What do you do if you’re a die-hard sports fan, and your favorite team just can’t seem to win? How far would you let that passion take you? Would you even go so far as to sell your soul to the devil just to see your favorite team win?
In the 1958 musical Damn Yankees we meet Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer), a middle-aged man who works in real estate, has a wife named Meg (Shannon Bolin), and he loves baseball, specifically the Washington Senators. And they’re in last place in their division. What’s more they are always beaten soundly whenever they play against their archrivals, the New York Yankees. Joe is more than distraught. His frustration regarding what the Senators need causes him to blurt out, “I’d sell my soul for one long ball hitter.”
Enter the devil. He introduces himself to Joe Boyd as Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston) and offers him a chance to be what the Senators need, which is that long ball hitter. When Joe agrees, but only on the condition that there be an escape clause, Applegate transforms him into a younger, more athletic version of himself and takes him to meet the manager of the Senators. Now calling himself Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), he puts on a hitting display that has everyone present scratching his or her head as to where he could have been hiding. He even shows them how fast a runner and strong a thrower he can be, which makes him basically too good to be true. He gets a contract and thus begins his trek to bring the Senators out of last place. Even the other players on the team start to pull together and show that they have the kind of heart that is needed to be winners. Unfortunately there are a couple of problems.
Joe still has feelings for his wife Meg, who just knows that he unexpectedly left her (at least he had the decency to leave her a note). There is also a reporter named Gloria Thorpe (Rae Allen) who is getting a bit too nosey regarding Joe simply because he doesn’t want to talk to reporters. To deal with the first problem Applegate recruits another one of his “staff,” a home wrecker of a woman named Lola (Gwen Verdon) to keep young Joe seduced and closer to Applegate’s control. That fails so Applegate, using Gloria Thorpe and thus turning the second problem towards his advantage, plants a seed of a scandal, all in the hopes of keeping Joe in line until the date of the escape clause has passed so that he can own Joe’s soul for eternity.
This movie came out during that golden age of movie musicals, and yet it stands apart from some of those same films. When a person suggests a movie musical two that immediately come to mind might be Oklahoma or The Music Man. Both of those musicals had some amazing music and songs that would be considered hits by Broadway standards. However Damn Yankees doesn’t have that. The songs they do have are quite clever, but they lack that musical hook that so many other Broadway songs had that took the world by storm. What this movie does have is an incredible cast that at times almost makes this come off as sexy.
Starting off with the young actor playing Joe Hardy we have the 1950’s heart throb Tab Hunter. While he did not originate the role on stage, he was brought in because the studio felt that the movie needed one “star” to make it work, and while Hunter would later admit that he felt woefully inadequate to take on the part, his youthfulness and good looks (Okay, I thought Tab Hunter was GORGEOUS!!!) gives his character something that goes beyond being genuine. Not only do you believe that he could be the good athlete (this is very pre-steroids) that can hit and run as he does, but also you believe in his goodness. Even when tempted by Lola, Joe has a sense of purity about him that calls him to be with his wife, even if she doesn’t recognize the youthful version of her missing husband. Because of that goodness we can also appreciate all that Walston’s Applegate has to do just to keep him. Walston isn’t a song and dance man, but he did originate the role on stage and knew how to play to his own strengths when performing Applegate. In this role he only has one musical number, but for the film he breaks down the fourth wall and sings it to the viewer, while special effect montages play in the background depicting what he is singing about.
Even Walston’s singing isn’t very good, but what he pull off was more of a “speaking in tone,” which allowed him to act with a fun sense of evil when singing “Those Were The Good Ol’ Days.” Then there is Lola. Played by Gwen Verdon, this film was her breakout role. She had already several stage performances under her belt before the stage play of Damn Yankees was first conceived, and after being convinced to take on the role by choreographer Bob Fosse (I’ll get to him in a minute) she created a part so ridiculously diverse that it was no wonder she had to reprise the role for the screen. Verdon was extremely beautiful, quite talented as an actor, but gifted beyond belief when it came to dancing. When it comes to watching this movie, one of the greatest joys comes from her second number “Whatever Lola Wants” and the insane dancing she is called upon to do. This now leads me to the final component in this winning equation, and that is Bob Fosse. The dancing in this movie all carry those signature moves that can only come from that genius of a man, and yet they each carry something unique about them. The first big dance number has the team members of the Washington Senators dancing during “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal MO” and while there are moments that are clearly indicative of Fosse’s choreography, there are many more moments that are inspired by baseball. During Lola’s seductive number the feel is purely Latin, but filled with some of the more athletic aspects of Fosse’s work.
The final dance number, “Two Lost Souls,” starts off as a simple duet but turns into something that has an almost beatnik feel to it. Even Hunter, who isn’t much of a dance man himself, really shines beautifully in this number, which also calls upon some of the most edgy ensemble dancing ever seen for 1958. I don’t know if people considered it almost scandalous when it was first seen, but for me all I can say is that it is completely brilliant! Even Fosse has a moment to shine when he duets with Verdon (who would a few years later become his wife) on “Who’s Got The Pain When They Do The Mambo.” I’m hard pressed to say which number is my favorite because here we get to see what Fosse wanted to do most, and that was dance. He idolized Fred Astaire and wanted to succeed him in film as a dancer. Sadly that never really happened for him as he only appeared in 9 movies, with his role as The Snake in 1974’s The Little Prince as being his final opportunity to actually dance on screen. And yet dancing is what he loved most because during his dance duet with Verdon in Damn Yankees we see his face light up in sheer joy. We also see that he was quite the amazing dancer himself, and in seeing what he could do it’s no wonder why some people found his choreography to be so demanding.
Continuing with the baseball metaphor, I am reminded of the 1990 World Series where the Oakland Athletics were going against the Cincinnati Reds. Oakland was the first team to clinch the division title because of their incredible roster of players that helped the team to hammer their way to post-season play, and yet during the big October dance the Reds swept them. When it was all over the A’s star pitcher, Dave Stewart said that while the A’s had a team of better baseball players, the Reds simply played better baseball. This is the same with Damn Yankees. While movie musicals like Oklahoma might have better musical numbers, I would go so far as to say that Damn Yankees does a better job at delivering the musical goods. With this cast and the choreography, it’s no wonder why Damn Yankees continues for me to hit a Grand Slam.
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