A League of Their Own completely reverses the errors of Jonathan Demme's failed Swing Shift, another film about what women did in WW2 when their husbands were at war. It's a great entertainment that succeeds against all odds, and perhaps (think about this one) the best movie ever about baseball.
Normally a shrewd director of forgettable comedy, Penny Marshall assembles a dream cast in a story that seems to have set them all on fire. Geena Davis and Lori Petty make the "competing siblings" gag really work for the first time and Tom Hanks goes from gloriously gross to warmly reasonable. Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell must really have believed in the script, as they shine in secondary roles.
Well, maybe Eight Men Out is the better film about baseball, but A League of Their Own is still in a category of its own. It's a bright and positive story that neither dumbs down nor overly sentimentalizes its subject, my two main complaints about the genre of sports movies.
My normal attitude about this kind of picture is encapsuled in an early scene in (Sunset Blvd.) When writer William Holden's studio pitch about PT boats doesn't go over, the producer asks him if the same story could be turned into a Betty Hutton vehicle about a girl's softball team ...
In her commentary, director Penny Marshall show a lot of pride in her largely female cast. When the male writers' credits show up, her voice takes on a strange tone as she says she couldn't get female writers to do the job.
It helps that A League of Their Own isn't soaked completely with a feminist point of view. It presents its points about sex inequality in the 1943 world and then moves on. Just about the only forced bit is a welcome-enough moment when an observer, a black woman, tosses back an errant ball like a big-league player, reminding us that even as these few women are getting their shot at equality, there was still a long way to go to reach anything like fairness.
In some other film that PC lesson would be unwelcome, but A League of Their Own has a liveliness and spunk about it that invites our full participation. The Lori Petty and Megan Cavanagh characters so desperately want to play that it's impossible not to root for them. The story maintains a constant thread of comedy based in character. We get the feeling that the jokes are a lot more than just whatever the writers thought was funny.
The odd situation of a girl baseball league creates a continuous string of problems. They're asked to wear "showgirl" uniforms that cause them to tear up their legs when they slide. Grandstand hecklers cause trouble. The wilder of the girls make a mockery of the chaperones and the "no men" rules. One player brings her brat kid along. After the tyke's constant provocations, the best joke in the picture is when Tom Hanks decks him with a tossed baseball mitt.
Hanks' disgustingly sloppy failed big leaguer provides a great male contrast to the idealistic female players. He's at first an annoyance and an embarrassment, but he grows in stature in what should be a sports-movie cliché. It's not because A League of Their Own doesn't have Dugan redeem himself by any great act of character. He doesn't find God or realign himself overnight so as to "earn" the heroine at the fadeout. Initially he helps to carry the grosser end of the comedy, as in the spitting scenes and the "that's a lotta peein'" scene in the girl's locker room. The most memorable clip from the show is his "there's no crying in baseball" moment, a speech that will surely become a deathless quotable.
Madonna is a big surprise, as A League of Their Own is one of her few worthwhile film appearances. She's used for comedy as the rowdiest of the players but is mostly another good egg among the gals. She gets her center-stage bit in the roadhouse swing dance, an excitingly-shot dance-action scene. Director Marshall obviously learned something from the extravagant but emotionally dead dance number she acted in in Spielberg's 1941 - this scene really swings.
In the middle of it all is Geena Davis' Dottie, a wonderfully heroic portrait of womanus americanus. She's an ace player participating almost against her will, as she's uninterested in fame or glory. She has limitless tolerance for her aggressively competitive sister, yet doesn't sacrifice herself to an exaggerated loyalty (the final out of the World Series is a bit ambiguous, admittedly). The script also respects Dottie by not giving her some lame romantic conflict between her husband fighting in Italy (Bill Pullman) and her new manager. She has enough raw talent to do showboat stunts when the newspapers need something exciting, but she's no female Jim Thorpe; A League of Their Own emphasizes teamwork and the spirit of the game and doesn't make who actually wins the series an all-important issue. Davis shows Dottie as having the resolve of a soldier while being no less "feminine." The movie is about the wartime jumbling of sex roles, but ends up just having positive things to say about people in general, when they're given a chance.
The best and fairest scene shows Davis' Dottie and Hanks' Jimmy Dugan sending out conflicting signals to a confused batter - hit, or bunt? It's at a moment where Dugan finally takes some responsibility for running the team. A political film would follow the feminist playbook and have Davis be right - women are always right, you know, just watch any network TV program. A League of Their Own has the brains to acknowledge that a fifteen-year big league veteran's coaching might really be superior to a dairy league novice. Dugan is right, and Dottie realizes that back on the bench. Her victory is shaming the manager into doing his job and joining the team. Scenes with this kind of evenhandedness flatter our intelligence and make the writers and director of A League of Their Own look uncommonly big-league.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of A League of Their Own replaces a disc from 1998. A comparison shows it has a sharper transfer and much better colors. This is a two-disc special edition with a lot of attractive extras.
Director Penny Marshall and several actresses contribute to the commentary. Ms. Marshall handles the comments well enough, seemingly remembering what's important to her about the movie as she goes along. To hear her, you'd think she had to be a stern disciplinarian to keep a lot of rowdy female performers in line. Lori Petty (Tank Girl) has an unmistakable voice. She comments on the hot wool uniforms and the wig she had to wear. At least it was built-in to her baseball cap and therefore easy to keep straight. Megan Cavanagh has no misgivings about the film's portraying her as almost painfully plain (read: ugly). It's the cruelest part of the comedy but certainly true to the times.
The extras on disc two are laid out in a baseball motif. There's a big pile of deleted scenes that include some interesting subplots like Marla Hooch's pregnancy, and a pass Jimmy Dugan makes at Dottie that helps explain her sudden decision to leave at one point. One introductory scene with the Harvey candy people was turned into a newsreel for the final film. Penny Marshall provides intros.
The docu is split up into 11 short segments, so don't forget to use the "play all" option. They're all entertaining with Rosie O'Donnell and Geena Davis charming us and Lori Petty and others explaining the interesting circumstances of filming. It's regrettable that guild rules force these DVD extras to be broken up into smaller bites; this stack of shows would hold together as a unit a lot better without the repeated interruptions of graphic opening titles - 11 times.
Disc two also contains a trailer for this show (that stresses the broadest jokes) and two other baseball themed films, and a text filmography extra for many of the talent.
You really know that A League of Their Own has worked when Penny Marshall tacks on an elaborate bookend structure (with an entirely new cast) to show the survivors of the Women's Baseball League in 1992. Geena Davis' older double is such a perfect match, there's no trouble making the connection. The film has a strong emotional resonance. I think appreciation for it will grow with the distance of time.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A League of Their Own rates: