I've never seen a baseball movie that managed to offend my sensibilities as both a Yankees fan and a White Sox fan. As a Yankees fan, I'm used to such treatment; they don't refer to the Yankees as the Evil Empire for nothing, and if you don't have a sense of humor about it when your favorite team is one everyone else in the league hates, you get taken down that long road of guilt for winning too often. But Damn Yankees also does something very stupid when a journalist randomly decides that the nickname of the main character should be Shoeless Joe, and everyone acts as if it's the most original idea in the world. Keep in mind that Joe had not done anything even remotely worthy of inspiring that moniker. It's not a reference to the way he plays, a reference to his wardrobe choices, or a reference to how good a player he is. It was something the journalist pulled out of the air and liked because it sounded cute. As if to emphasize the point, her and the team she's covering, the Washington Senators, then sing a song about it. Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO! And the postal code is pronounced "moe."
The Washington Senators are the focus of Damn Yankees, a musical about a guy who sells his soul to become a great slugger for the team because they're his favorite team and he wants to guide them to the Pennant instead of seeing those damn Yankees win it every damn season.
Damn Yankees retells the tale of Faust in a baseball context, in a musical format. The role of Faust himself is taken by a man named Joe Boyd, a lifelong fan of the perpetually pathetic Washington Senators. In the beginning of the movie, he sits watching another game, and the Senators of course lose yet again. Baseball fans reading this are probably familiar with the old joke surrounding those old Senators teams of yore: Washington: First in war, first in peace, last in the American League. The real-life Washington Senators enjoyed a brief run of successes from about 1924 to 1933, winning Pennants in 1924, 1925, and 1933 and the World Series in 1924. They also fielded Walter Johnson, possibly the greatest pitcher ever. Besides them, the team was so godawful that after it moved to Minnesota in 1960, the team appears to have taken all possible steps to burn its bridge to Washington. By the time Damn Yankees was released in 1958, Johnson and that 1924 title were long forgotten and the team was nestled comfortably back in its familiar suckitude, much to the chagrin of Boyd. Joe Boyd is particularly frustrated after this latest loss, and he heads outside for a breather, declaring that he would sell his soul to see his beloved Senators beat the Yankees and win the Pennant.
Sales of souls is apparently not a statement the Devil takes ironically, because guess who should show up at Joe's doorstep literally right out of thin air! That's right, apparently the Prince of Darkness is a Senators fan himself and just as fed up with the Pinstriped Stormtroopers of the Evil Empire as Joe. The Devil – who in this movie is called Mr. Applegate – cuts Joe a deal: He'll restore Joe's youth, so Joe himself can take Washington on a memorable Pennant run! Joe negotiates an escape clause into the contract so he can back out, and once that's done, he says goodbye to his wife, attends Washington's training camp, gets signed, and becomes hero for a year using the name Joe Hardy, who becomes a national squeaky-clean icon akin to Mickey Mantle (who, incidentally enough, appears in some of the archived footage in Damn Yankees). Unlike Mantle, though, Joe IS a squeaky-clean icon who misses his wife and keeps considering backing out whenever he sees her. This doesn't sit well with Applegate, who brings in his hot call girl with fire-red hair, Lola, to pry him away from his wife.
Damn Yankees starts off weak. It also finishes weak, despite some strong scenes in the second half. I wasn't especially impressed with the array of songs, either. The first few are forgettable. The second half brings much better musical fare, including the famous "Whatever Lola Wants," but the plot itself seems to be somewhat misguided and made up as it goes along by then. There's one scene between Hardy and Lola by a pond, and since this is 1950′s America, Lola has of course been swept up off her feet by Hardy's good-hearted innocence by then. This is a point in which Hardy comes to accept the fact that he has feelings for Lola too, but that whole point is discarded and never brought up again.
I'll give Joe Hardy this: The actor who plays him, Tab Hunter, REALLY looks the part of an all-American good old boy during the 50′s. As I mentioned, his character evokes comparisons to Mickey Mantle, right down to the crew-cut blond hair and aw-shucks demeanor. My regular readers on Lit Bases – one of the locations where I'm posting this, my blog about baseball books – know I have a hard time swallowing the innocent images of 1950′s America. Maybe it goes with the territory of being an 80′s-90′s kid, but I tend to view the 50′s as a sort of head-in-sand decade and snicker at the imagery that comes out of it in movies or TV. Joe apparently leads such an innocent life that his wife and him sleep in two separate beds! This means the rough edges of baseball jocks are smoothed out in Damn Yankees – I'm even surprised they even let the word "damn" be used so prominently – and we're given the images of what ballplayers were supposed to be, not a drama about what they actually were. It's funny to me in Damn Yankees, because the plot would have called for a couple of hints of humanity.
Joe Hardy the man runs around charming everyone he meets, even renting a room from his wife just so he can be close to her. His politeness has everyone giving him the benefit of the doubt, which comes in handy every time the Devil shows up again trying to destroy him. There is a very persistent journalist on his tail named Gloria, and every time a new rumor pops up about him fueled by either Applegate or Gloria, everyone just up and lets him go. Considering what happened to the reputations of guys like Steve Garvey and Kirby Puckett once their own real-world personalities were unearthed, the idea that people would walk into a tribunal and flat-out lie about Hardy in order to protect him seems a little absurd. This is called being stuck for a solution in writing parlance.
Damn Yankees could have been a lot more effective had Gloria been cut out of it. The soul-selling concept is one of the all-time greats of the ages, and while the points Gloria ends up raising are plenty valid, they do nothing but add more subplots which are given some of the worst conclusions I've ever seen in a movie. It doesn't help that she's the one who creates the ridiculous "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO" angle, giving her the most arbitrary song in the movie.
Applegate's personality undergoes a weird shift too. He begins as a suave, debonair dude. Don't get me wrong, we know he's bad news the second he shows up. But when Lola fails her first attempted seduction of Hardy, he suddenly loses his cool and takes on the persona of a desperate criminal, screaming orders at his confused lackeys while surrounded by officers who have cornered him in the bank vault he was trying to rob. There's nothing of the debonair debauchery which made Jack Nicholson such a hoot in The Witches of Eastwick or the cold, calculating mental cruelty that Al Pacino played to perfection in The Devil's Advocate. If you actually want to get religious about it, the Devil in most of his religious forms appears as a guy who is in control at all times. The Devil in Damn Yankees doesn't seem anything like that in the second half.
Damn Yankees used two of the original Broadway actors in its 1958 movie form – Ray Walston as Applegate and Gwen Verdon as Lola, and it kept the choreography of the legendary Bob Fosse. But, except for a brief stretch near the finish, Damn Yankees finishes, well, less like the New York Yankees and more like the Washington Senators.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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