May 30, 2014

[Movies] Damn Yankees (1958)

Admittedly I first heard a song from this musical in Kinky Boots before I knew it came from another musical. And that leads us back to Damn Yankees, a somewhat unusual musical. The stage version of this play was first choreographed by Bob Fosse himself, and thus I picked up a copy of the movie recently as part of a Bob Fosse fever that I I've been working through in recent weeks and months.

Now the movie version does not have Bob Fosse fully involved in the project, although echoes of his original choreography managed to make it through to this version. Sadly, they had to tone things down a bit in order to make it more suitable to a wider audience given Fosse's rather signature choreography was considered to be a little too risque for most audiences. That's Bob Fosse for you.

On the surface, this is not a musical I'd immediately get into - after all, it actually has baseball as major aspect of the plot. But my love for Kinky Boots had me curious enough to want to see the original context of the song "Whatever Lola Wants" in its original glory - or at least its original cinematic glory.

Synopsis: Damn Yankees is a 1958 movie musical adaptation of a stage musical with the same name. The original musical and the movie had the same director - George Abbott, but with the help of Stanley Donen. The movie, like the play before it, is actually a retelling of the classic Faust legend, but set in the 1950's.

Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) is a middle-aged baseball enthusiast who is frustrated with the fact that their home team, the Washington Senators, has been largely unsuccessful in their games thus far. His wife, Meg (Shannon Bolin), has become rather frustrated with his baseball obsession and the resulting grumpiness over their continued losses and so the two are a little estranged given this subject. And after learning of another loss, he goes off and claims that he'd be willing to sell his soul in order to see the Senators beat the Yankees.

Enter Applegate (Ray Walston), a man who is a manifestation of the devil. He doesn't just offer a way to help the Senators win - he's actually offering Joe a chance to be the man directly responsible for their victory. In order to achieve this, he offers to restore Joe to youth and give him the skills needed to help the Senators win. Reluctantly Joe agrees - but not before he manages to negotiate for an escape clause. Applegate, greedy for another soul, agrees in the end and offers Joe a chance to back out at anytime before the last game of the season. The deal is set and Joe Boyd becomes Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), fated to be the start player of the Washington Senators.

The core premise behind Faust is already a classic morality tale, but it was rather interesting to see things play out all in the name of baseball. Sure, people are prone to exaggeration when saying what they're willing to do, but for Joe Boyd to actually give up his soul for a game? Well, that's just silly. He got lucky that Applegate offered him more than just making the team win - in that sense I suppose Joe got a little lucky. Still, the overall story structure was a safe enough bet, so it still worked out.

I'm not ashamed to admit that Tab Hunter was a rather striking fellow back in the day. You don't normally see a guy that well-built in movies, and he totally captured the all-American man sort of image that you'd expect from a star baseball player. So even though he was a casting change for the movie versus the original Broadway production, he was certainly a fun replacement

Of course I was really just looking forward to seeing Gwen Verdon perform as Lola, the character who sings of how she gets what she wants. Her character is a demonic temptress who works for Applegate and gets tasked to distract him from spending time with his old wife. And that one memorable song that drew me to this movie is precisely the song that fully introduces us to who she is. By modern standards, she's probably not all that alluring. But I can imagine given the constraints of the time period, she was smoking hot indeed.

Damn Yankees is a charming enough musical in itself and this movie is a decent adaptation of that story. Despite featuring a lot of the original Broadway principal cast, it had its share of slower moments that didn't go quite as well. But that's the movie world for you. Thus this production gets 3.5 unbelievable baseball hits out of the park out of 5.


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