Damn Yankees August 25, 2018
1 Hr., 50 Mins.
t's a shame that the quick-footed and quick-witted Broadway star Gwen Verdon did not work in the movies very often. In her nearly 65-year-long career, Verdon, Red Hots-haired and leggy, mostly took to the stage. Sporadic film work, lasting from the mid-1930s to the ‘50s, mostly saw her either working as a dancer or an uncredited dramatic player; in later years, like in such features as Cocoon (1984) and Marvin’s Room (1996), she was placed in pivotal supporting parts that nonetheless didn’t capture exactly what made her so beloved at the height of her
I sometimes feel wistful when thinking about the Broadway stars of days past. Although I'm not a theater adherent, it's sort of heartrending to think that a person can show great artistic prowess and have immense cultural influence for a time but ultimately be able to show little evidence of it later on, besides in written works or remembrances from people who were lucky enough to have witnessed it firsthand.
We might consider ourselves fortunate, then, that the project for which Verdon was and is most famous, Damn Yankees, was cinematized in 1958, not long after it had become a Broadway hit. With the exception of Tab Hunter, the tanned matinée idol, the principal cast was transplanted from the stage to the production studio. The play’s director, George Abbott, would helm the feature, too, albeit with the help of the movie musical maven Stanley Donen.
Though I'm unfamiliar with the stage play, I’m certain that the cinematic rendition makes for an effective transition. It is a lot of fun — as it undoubtedly was on the dramaturgic level — even if it is oft-weighed down by the impassive Hunter, who stands out unfavorably amid such a spirited band of performers. Verdon, expectedly, given her legacy, is the film’s most indispensable, and thrilling, attribute: a cinematic H-bomb, she radiates such profound charisma, and flaunts such razor-edged comedic timing, that any misstep the movie might make (usually Hunter-related) is ameliorated by her presence.
Damn Yankees’ story is proportionately farcical and fantastical, and the film efficiently plays around with its absurdities. It follows a middle-aged man named Joe (Robert Shafer) who offers to sell his soul to the devil (Ray Walston) to become a young, gifted athlete (Hunter) in the name of getting his favorite baseball team, the Washington Senators, out of their pronounced losing streak.
From the get-go, Joe requests a semi-escape clause be included in his soul-selling. Because he is devoted to his wife, Meg (Shannon Bolin), he asks that he be able to back out of the deal if necessary. He will leave Meg a note before his transformation, signaling that he will be gone for a brief period, but wants to ensure that he can come back to his monotonous domestic life when the time is right.
The devil agrees to Joe’s wishes, but warns that if he decides to continue playing ball until after the end of the season, he will not get the opportunity to go back to the way things used to be. Sounds good to Joe, but the devil has tricks up his sleeve. Since he wants to add his temporary acolyte’s spirit to his collection, he enlists Lola (Verdon), a seductive affiliate, to try to inveigle him out of wanting to return to married life.
Things end gaily, of course — Damn Yankees wants to be a heartwarming fantasy come to life, not a morality tale gone wrong. The main story, though, is only spottily compelling. The film, subversively, is octaves more amusing when it is centered around the sinful Walston and Verdon. Walston’s performance is pitch-perfectly acetous, and Verdon, best spotlighted in the dance sequences “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Who’s Got the Pain,” during which she is accompanied by her cameoing choreographer husband, Bob Fosse, is wonderful.
If Hunter weren’t such an amorphous performer, the film might be an out-and-out triumph — a delicious yoking of the screwball comedy and the decadently mounted cinemusical. Hunter’s flatness corrupts the reverie somewhat, but the supporting players are so sprightly that it never becomes categorically detrimental. This is among the more underappreciated musicals of the classic Hollywood era — and certainly worth a look for Verdon alone. B+