George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s Damn Yankees brings Broadway sass and verve to the big screen with a colorful and very faithful screen adaptation of the stage smash.
The Production: 4/5
No finer example of mid-20th century musical comedy exists than Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ Damn Yankees, and its 1958 screen version, brought forth by basically the same team responsible for the sparkling movie version of The Pajama Game produced the year before, delivers a mostly faithful reproduction of the show that ran over a thousand performances on Broadway and made a star of the fabulous singing-dancing Gwen Verdon. She’s one of the prime attractions in the movie adaptation, too, along with most of her Broadway cohorts with only the leading man from the stage replaced by the requisitely necessary movie star Tab Hunter.
Diehard Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) is willing to sell his soul to the devil in order for his beloved team to finally be able to defeat perennial victors the New York Yankees for the American League pennant. When the devil in the guise of Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston) appears and offers to make good on Joe’s pledge, Boyd is transformed into baseball sensation Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter) who quick-as-a-flash transforms the beleaguered Senators into a scrappy, gutsy team of winners. Reporter Gloria Thorpe (Rae Allen) senses things aren’t quite as they seem as Joe leads to team toward record-setting victories, but Joe begins to miss his wife Meg (Shannon Bolin) so much that he moves back home as a renter. Applegate summons his vampish heartthrob Lola (Gwen Verdon) as a means of enticing Joe away from hearth and wife, but Lola instead falls for Joe and begins to work toward finding a way to save Joe from having to give his soul over to Applegate at the end of the season.
Yes, it’s the Faust legend that forms the basis of the show’s libretto and the movie’s screenplay (along with Douglass Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant) penned by co-creator/co-director George Abbott, and apart from dropping three songs from the Broadway score (including two beautiful ballads for the leading man leaving Tab Hunter with very little to sing in the movie), the script follows the Broadway show rather slavishly right down to the entertaining but completely irrelevant “Who’s Got the Pain?” mambo danced by Verdon and show/film choreographer Bob Fosse at a celebration of Joe’s success. But all of the highlights from the stage are right up there on the screen including its three showstoppers: “Heart,” the barbershop quartet sung by Senator’s manager Benny Van Buren (Russ Brown) and three of his disheartened players (Nathaniel Frey, James Komack, Albert Linville), “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.,” one of the film’s two big production numbers where actual locations and an expanded number of player/dancers greatly enhance its effectiveness, and, most importantly, “Whatever Lola Wants” where Gwen Verdon’s stripteased vamp which made her internationally famous gets immortalized on film. Directors Stanley Donen and George Abbott use split screens effectively in the opening “Six Months Out of Every Year” and apply amusing (albeit sometimes surprisingly gruesome) optical effects for Applegate’s nostalgic reminiscence “Those Were the Good Old Days” in the spirit of Ted Lewis. The magic capable on-screen with special effects also enriches the big game climax on which the plot hinges. The score’s other hit tune “Two Lost Souls” makes a nifty late-film production number to finally allow their leading man to sing an entire number (in duet with Verdon where Hunter most engagingly handles the harmonic line leaving her with the melody) and even do a little dancing displaying for one of the few times in the movie the musical comedy’s essential element for a successful performance – charm.
Tab Hunter was made to order to serve as the movie star name needed to finance the picture: clean cut, athletic in stature (though much of his baseball footage used a screen double), and with a decent singing voice. The role of Lola was written for Gwen Verdon, and the songs for her were composed with her unique timbre in mind, so watching her perform with silken ease through “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” or dance up a storm throughout makes one grateful that she was fortunate enough to recreate her Tony-winning Broadway role on film. Likewise, the Tony-winning Ray Walston and Russ Brown get to reprise their roles as Applegate and Van Buren, too, and they’re wonderful: Walston with his sly sleight-of-hand tricks with cards and cigarettes and a wonderfully droll way with a double entendre and Brown with his eternal optimism and unshakeable faith in his new ball-playing sensation. Rae Allen is a cracking good Gloria Thorpe, and although Shannon Bolin is stuck with one of the least appealing and most mournful songs in musical history (“There’s Something About an Empty Chair” written expressly for the film), her performance as the baseball widow who loves her errant husband regardless of anything is most pleasing. Jean Stapleton walks away with all of her scenes as Meg’s friend Sister Miller (she even gets to reprise “Heart” with a group of children to hilarious effect), and Robert Shafer’s moving tenor voice adds poignancy to “Goodbye, Old Girl” as his Joe Boyd leaves his wife behind entering into his pact with the devil.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is excellent for the most part, only lessened in a few moments where optical effects soften the image a touch or less desirable elements were used for a few shots. Color is beautiful throughout with hues rock solid and facial tones most appealing. Contrast has been nicely applied, and there are no dirt, dust, scratches, or reel cues to mar the viewing experience. The movie has been divided into 44 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is mostly solid throughout only occasionally questionable in a couple of places where volume levels seem a trifle underpowered. There are certainly no age-related problems with hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter, and the dialogue, song lyrics, music score, and sound effects all blend engagingly in the final product.
Special Features: 1/5
Theatrical Trailers (HD): the US (2:31) and UK (2:32 which retitle the film What Lola Wants) trailers.
Song Selections: main menu listing offers immediate access to seventeen song and dance moments in the film.
George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s Damn Yankees brings Broadway sass and verve to the big screen with a colorful and very faithful screen adaptation of the stage smash. The Warner Archive Blu-ray release offers a noticeable upgrade in picture from the previously released DVD and comes with a firm recommendation.
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