A League of Their Own hits a ground rule double on Blu-ray.
The Production: 3/5
A League of Their Own is quite a well-crafted film, and the new 25th Anniversary Blu-ray will be a great way for fans of the movie to experience it again. Newer viewers to it may find that it doesn’t really live up to its hype – it’s actually a fairly ordinary film with occasional flashes of fun humor or a momentary depth charge. The movie tells a fictionalized version of the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II, at a time when male pro ball players were being shipped off to fight. Leading the cast is a fairly strong Geena Davis as Dottie Hinson, a solid player and catcher who forms the backbone of the Rockford Peaches, one of the AAGPBL teams. Included in the mix are a series of solid supporting turns, including a surprisingly simple performance by Madonna, then at the height of her fame, a fairly earnest performance by Lori Petty as Dottie’s competitive but undisciplined sister Kit, and an appealingly loud appearance by Tom Hanks as the Peaches’ initially unhelpful manager, Jimmy Dugan. I’ll get into the details below. The short version is that this Blu-ray is a very nice presentation of the movie – looking great and sounding great, and it carries over all of the bonus materials from earlier releases of the movie. A single new bonus feature has been added – a 12 minute featurette that revisits the movie and offers a new interview with Geena Davis. Fans of this movie will not need a recommendation to pick this up. Younger viewers, and even older ones who haven’t seen it before, are probably better advised to rent it if it strikes their fancy.
SPOILERS: We should start at the beginning of where A League of Their Own was created. It was a creation of Penny Marshall, who was at that time enjoying a period wherein she was able to direct multiple summer hit movies, two of which actually earned over $100 million, including this one. Viewers today may not remember much about Penny Marshall, as we are now 40 years after her heyday as a lead sitcom actress on Laverne & Shirley and frankly 25 years since this film, the last significant movie she directed. Modern viewers may not even realize that Penny Marshall actually had a successful feature directing career, with three fairly well-regarded movies to her credit, including Big, Awakenings and A League of Their Own. Big was easily the most successful of her movies, not only grossing a large amount but also giving Tom Hanks one of his best roles and his first Oscar nomination. With the clout Marshall had from Big (as well as her earlier work on television), she had the ability to pick and create projects that interested her. One of these was Awakenings, an openly big swing at the Oscars using an interesting Oliver Sacks memoir as its basis. That movie, featuring a strong performance by Robert De Niro and a surprisingly restrained one by Robin Williams was nominated for Best Picture but simply never found the depth that could have been mined from the story. Around the same time Marshall was preparing Awakenings, she saw a short documentary about the almost unknown All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and decided this could make a solid movie. She turned to two comedy writers she had known from Laverne & Shirley, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell, having them watch the documentary and then begin crafting a script. Marshall’s commitment to Awakenings meant that when the comedy script was turned in, she was initially unavailable to make the film, so it passed among multiple directors in turnaround for a couple of years. (One of these directors was David Anspaugh, who went far enough to assemble a cast, only to see the project evaporate again before it wound up back in Marshall’s hands as a director.)
MORE SPOILERS: There’s a reason that Penny Marshall was interested in baseball and the AAGPBL, and it goes far beyond Marshall having been a baseball fan who’d played plenty of games herself. Baseball movies have a distinctly American appeal, but we don’t tend to see them all the time. During the 80s, we really didn’t see many at all, at least not with the sport as the central story of the movie. One major exception was The Natural in 1984, with Robert Redford in the lead. But people took notice in 1988, when Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham with Kevin Costner, hit the theaters and proved a solid hit. The following year saw two big baseball movies make solid impacts. One was the Charlie Sheen comedy Major League, playing off Sheen’s actual experience in baseball. The other, Field of Dreams, again with Kevin Costner, became one of those timeless movie classics that never gets old when you see it for the fifteenth time. With these movies having broken through, it was a no-brainer that we would soon get a slew of baseball-themed movies. And there was a pretty solid run of them, including Talent for the Game, The Babe, Mr. Baseball, The Sandlot, and the movie of this review, A League of Their Own. What sets this movie apart from the rest of the pack is that Penny Marshall did find a unique place to start in wanting to craft a baseball story. Hers would be a period examination of the moment that female players were able to come into their own, with their own league and their own challenges. It’s actually quite admirable that Marshall used her influence in this manner – another director would just have settled for the novelty of a women’s team. Marshall actually was interested in the guts of the team and of her characters. And there’s an interesting story to be told about the AAGPBL. This is a unique moment in Major League Baseball history, a time when the male players were all being pressed into military service for WWII and the league owners were willing to give women a chance to play if that would get people back into the stands. The league only existed for about a dozen years, finally disbanding in 1954, but it marked an important milestone and set an example.
YET MORE SPOILERS: As an entertaining period baseball comedy, A League of Their Own does get a lot of things right. Marshall, like Ron Howard, is an extremely competent director – she understands the basics of staging and performance so that you always know where everyone is. It’s a skill many other directors simply don’t understand while they are shaking the camera or simply throwing random cuts to shock or disorient the audience – it’s the skill of making sure everyone knows the physical and emotional geography of each scene. (If Penny Marshall has a standout skill as a director, that’s it – just as it is with Howard. Both of their movies were always very clear to read.) The period details are fun to see, the play is engagingly scruffy, and as I noted, many of the performances are quite good. Most notable, of course, is Geena Davis, who anchors the movie. Her Dottie is an interesting character because she doesn’t feel comfortable with her abilities or her own honest wish to play the game. Davis’ Dottie is conflicted from the moment we see her character get the chance to go to the big league – she only does it to support her younger sister, Kit. And the movie carefully establishes that while Dottie is naturally good at baseball, Kit is constantly struggling – and constantly competing with Dottie as a result. Davis’ performance is really the one part of the movie that suggests some kind of depth trying to happen – and yet we never really get to see what’s making her tick. The script by Ganz & Mandel, simply doesn’t want to go there – every time we get close to something meaningful, the movie backs off and tells another joke. Madonna and a young Rosie O’Donnell both have a lot of fun in this movie, neither particularly upstaging the others but both clearly standing out from the crowd. I should note that Tom Hanks also gives a good performance, albeit one that goes over the top in entertaining ways. His Jimmy Dugan is initially an unlovable drunk, but at some point, he transitions into a serious coach for this team. Again, there is a chance here for depth, but the writers again never let him get anywhere interesting and Hanks is content to just skip on the surface with a few bouncy one-liners to keep himself interested. (Most notable is his delivery of the one-liner that “There’s no crying in baseball!”) And the writers don’t show much of a transition for Dugan – it just appears that at a certain point, he starts to become interested and the movie takes a new turn after that moment. The movie really works to make a present-day wraparound sequence add meaning to what we’re seeing. (At the beginning and end of the movie, we’re with a much older Dottie (played by Lynn Cartwright with the voice looped in by Davis) as she visits the Baseball Hall of Fame and is reunited with her old teammates and her sister. These scenes are clearly intended to move the audience, but there just isn’t much fuel to make that happen.)
EVEN MORE SPOILERS: Frankly, there’s a deleted section of the movie that may explain part of the problem here, but to know this, you’d have to watch the deleted scenes section and particularly look at Penny Marshall’s mortified introduction to the final deleted scene. In the theatrical version of the movie, the women’s season progresses until one of the best players (and the least attractive one), Marla gets engaged and leaves the team. She is not heard from again. Another scene is shown, this one a truly harrowing one, wherein a messenger brings one of the dreaded “Your military husband has died) telegrams to one of the women on the team. When the player (played by Marshall’s daughter Tracy Reiner) gets the message, it’s one of the few honest depth charges in the movie. The theatrical cut then does a hard edit to a scene of Dottie crying, only to be interrupted by the return of her own husband, albeit now a wounded man. She resolves to leave the team, in the midst of the playoffs, and exchanges unhappy words with Dugan about it. But in the final baseball sequence, she unexpectedly shows back up to play as catcher again for the Peaches and announces her return to the team by telling Dugan he looks terrible, which inspires him to believe they really could win. The game winds up turning on a confrontation between the two sisters, as Kit is batting for the opposing team while Dottie is catching. And we see enough of Dottie’s actions (telling the pitcher to aim high, something that Kit is more likely to hit) to know that it is more than likely that Dottie is deliberately throwing the game to allow her sister to be the hero for her own team. This should all be moving, but there’s something huge missing – and that’s where the deleted material comes in. First, there’s an earlier deleted scene where Dugan ruins his budding friendship with Dottie by kissing her, thus motivating her to want to leave the team. In his attempt to salvage the mess, he feebly asks to go back to being friends, telling her to just tell him he looks terrible and needs to shave, but Dottie refuses to do this. This minor argument is a major cause of the trouble in the big deleted sequence. We see a regular season game where the Peaches are facing Kit’s team, but we realize that Marla is actually playing on that team now. There’s a reunion on the field where Marla tells Dottie and the others that she’s pregnant and the women agree they should not do anything that would cause a problem for this. Except that at the key moment when Dottie gets on base, she and Dugan are having that argument about his transgression and Dottie misses frantic cues from the other women that Marla is playing 2nd Base. So Dottie aggressively runs for 2nd on the next hit and spectacularly collides with Marla, flipping both of them in mid-air and potentially costing Marla her pregnancy. The other women all roundly condemn Dottie for her selfishness. Which is what leads to the moment of Dottie crying in the theatrical cut, and her easy willingness to leave the team. It also explains the dismissive joke she throws at Dugan on her return and explains why he thinks the team has a chance in the last game. And it explains what happens in that last play with her sister – where Dottie is the catcher and Kit is running for home and another major collision occurs, only this time with Dottie on the receiving end – does she drop the ball on purpose or not? But the entire situation is a call-back to the earlier play – and without the earlier play, the scene loses its impact and the movie itself loses a large part of its heart. In short, this sequence explains the entire movie, and could have made it a more worthwhile experience. In her introduction, Marshall admits all of this and says “I made an unconscionable cut. It hurts my teeth to see it now.” She does note that she had wanted to remove the whole subplot about Dugan kissing Dottie, as she was annoyed by the various test audiences wanting that moment more (romantically pairing Hanks and Davis) than the rest of the story she was telling. Removing the kiss meant removing the big play on Marla, since it only happens due to Dottie being distracted. (Of course, she left in the joke in Dottie’s return, which now makes no sense.) But the result of this cut is that she literally cut the heart out of her own story. This is one of those rare moments where a deleted scene is instructive not about why it was cut but about why it was essential.
FINAL SPOILERS: In the end, the movie really just winds up being too pat and too easy for its own good. And that’s a shame. As seen above, there was a bit more to the movie that could have given it some guts, and there was an interesting story that wanted to be told. And there was a cast that could have delivered that story – particularly Davis. But one supposes that would have been a movie with a different writer and a different director. For what it is, the movie is a fun way to spend a couple of hours. I fully believe that it’s an inspirational movie for young women. And I have to admit, there’s a nice grace note at the very end of the credits, just before the movie fades out. Much of the credits run over an actual baseball game being played in 1991 by the surviving members of the AAGBPL. The women are easily able to handle themselves and essentially do the same plays we’d see any older men’s team perform. And at the end, one of the women is struck out at the plate and immediately wheels on the umpire at home plate, saying the pitches were inside and he should have been calling balls. The ump sends it right back to her, saying “That may have been a ball yesterday and it might be a ball tomorrow, BUT TODAY IT’S A STRIKE.” And with that the movie fades out, on an appropriate tone.
SPOILERS NOW DONE. IT’S SAFE TO READ FROM HERE FORWARD: As I noted, this is a very well-crafted film with several fine performances. And as noted, the movie has been released several times on DVD and on Blu-ray. Initially, the movie was put out on DVD in the late 90s in a bare-bones edition. A two-disc Special Edition followed in 2004, including a scene-specific commentary, the deleted scenes and other materials. For Blu-ray, a 20th Anniversary Edition was released five years ago, upgrading the presentation to HD and preserving the earlier special features. And now we have the 25th Anniversary Edition, released on April 18th, which ports over the earlier materials and adds in the new featurette and a fun trailer from 1992. Fans of the movie who already have the 20th Anniversary Edition could probably just stay with that one, as the new featurette doesn’t really add anything spectacular. But fans who have not picked this movie up on home video or on Blu-ray before will likely enjoy this release.
The 25th Anniversary Edition of A League of Their Own was released on Blu-ray on April 18th. The packaging includes an insert with instructions for downloading a digital copy of the movie.
3D Rating: NA
A League of Their Own is presented in a 2.40:1 1080p AVC transfer (avg 26 mbps) that looks just fine. There’s a bit of grain to the image, which is a good thing, and there’s plenty of period detail that shows up well in high definition, including the threads of the period costumes. One advantage of the HD image is that you can see a lot more of the dirt and scruff and sweat on everyone. Flesh tones look accurate, as do the various tones of the women’s uniforms seen throughout the various games.
A League of Their Own is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (avg 2.1 mbps, going up to 2.8 mbps for the bigger moments). It’s a solid mix, although, again with Sony, the lower bitrate surprised me. There’s a little dimensionality during the various games, and the music travels throughout the channels. But most of the action stays up at the front, which isn’t surprising for a comedy. There are also audio tracks in multiple languages. Dolby Surround tracks are available in standard and Quebec French, German, Italian, Russian and Castilian Spanish. Mono tracks are available in Portuguese, Latin American Spanish, and Thai.
Special Features: 3/5
A League of Their Own comes with a pretty generous array of special features, almost completely from the 2004 DVD release, but they’re all still quite good. To this package, the 25th Anniversary Edition adds two more bonuses – the 12 minute reunion featurette and a fun 1992 trailer with Vin Scully doing the voiceover.
Bentonville, Baseball & The Enduring Legacy of A League of Their Own (NEW FEATURETTE FOR THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY BLU-RAY) (12:13, 1080p) – The primary new special feature of the new release is this new featurette, which includes a partial reunion of the cast – really just Geena Davis and a few of the supporting actresses. (Notably, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Tom Hanks are not part of this.) There’s a bit here about a reunion baseball game with various players, but the real focus of this featurette (and the reason that Davis agreed to participate) is the Bentonville Film Festival. This festival, established in 2015, is another part of Davis’ efforts in promoting the work of female filmmakers. Davis also has the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media which works along the same lines. As part of her appearance here, Davis promotes both the film festival and her institute and cites a few statistics about how movies with more females attract larger audiences and more box office dollars.
Director and Cast Commentary Track (CARRIED OVER FROM THE 2004 DVD) – This scene-specific group commentary includes Penny Marshall, Lori Petty, Megan Cavanaugh and Marshall’s daughter Tracy Reiner. It’s a fun track, with the cast members helping to jog Marshall’s memory about specific names and dates and sharing various insights about what was happening on set and in post production. Marshall discusses some deleted material in the commentary, so this may be a no-brainer, but I don’t recommend listening to this before you actually watch the full movie and the deleted material. Lori Petty mentions her pride in having executed a perfect run of the bases in one sequence, with her feet touching the inner corner of each base as she went through. Marshall discusses her happiness with the movie’s score, something that even by the time of the commentary’s recording was already becoming a rare event in the world of needle-drop song selections and increasingly generic background music. Marshall also bemoans some studio-mandated post-production changes, including a lot of looped dialogue and inserts for the final sequence that Marshall certainly did not feel were necessary. (Marshall also mentions that the sequence involving the actual AAGPBL women wound up going into horrifyingly long hours, because the women were needed at another event the following day – leading to what the women referred to as a double-header…) I should note that the commentary was clearly recorded in 2003, given the various shout-outs to Monk and The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire.
Deleted Scenes (CARRIED OVER FROM THE 2004 DVD) (33:54 Total, 480p) – Fifteen deleted scenes are presented here, most of which just add a little bit more flavor or clarify one idea or another. There’s an additional scene of Dottie and Kit at home discussing whether to join the women’s league, and there are longer extensions of the sequence where the players visit a local bar. (Those longer extensions introduce a really strange idea – that Jimmy Dugan would come to the bar when he was already occupied elsewhere, but that’s a complete can of worms I’d rather not open.) The most crucial deleted material comes later – with the material I mentioned above in the main review section. This is the material that explains and humanizes much of what happens in the final third of the movie. Penny Marshall recorded introductions to these scenes in 2003 (totaling about 3 minutes), including an admission that the final deleted scene was a mistake to cut.
Nine Memorable Innings (CARRIED OVER FROM THE 2004 DVD) (52:35, 480p) – Here’s the full making-of documentary from the 2004 DVD, split into 11 parts and covering the genesis and on-set production of the movie. There’s a bit of time spent on the development period, during which Marshall prepped and filmed Awakenings and where this movie nearly was directed by one of two other directors, including David Anspaugh (who cast Jim Belushi as the unhelpful manager). There’s a fair amount of on-set footage and discussion of the baseball training given to the cast. Both Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell discuss actually being fairly skilled players before the movie happened. There is some discussion of the recasting of the lead, where Geena Davis was brought in way after everyone else when Debra Winger fell through. And there is some discussion of how the Marshall family always winds up helping on each other’s movies – in this case with Garry Marshall appearing in a supporting role, and at other times with Penny appearing in her brother’s movies when needed.
This Used To Be My Playground (CARRIED OVER FROM THE 2004 DVD) (5:02, 480p) – Here’s Madonna’s 1992 music video for her song from this movie. Madonna wrote and performed it for the end credits of the movie, replacing another song that Marshall had picked and, according to the commentary track, then had to reposition for the main titles.
Theatrical Trailer (NEW FOR THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY) (2:35, 1080p) – Here’s an HD copy of the trailer for the movie, complete with a voiceover by famous baseball broadcaster Vin Scully. It’s a fun trailer, but nothing to really jump up and down about – other than for Scully’s many fans.
Digital and Ultraviolet Copies – Instructions for obtaining digital and Ultraviolet copies of the movie are available on an insert in the packaging.
The film is subtitled in English, Arabic, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese (Brazilian and Classical), Russian, Spanish (Castillian and Latin American), Swedish, Thai and Turkish. The usual pop-up menu is present, along with a complete chapter menu.
A League of Their Own is a fun movie that gets a very nice HD presentation on Blu-ray. There’s not a lot of substance here as the movie determinedly stays on its surface, but it’s not an unpleasant experience. The Blu-ray features not only the solid high definition picture and audio, but also the complete brace of special features from the prior Blu-ray release. The real question for fans of the movie is whether a new purchase is warranted here. Frankly, if you already own the 20th Anniversary Blu-ray, you’re fine to stay where you are – the only new items here are a 12 minute advertisement for Geena Davis’ Bentonville Film Festival and an HD copy of a trailer with a Vin Scully voiceover. If you’re a fan of the movie and never purchased it before, this would be a nice way to go. If you’ve never seen the movie and are simply curious about it, I’d recommend a rental first.