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Damn Yankees

Damn Yankees
Warner DVD
1958 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 111 min. / What Lola Wants / Street Date October 12, 2004 / 19.97
Starring Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon, Ray Walston, Russ Brown, Shannon Bolin, Robert Shafer, Nathaniel Frey, James Komack, Rae Allen, Jean Stapleton, Bob Fosse, Elizabeth Howell
Cinematography Harold Lipstein
Production Designer Jean Eckart, William Eckart
Art Direction Stanley Fleischer
Film Editor Frank Bracht
Original Music Richard Adler, Jerry Ross
Written by George Abbott from his play and the book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop
Produced by George Abbott, Stanley Donen
Directed by George Abbott, Stanley Donen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the most delightful musicals ever, Damn Yankees is a song and dance powerhouse where every number is a showstopper. By sticking with almost all of the Broadway cast and hewing close to the original story, the movie became artistically satisfying but commercially inert; Tab Hunter was not a musical draw and the picture didn't enjoy the success visited George Abbott's more conventionally romantic Doris Day musical Pajama Game of the previous year.

Faust was never this enjoyable, although the Peter Cook - Dudley Moore Bedazzled was just as funny. People wondering where the great musical talent lay beyond Astaire and Kelly can find their answer in Gwen Verdon Bob Fosse, an inspired duo.


Frustrated Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) gets a satanic answer to his prayers when Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston) offers to use magic to make him a superstar baseball player who can help the Senators beat the fearsome NY Yankees. Joe writes a goodbye note to his faithful wife Meg (Shannon Bolin) and is transformed into the handsome, youthful Joe Hardy, future hope of baseball fans everywhere (Tab Hunter). But when Joe tries to re-contact his wife, Mr. Applegate decides to turn his "Number One Home Wrecker" loose on him: Lola, once the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island and now a vamp from Hell (Gwen Verdon). Only one problem: the virtuous Joe inspires Lola to reform.

Beyond its superior songs - every one of them an exuberant keeper - Damn Yankees' most affecting aspect is its sentimentality. Old duffer Joe Boyd deserts his wife, the long-suffering and sweet-hearted Meg. Neither Shannon Bolin nor Robert Shafer had film careers, yet they carry the heart of the show. Shafer's weary presence is never lost even though he's 'transformed' into the young Joe Hardy for most of the film's running time. The picture can't be beat as Americana - the Boyd household with its comfy chairs and patterned wallpaper immediately evokes grandma's house, at least for kids of my generation.

Tab Hunter is much maligned for being the Hollywood no-talent crammed into a Broadway cast, but he's not at all bad. Even though he can't dance he acquits himself admirably in the final Two Lost Souls number. He's also a fine foil for Gwen Verdon's Lola, a fiery redhead with a wonderfully corny vamp act that makes fun of every seduction scene in history. Verdon's dancing actually had to be tamed down a bit from the original choreography, to remove some burlesque motions considered too vulgar ... but they aren't missed. Verdon makes up in personality what she might lack in raving beauty, and she fills out a tight skirt with legs that make Wonder Woman look like Twiggy.

Verdon was Bob Fosse's dance and choreography partner by this time and together they made the numbers in Damn Yankees some of the best ever. The baseball millieu defuses whatever pretension came along with the "selling one's soul" story - remember, Faust was used as the quintessential "bad idea" play in The Band Wagon only five years earlier. Fosse gets his showcase number with Gwen, Who's Got the Pain?, which exemplifies his signature moves and grace notes, characteristic poses, etc. All of Verdon's numbers are smooth as silk and photographed in long takes that underline her achievement - how she gets those tight pants off so perfectly in Whatever Lola Wants is a wonderment.

The baseball players have a group dance in Shoeless Joe, raising dust as they go through a rousing routine composed wholly from baseball poses and actions. Even the experienced Stanley Donen had some trouble with this one, as a random cutaway to a smiling Smokey (the catcher) is at one point used to bridge two uncuttable mastershots. An acrobatic black dancer does some nice tumbling; he loses his cap on one flip, but saves the take by snatching it back from the ground in a reflex motion so deft you have to be looking for it to even notice.

The big career winner in Damn Yankees was the inimitable Ray Walston and Mr. Applegate was his most famous role. Applegate gets all the good lines and best bits of business; audiences are immediately charmed by his red socks and laugh at his cracks about politicians and parking lot owners. His Those Were The Good Old Days number makes great use of morbid imagery like pioneers being scalped and Marie Antoinette losing her head - and a hilarious one-shot cameo of Jack the Ripper having trouble gutting a victim with his knife.

Fans of All in the Family will also delight in seeing Jean Stapleton in a supporting role as one of a pair of old-maid sisters. Every line she says is memorable, the best being when she tries to explain old Joe Boyd's TV baseball habit to young Joe Hardy: "Every night you'd see that big fat slob sitting there!" It's her first movie.

Although it ends on a solid emotional note, it is true that Damn Yankees disappoints a lot of people who expect a big finale musical number. Both the baseball story and the Faust angle are resolved spectacularly in the race for the pennant between the Senators and the Yankees, and then we get about four moody minutes of the restored Joe Boyd sneaking home that remind us a bit of the later film Seconds. Meg starts to reprise her heartbreaking signature tune My Empty Chair and the movie simply ends - not badly, but before audiences are prepared. For such a light-hearted story Damn Yankees has a wide range of moods and tones - at one point the Potomac looks like a painting of the River Styx, with Joe waiting to cross to the Isle of the Dead. It's a magical show.

Warners' DVD of Damn Yankees has no extras, which will disappoint many fans hoping for more. Unbelievably, it's not one of the studio's more popular titles. Other fans may be upset that the mono mix hasn't been swapped for the stereo soundtrack album during the musical numbers, but that wasn't possible. The album cues were different in both orchestration and editing than what's heard in the movie.

The picture is fine and the color a knockout. This is the first time I've seen Benny Van Buren (Russ Brown) on video where his ruddy red face didn't glow like a pumpkin. The gaudy color scheme of the gauzy Two Lost Souls number is accurate and free of bleeding. The enhanced image finally shows us all of the split-frame multi-screens in Six Months Out of Every Year and Those Were The Good Old Days. And the razor sharp track lets us hear every part of the harmony for Heart.

Damn Yankees is Savant's favorite musical simply for nostalgic reasons. I taped the audio from television in the late 60s when LA's channel 9 routinely cut out about fifteen minutes to make more room for commercials. The Academy had a reunion night about six years ago when Ms. Verdon was still with us, and I still regret not taking my family to it. It was one of the first laserdiscs I bought and I still remember singing along with it with my 5 and 6 year-olds. Those are good movie memories.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Damn Yankees rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer (for What Lola Wants, the English re-titling)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 25, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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