November 9, 2005
I recently saw another classic baseball movie on DVD: Damn Yankees (1958), starring Tab Hunter as the (rejuvenated) wanna-be hero, Ray Walston (who is better known for his roles as My Favorite Martian and as Mr. Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) as Satan, and Gwen Verdon as the red-headed temptress. If you're a fan of those exquisitely choreographed, lavishly costumed musicals filmed in glorious Technicolor from the 1950s (such as Oklahoma!), you'll love this one. Oh, you're not? Well, neither am I, but I still enjoyed it immensely.
The very first scene had me enthralled, with game action taking place -- in living color! -- at funky old Griffith Stadium. It felt like I was in a time machine. The stadium was filled to capacity, a rare event for the Senators in that era, so I imagine they had to arrange a special promotion to fill all those seats during the filming. One detail I noticed was that the fence in left field was closer to the infield than it had been prior to the 1950s (except for World Series and All Star games), and it intersected with the big wall at a point in center field very close to the corner. [See photo, added subsequently.] The close-up action scenes were filmed at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, and there were several awkward transitions from L.A. to D.C. and back again. Road games? Nope. In the climactic scene, the hero escapes through a door in the center field wall (ivy-covered), and somehow zips from there back to the locker room before anyone can find him. Hmmm...
The plot and script were adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name. It's basically a fantasy centered upon a dull, middle-aged fan of the Washington Senators named Joe who is obsessed with beating the Yankees in the pennant race, and sells his soul to the Devil for a chance to become a baseball hero. The poor guy's wife is equally dull and plain looking, but extremely devoted to her husband, who basically ignores her from April through September. They live in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a neighborhood that would be way out of such a family's price range in today's world! After being transformed into a youthful superstar, the hero Joe leads his team to an amazing winning streak but exercises an "escape clause" to go home to his wife, at which point the Devil sends one of his demonettes to seduce and corrupt him, as a way to keep him in line. (Would Peter Angelos or George Steinbrenner ever resort to such a ploy?) From a present-day vantage point, the character of the sassy woman of ill repute played by Gwen Verdon was not sexy at all. Times change, and so do tastes. Two other female characters likewise grate upon on our contemporary social sensibilities. One is the brash woman newspaper reporter who virtually betrays her gender, forsaking married life in order to compete in the world of journalism. The other is the friend of Joe's wife, a big baseball fan played by Jean Stapleton, acting in the very same "dingbat" character as Edith from All In the Family, 14 years later! In the end, it's a choice between baseball and glory, or true love and the comforts of home. (Don't rush me; gimme a minute to think about it... ) Some of the musical numbers stretched out a little too long for my taste, but that's what you need to do to keep the womenfolk interested. Overall, it was a well-produced, fun movie filled with nostalgia. For more details, see the Internet Movie Database. The Civic religion page has been updated based on this movie.
In his never-ending research, Bruce Orser came across an interesting page listing documents pertaining to the construction of the Houston Astrodome at the University of Texas Library.