ambitions to play professional baseball himself, pantomiming a swing and saying, “I’d sell my soul for a long-ball hitter.” The Devil himself duly appears in the person of urbane, witty, well-dressed Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston, playing Satan much the way he played Martin the Martian in the TV series My Favorite Martian several years later), and offers to transform Joe Boyd into 22-year-old baseball phenom Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter, the one member of this movie’s principal cast who wasn’t in the original stage version) in exchange for Joe’s soul. The only problem from the Devil’s point of view is that Joe insists on an “escape clause” that allows him to back out of the deal by September 24 — one day before the end of the regular baseball season — if he doesn’t like it and in particular if he misses the wife he’s had to abandon to follow his baseball dreams. Joe Hardy tries out for the Senators, makes it and is promoted by baseball reporter Gloria Thorpe (Rae Allen) — and yes, there are the inevitable sexist jokes about her being a woman in that position — as “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” He’s so fantastically good that the Senators rise from seventh place to pennant contention, only Joe is still restive about his wife — so much so that he rents the vacant room in his house where he, as Joe Boyd, used to live until he’s forced to move when Applegate starts rumors about what he’s really doing there (not much, especially since even pre-transformation the Boyds slept next to each other only in the Production Code-obligatory twin beds) — and he’s threatening to invoke his escape clause. So Applegate calls in his ace seducer, Lola (Gwen Verdon), who boasts that with “a little brains, a little talent, with an emphasis on the latter,” she can seduce and ruin any man. In the film’s most famous scene, Lola corners Joe in the Senators’ locker room and sings, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets/And little man, little Lola wants you.” I remember watching this movie with my then-girlfriend Cat once and she heard Verdon’s oddly scratchy voice sing this song and wondered, “Why was she cast in this role?” Then Verdon did her spectacularly athletic dance around the locker room, and Cat said, “That’s why.”

But Lola’s shopworn seduction routine fails to work on Joe, so Applegate has to cook up other ways to destroy him and disappoint all those Senators’ fans who had their hopes built up that this would be the year their lowly team would win the pennant. At a huge benefit being given for Joe at a local theatre (at which Jean Stapleton, making her film debut as one of Mrs. Boyd’s fellow baseball widows, leads four kids in a reprise of the big hit song “Heart,” first performed in the movie by members of the Senators team — apparently she not only played this part in the Broadway production but did so in a later revival in the L.A. area, which producer Norman Lear saw and decided she’d be “right” for her star-making role as Edith Bunker on All in the Family), Applegate leaks to Gloria the story that Joe Hardy is really Shifty McCoy, a player who got caught fixing a game in the Mexican League four years earlier, and while the benefit is still in progress Gloria’s story hits the streets (a plot twist that would be far more believable today than it was in 1958, before the Internet, social media and blogs) and triggers an investigation by the Commissioner of Baseball as to whether Joe is morally fit to play. He passes when his wife, Stapleton’s character and the third woman from the opening “Six Months Out of Every Year” trio lie for him under oath and pose as Hannibalites who knew him when (one piece of evidence against him had been that nobody actually from Hannibal, Missouri had ever heard of him), and he gets to play the final game against, you guessed it, those damned Yankees. With the Senators in the field and Mickey Mantle up to bat (he’s not named in the soundtrack but his player number, 7, and the sportscaster’s comments on him make it clear who it’s supposed to be), Mantle hits a fly ball to Hardy’s position in center field and, in a last-ditch attempt to get the Senators to lose the game, Applegate changes Joe Hardy back to middle-aged schlub Joe Boyd — only Boyd rallies to make the catch and he, his wife and his soul are reunited at the end, singing a reprise of a song called “A Man Doesn’t Know” whose original performance was for some reason deleted from the final cut, so they’re “reprising” a song we’ve never heard before unless we had the original Broadway cast album — just as the film leaves out the lovely ballad “Near to You,” which Joe Hardy sang to his wife (who of course is 20 years older and doesn’t know this nice young man is her husband in his demonically transformed identity) and which you wouldn’t know unless you'd heard the cast album or bought Eddie Fisher’s hit single of the song “Heart,” which had “Near to You” on the flip side.

Damn Yankees is a movie I remember from my childhood and I can’t be that objective about — though I was used to seeing it on black-and-white TV back then and it gains a lot from color, especially the clever opening shot which cuts from the live Senators’ ballgame to Joe Boyd watching it on, you guessed it, a crude black-and-white TV, and the wild purple décor in Lola’s apartment (especially as contrasted with the horribly tacky wallpaper in the Boyds’ home — which makes one wonder, “Why does a production from a major studio like Warner Bros. have the same tacky wallpaper we expect to see in a PRC movie?”). This time around l loved Gwen Verdon, even though little of what she had to do has that much relation to the plot (including a song called “Who’s Got the Pain when They Do the Mambo?” which she and Fosse himself perform as part of the big benefit show), and noted that a decade earlier a femme fatale in a movie musical would have been played in the slow, sensual, languorous style of Marlene Dietrich (especially since the character had the same name as Dietrich in her breakthrough role in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel!), whereas Verdon becomes the prototypical Fosse dancer, her movements choreographed in the style of an athletic robot and her body control so great one can wish the plot would give her the chance to try out for the Senators. Tab Hunter was the only principal who wasn’t in the Broadway cast (he replaced someone named Stephen Douglass), and though I couldn’t resist the joke that if the Devil wanted to seduce Tab Hunter he should have sent someone named Larry instead of someone named Lola (and there’s even an “in”-joke in the script, in which Applegate is complaining that Lola’s shopworn seduction routine couldn’t get Joe away from his wife but he could, and she fires back, “How? Is he crazy about you?” — the sort of “dig” a lot of Rock Hudson’s screenwriters slipped into his scripts), he acquits himself acceptably. He recalled in his autobiography that he suggested to George Abbott, who was co-directing the film with Stanley Donen, that they change part of the “business” involving his character, and Abbott slapped him down and said, “No! That’s the way we did it on stage!”

Damn Yankees was also hamstrung by a strike the American Federation of Musicians called against the movie studios just before it went into production; instead of being able to pre-record the songs and then film to playbacks as was the standard practice, the actors had to lip-synch to the original Broadway cast album (which, of course, all of them but Hunter had been on!), and then their vocals were matched to accompaniments added by an orchestra in Italy (of all places!) and RCA Victor, which had put out the cast album as well, put out the soundtrack album but only released it in mono even though stereo records had just been introduced and the film was in stereo. Damn Yankees emerges as a fun film, though as Charles pointed out redoing the Faust legend in modern times was already a cliché by 1958 (indeed, he also noted that movies about people being helped by beneficent supernatural beings, like Here Comes Mr. Jordan and It’s a Wonderful Life, were also quite common by then — and 1958 was also the year Warner Bros. made The Story of Mankind, which adopted Henrik Willem Van Loon’s 1920’s pop book about world history into a film by having angel Ronald Colman and devil Vincent Price try the human race in front of a celestial court to persuade God He should either spare or destroy it) and Jerry Ross’s lyrics sometimes reach a bizarre level of intellectual pretension. While I couldn’t help but wonder what a similarly themed film might have looked like if it had been made in the mid-1940’s with Gene Kelly (who would have been a lot more credible as an athlete than Tab Hunter!) and Marlene Dietrich, the Damn Yankees we have is a fun entertainment on the cusp of musical staging and filmmaking between the smooth movement style of previous eras and the jerky, self-consciously athletic style of dance Fosse introduced both on stage and film and which would largely revolutionize the Broadway musical and broaden the range of subjects musical theatre could tackle.