DirectorGeorge Abbott & Stanley Donen
Release Date(s)1958 (March 16, 2021)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: D
Hollywood studios often made controversial decisions in casting for screen versions of Broadway musicals. The outstanding example is bypassing Julie Andrews for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Even when they had access to the right star for a vehicle, they foundered. Why cast Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific when Doris Day would have been perfect? Fortunately for Damn Yankees, directors George Abbott and Stanley Donen had the good sense to stick with Gwen Verdon and let her recreate her fiery Broadway role as Lola.
Based on the novel The Year the Yankees Won the Pennant with a score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (The Pajama Game) and choreography by Bob Fosse, the film tells the story of middle-aged Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer), who is an avid fan of baseball and especially the Washington Senators, even though their record is the worst in the Major Leagues. If only the Senators could acquire a power player, Joe thinks, the fate of the team would improve. Out of nowhere, Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston)—actually Satan in disguise—appears offering a deal: He can transform Joe into the world’s greatest player in exchange for his soul. Tempted, Joe demands an escape clause. Applegate agrees, provided that Joe uses it by a particular date, and the deal is done.
In a matter of moments, Joe is transformed into young Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter). Applegate takes him to a Senators practice session and convinces the coach to let Joe hit a few balls. Amazed by Joe’s ability to hit the ball out of the park repeatedly, he signs Joe, hoping he can help the Senators win the pennant from the “damn Yankees.”
While the Senators are happy to be moving up in the standings with each game, reporter Gloria Thorpe (Rae Allen) suspects there’s something fishy about an unknown coming out of nowhere with such skills. But Joe, who has left his wife (Shannon Bolin) suddenly with only a note promising to return, misses her and decides to exercise his escape clause when the season ends. Fearing he will lose Joe’s soul, Applegate sends his beautiful assistant Lola (Gwen Verdon) to capture him under her seductive spell.
Verdon is a powerhouse triple threat: actress/dancer/singer. Her big number, Whatever Lola Wants, is a slinky tango declaring she can get anything she sets her mind on. Her methodology is enumerated in A Little Brains, a Little Talent, and she duets with Hunter on Two Lost Souls. One of the film’s standout numbers is the comic mambo Who’s Got the Pain? performed by Verdon and Bob Fosse. Fosse’s trademark rolled shoulders, turned in knees, use of hats and sultry hip rolls give the number a distinctive touch. With her combination of sex appeal and sweetness, Verdon is the perfect emissary of Satan. As she goes about her orders, she finds herself falling for young Joe, which adds to the complications.
Ray Walston combines weaselly charm with comic arrogance. His Applegate is totally in control until his plans start to derail. His giddy joy in disaster and mayhem is revealed in his solo, Those Were the Good Old Days, a lament for past triumphs like Marie Antoinette’s beheading, Indians scalping settlers, Jack the Ripper’s exploits, the stock market crash, the Black Plague, and Nero fiddling as Rome burned. He recounts these tragedies with a look of self-satisfaction mixed with nostalgic longing.
Hunter, a rising star at Warner Bros at the time, is stiff in his dialogue. Close-ups of him at bat are combined with long shots of a body double running the bases and fielding. His scenes with Lola have heat, but it emanates entirely from Verdon. This might be partly due to his character’s being a married man and reluctant to succumb to Lola’s allure, but there are nuances that he completely misses. When called upon to dance, he manages a few moves with the chorus that take him conveniently off screen. Hunter has movie star looks but is no match for Verdon when it comes to commanding the screen.
TV fans will get a kick out of seeing Jean Stapleton in a small role as a neighbor of the Boyds and an avid Senators fan 13 years before she introduced her character of Edith Bunker on All in the Family. She already exhibits some of the mannerisms and speech patterns she would hone to perfection on the popular TV show.
Other numbers in the film include Heart, sung by a chorus of baseball players in the locker room, Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo, performed by reporter Gloria Thorpe on the field accompanied by the team singing and dancing up a storm, and Goodbye, Old Girl, sung plaintively by both old and young Joe as he’s about to embark on his adventure.
For a film set mostly in Washington, D.C., the directors rely little on the attractions of the city. There’s one scene with a backdrop of the Potomac River and the Jefferson Memorial in the background, but otherwise little visual reference to D.C. is made.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray is presented by the Warner Archive Collection in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It’s comprised of a “new HD master sourced from a 4K scan of preservation separation masters.” The Technicolor hues are deeply saturated and vibrant. Bold reds, lush greens, rich blues, and lemony yellows make for a brilliant palette. Flesh tones are creamy and sometimes a bit too rosy. A huge red rose on Lola’s hat in Whatever Lola Wants, Fosse’s and Verdon’s bright yellow shirts in Who’s Got the Pain?, Gloria’s blue dress amid the players’ white uniforms in Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo, and Lola’s tight white dress in A Little Brains, a Little Talent really pop. Hardy’s face is deeply tanned, as would be expected in a ballplayer. Clarity and contrast overall are excellent. Applegate’s Those Were the Good Old Days number features green-tinted inserts of the events he sings about. The decor in Lola’s apartment is lavish in a decadent sort of way featuring an ornate bed with satin sheets, candelabras, huge flower arrangements, pink accent lighting, and a curlicue room divider. A nightclub sequence features dim lighting, and scenes of the ballgames are shot outdoors in bright sunlight. Applegate uses a bit of sleight-of-hand when he grabs fire out of thin air.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. The musical numbers sound rich and lyrics come across clearly. In songs with a chorus, voices are well balanced. However, a stereo track could have made the numbers sound even more brilliant.
The Blu-ray only includes the US and UK theatrical trailers as extras.
Theatrical Trailers – The US version touts the stage musical as the basis of the film and features glimpses of scenes and musical numbers along with off-screen hype narration. Bold yellow letters herald Gwen Verdon as “The red-headed darling of the Broadway show” and “That Devil of a man Ray Walston,” concluding with “It’s everything everybody wants in great entertainment!” In the UK version, the film is retitled What Lola Wants with Damn Yankees in parentheses in smaller type.
A musical inspired by the Faust legend with a baseball backdrop, Damn Yankees has a catchy plot with lots of tunes and dances and just enough conflict to get to a happy ending. More than just a quaint old-fashioned period piece, it’s cheerful, entertaining, and an ideal showcase for Gwen Verdon.
- Dennis Seuling