Program Notes: Damn Yankees! (1958)

When it opened on Broadway in May of 1955, the musical Damn Yankees! was an instantaneous hit, an amusing retelling of the Faust legend set within the world of Major League Baseball.

It was yet one more smash from legendary producer/director/writer George Abbott, whose long career already was peppered with landmark productions like The Boys from Syracuse, Pal Joey, On the Town, Where’s Charley?, Call Me Madam, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Yankees! made an overnight star of an elastic redhead named Gwen Verdon and introduced to the public two standards from the pens of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross: “You Gotta Have Heart” and “Whatever Lola Wants.”

So it was a foregone conclusion that Damn Yankees! would become a hit movie, as was the case with Abbott’s previous Broadway show, The Pajama Game.

Film Screening:
Damn Yankees! (1958)
Monday, June 11 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

For those theater fans who complain that movie versions of their favorite musicals never resemble the original stage productions, Damn Yankees! (1958) offers a respite. It’s practically identical to the Broadway show ... perhaps to its detriment.

It was made by basically the same team that made the film of The Pajama Game a couple of years earlier: Hal Prince as producer, Bob Fosse as choreographer, with veteran filmmaker Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) serving as co-director with Abbott, who adapted his musical book for the screen.

With one notable exception, the entire Broadway cast reprised their roles for the film. In fact the cast is full of stage veterans who count Yankees! as their only film credit.

On stage the central role of Joe Hardy, who sells his soul to the satanic Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston, later the star of TV’s My Favorite Martian) for a chance to help his beloved Washington Senators vanquish the unbeatable New York Yankees, was played by Stephen Douglass.

But Abbott fretted that the movie desperately needed one major star to attract audiences. He dropped Douglass and recruited heartthrob Tab Hunter.

“When we found out about it, Hal Prince and I nearly fainted,” recalled Donen.

Hunter was a gorgeous blond youth known for his teen following and his forgettable pictures. The best titles on his resume were Battle Cry (1955), Lafayette Escadrille (1958), and Gunman’s Walk (1958). In 1957 he had a hit song with the tune “Young Love.”

Donen described Hunter as a “triple threat”: “He couldn’t sing. He couldn’t dance. He couldn’t act.”

One of the musical’s most amusing numbers – “Thought About the Game,” in which the ball players croon about practicing sexual abstinence during the playoffs – had to be jettisoned because it was too risqué for mid-‘50s movie audiences.

There were other problems. The film was a rush job. The Hollywood musicians already were on strike and the directors were preparing to go out as well. To beat the strike deadline, Damn Yankees! was filmed in a blistering four weeks – virtually unheard of for a big musical.

And then there was writer/co-director Abbott’s demand that the movie be essentially a filmed version of the play.

That effectively tied the hands of Donen, who knew how to use the camera for maximum effect but was prohibited from doing so. Much of Yankees! looks like it could have been shot on the Broadway stage. (The ball park scenes, at least, were shot in L.A.’s Wrigley Field, a minor league ball park that for one season served as the home of the California Angels and was demolished in 1969).

“I don’t think it looks like a movie,” said Verdon, who made her film debut in the picture.

What does work? Well, Walston’s depiction of Satan as a crewcut salesman (the red tie and socks suggest his demonic intentions) wears very well, as does some of his sharp dialogue.

At one point he observes that selling one’s soul isn’t such a big deal: “How do you suppose some of these politicians around town got started? And parking lot owners?”

Several of Adler and Ross’s tunes continue to resonate. “Goodbye, Old Girl,” in which an elderly Joe bids farewell to his sleeping wife before being transformed into a young man, is genuinely touching.

“You Gotta Have Heart,” a rousing vaudeville anthem to never-say-die spirit, remains infectious despite the pedestrian staging by Abbott.

And then there’s Gwen Verdon as Lola, the Devil’s seductive Girl Friday. Her comic/sexy rendition of “Whatever Lola Wants” remains the film’s highlight, even if it is pretty much a step-by-step repetition of her stage performance.

The critics were taken.

“While she isn't exactly constructed along the lines of a Brigitte Bardot or blessed with the sort of facial beauty that Elizabeth Taylor has, this long-legged, swivel-jointed siren manufactures her own strong brand of sex, even when she is gleefully lampooning all the basic techniques of the vamp,” observed Bosley Crowther.

But nobody sums up Verdon’s attractions quite as well as Walter Kerr:

“Miss Verdon is, I believe, some sort of mobile designed by a man without a conscience. As she prances mockingly through a seduction scene, flipping a black glove over her shoulder as her hips go into mysterious but extremely interesting action, beating the floor idiotically with whatever clothing she has removed, coiling all over a locker room bench while batting absurd eyelashes at her terrified victim, she is simply and insanely inspired.”

Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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