Worth Reviving – Damn Yankees
Review by Ray Schillaci
It’s been awhile since I’ve returned to this piece, where I discuss a film that has been lost to generations due to the disappearance of revival theaters. From the early ’70s and before, studios used to remount films to be seen in theaters with a limited run, and audiences could enjoy everything from a James Bond double feature to a sprawling musical on the glorious big screen where these films were meant to be seen. After that, the revival theaters became popular bringing to light wonderful cult films like King of Hearts and Harold and Maude, but they also appreciated big movies as well from West Side Story to Lawrence of Arabia.
Since the video revolution, most of these fine films may only get the chance to be seen on a big home screen without the joy of experiencing it with an audience and a bigger than life setting. The real sad part is that some of these films are out of print and third party sellers escalate the price of even an average DVD. Once again, I give you a film well worth reviving, the joyous musical production of Damn Yankees.
Taken from the original Broadway hit, the 1958 film brought on board practically everyone from the popular stage play. Playwrights George Abbott (The Pajama Game) and Douglass Wallop not only came on board as the writers for the screen version, but Abbott shared duties as director with the great Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) as he did with their last successful musical starring Doris Day, The Pajama Game. The only major change was the lead. Warner Brothers’ most popular male star from the mid-’50s to the ’60s, Tab Hunter, replaced actor Stephen Douglas. Also, in Broadway star Gwen Verdon’s lively musical rendition of “A Little Brains”, her hip movements were toned down for the film because they were considered to risqué.
The plot revolves around a play on the Faust tale, but the mortal is a baseball fan, way past his prime. He’s willing to sell his soul to the devil for a chance to be young again and play ball with the beleaguered Washington Senators to give them a chance at winning the pennant from those “damn” Yankees. Ray Walston (South Pacific, My Favorite Martian, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), fresh off his success as the devil, Mr. Applegate, in the original Broadway version, ignites the screen with so much fun and enthusiasm, you almost wish he had more on-screen time.
The great part about this film and its wonderful tunes is the warmth and heart it has for all its characters. Even though it takes place in the 1950s when the New York Yankees dominated baseball, that nostalgic feeling remains strong today. Especially with the fun opening scene – old Joe sitting in front of his TV yelling at the screen during a ball game and his dutiful wife lamenting over the time lost during the season. It’s funny, touching, and the song is still relevant for those women who lose their boyfriends and husbands to all sporting events.
The effects may be dated in this delightful musical, but the sensational dancing more than makes up for it. That’s due to the famed choreographer Bob Fosse. That’s right, the same Broadway legend that gave us such great films like Cabaret, Lenny, and All That Jazz. In fact, a much younger Bob Fosse even makes a memorable appearance with Gwen Verdon in a fun bouncy dance number. Watching the two of them is a pure delight, as many of the musical numbers are in Damn Yankees, and Verdon is so remarkable in this film, one cannot help but wonder why we didn’t see her more often.
For you baby-boomers, you may recognize Edith Bunker, Jean Stapleton, from All in the Family in a very amusing minor role. Many of the characters are peppered with Damon Runyon-like characteristics which makes this film so endearing. If you’re not familiar with Damon Runyon, definitely look him up. He’s responsible for so many fascinating and memorable characters in his short stories.
Damn Yankees is right up there with one of my other heavenly favorites, Here Comes Mr. Jordon and its highly successful remake with Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait. The only difference is that Abbott, Wallop, and Donen deliver a fabulous musical. There’s a clever twist, having Joe install an escape clause with his contract to the devil that makes the story all the more intriguing and the devil goes to extremes to keep young Joe away from his past and wife, attempting to entice him with the greatest temptress since Cleopatra. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you cannot help but root for Damn Yankees!
It should be noted that the original Broadway play ran for 1,019 performances. In 1995, Broadway successfully revived Damn Yankees but boosted its popularity when screen comic legend Jerry Lewis made his Broadway debut replacing the cast member who played the devil. Lewis was an instant hit, especially since he enjoyed ad-libbing the part to the delight of audiences all over. Some of his performance can be seen on YouTube.
Unfortunately, Warner Home Video has not seen to honor this timeless classic with an updated transfer to Blu-ray, and the DVD is out of print, having the third party sellers at Amazon marking it up anywhere from $31 to $99. It is currently unavailable on Amazon Prime, but the DVD is available for rent from Netflix. For some of you lucky folk, you may want to check your local library to possibly pick up this precious gem.
Directed by: George Abbott and Stanley Donen
Release Date: January 4, 1959
Run Time: 111 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Brothers