Hot on the heels of The Pajama Game, Warner Archive releases Damn Yankees, the other famous musical by composer Richard Adler and lyricist Jerry Ross. The tale of a diehard baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil so his beloved Washington Senators can beat the hated Bronx Bombers may owe its story to Faust, but it's the Adler-Ross tunes, Bob Fosse's distinctive choreography, and Gwen Verdon's vivacious performance as the seductive Lola that really make this musical sing...and dance. A remastered transfer and robust lossless audio distinguish the Blu-ray presentation of this top-notch screen adaptation of a Broadway classic. Recommended.
Baseball movies are as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July, but a musical about the National Pastime is about as rare as a Chicago Cubs World Series win. Damn Yankees marries the two oil-and-water elements, tosses in some Faustian intrigue, and mixes them all into an intoxicating cocktail.
Just as they did with The Pajama Game, composer Richard Adler and lyricist Jerry Ross take a blue-collar subject and make it sing, while choreographer extraordinaire Bob Fosse makes it dance like only he can. Both shows ran for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway, and though the film adaptations don't quite eclipse their stage counterparts, they raked in big bucks at the box office upon their respective releases in 1957 and 1958 and remain excellent examples of how to faithfully adapt a successful Broadway musical for the screen.
How did Warner Bros do it? First, the studio paired Broadway director George Abbott (who also co-wrote the book for both The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees and penned both screenplays) with Hollywood director (and musicals specialist) Stanley Donen, then tapped Fosse to recreate his distinctive choreography, and finally quite audaciously imported the entire Broadway cast of each show...with one notable exception. Studio chief Jack Warner demanded one Hollywood star headline each movie, so in the case of The Pajama Game, Doris Day usurped the part played by Janis Paige, while in Damn Yankees, hunky heartthrob Tab Hunter pinch hit for Stephen Douglass. Like a perfectly executed hit-and-run, the strategy worked and resulted in two memorable musical films.
Damn Yankees might be the more memorable of the two because it showcases the incomparable talents of Gwen Verdon in her only lead motion picture role. Verdon plays the iconic temptress Lola, the sexy henchwoman of Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston), a.k.a. Lucifer, who swoops into the life of middle-aged Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer), a diehard fan of the hapless Washington Senators who can't bear to see his beloved team lose another game. When Joe cries out, "One long ball hitter. That's what we need. I'd sell my soul for one long ball hitter," the diabolical Applegate magically appears and makes Joe an offer he can't refuse.
Applegate promises to transform Joe into a strapping young long-ball hitter who will lead the Senators to a spectacular pennant win over those damn Yankees...if - and only if - Joe relinquishes his soul to Applegate at the end of the season. Joe wavers because he doesn't want to leave his beloved wife Meg (Shannon Bolin), so Applegate offers him an escape clause that will allow Joe to return to his normal life at any time before the season's final game. Joe seals the deal and instantly morphs into twentysomething slugger Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), who single-handedly turns the Senators' fortunes around and becomes the biggest thing to hit baseball since Babe Ruth.
Despite his long-sought-after success and adulation, Joe incessantly yearns for Meg...so much so he seriously considers invoking the escape clause. That's when Applegate deploys secret weapon Lola, but when Joe shockingly resists her irresistible charms, Lola's ice-cold heart begins to melt, and her devotion to Applegate starts to waver. Of course, hell hath no fury like...well, the devil, so once Applegate gets mad, look out!
Damn Yankees deftly twists the Faustian legend to make it suit the baseball milieu, but the clever premise gets bogged down by a cute but convoluted plot during the movie's second half. Many musicals struggle to satisfactorily resolve their narrative conflicts, and Damn Yankees is no exception, but thankfully the songs and dances save the day and bolster the film. My personal favorite is the ebullient "Heart," sung by a trio of baseball players and their inspirational manager early in the movie. If ever there's a case to be made for using not just the stars of an original Broadway production in the screen adaptation of a musical, but also the featured players, this is it.
The film's signature number, of course, is the seductive striptease "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets," which shows off all of Verdon's myriad talents to perfection. With a wicked sense of humor, the limber Verdon slinks, shimmies, and contorts to the tune's tango-styled melody and rhythms. She's equally adorable shaking her hips to "A Little Brains, A Little Talent" and high-stepping it with future husband Fosse in the kooky novelty number "Who's Got the Pain?", which sadly stands as the only time the two iconic artists danced with each other on the big screen. Though it wasn't a huge deal at the time - neither Verdon nor Fosse were familiar to film audiences - it's a classic movie moment today. Much like "Steam Heat" in The Pajama Game, the song serves no narrative purpose. It's raison d'etre is sheer entertainment, and it succeeds brilliantly in that regard. Take a gander...
Though sincere, wholesome, and handsome, Hunter can't begin to rival Verdon, but he holds his own when the two charmingly perform "Two Lost Souls," an infectious number that's all the more impressive because Verdon and Hunter sang it live on set. A musicians strike precluded the song's prerecording, so Donen planned for the stars to overdub their vocals later, but he so enjoyed their off-the-cuff delivery - sour notes and all - he left the performance as is and only added the orchestration in post-production.
Walston won a Tony Award for his stage portrayal and he's a delight here as well, mixing Machiavellian mischief with sly humor and suave sophistication. Just like Verdon, who won a Tony as well, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The rest of the Broadway imports, with the exception of Jean Stapleton (whose ditzy characterization of a middle-aged spinster would inspire her interpretation of Edith Bunker in the classic TV sitcom All in the Family a decade later), never gained notoriety on film, but they all contribute first-rate work that still holds up well today.
The stagy direction, especially during the dramatic scenes, often lends the film a static feel - it's likely Abbott handled the dialogue sequences and Donen helmed the musical numbers - yet despite the occasional inertia (and the fact that the vivacious Verdon doesn't appear until the 45-minute mark), Damn Yankees provides devilishly fine entertainment. Just as the Yankees are still hated by legions of baseball fans, this damn good musical still raises one's spirits and delivers the goods.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Damn Yankees arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Damn, doesn't Damn Yankees look good! A "new HD master sourced from a 4K scan of preservation separation masters" yields a terrific 1080p/AVC MPEG transfer that features lush, vibrant color, excellent contrast and clarity, and a palpable film-like feel. Shot in single-strip Technicolor, Damn Yankees sports an array of vibrant, lush hues - bold reds, sunny yellows, verdant greens, cool blues, and creamy pinks and purples - that resemble those produced by its three-strip cousin. The animated main title sequence shows off the varied color palette to perfection; check out the clip below...
Deep blacks and bright whites anchor the image, and though low-lit scenes (like the "Two Lost Souls" nightclub number) exhibit a bit more grain, shadow delineation is good and crush is kept at bay. Sharp close-ups nicely highlight Verdon's brassy red hair and Hunter's all-American, surfer-boy looks, and the split-screen and pop-up visual effects are seamlessly integrated into the frame. Flesh tones err on the rosy side, a few isolated scenes flaunt a bit of extra texture, and a couple of stray marks dot the print, but such minor imperfections only minimally detract from what is otherwise another stellar Warner Archive presentation.
It's too bad Warner didn't deem Damn Yankees worthy of a stereophonic soundtrack back in 1958, but Warner Archive's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 rendering of the existing mono track is so good we can almost forgive the slight. Excellent fidelity enhances the musical numbers and a wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of Ray Heindorf's Oscar-nominated music score without any distortion. All the dialogue and song lyrics are well prioritized and easy to comprehend, the vocals sound robust, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle creep into the mix.
The only extras are the original theatrical trailer and a British trailer, both of which are presented in high definition. The previews are identical, except for a title change; reportedly, British censors labeled the word "damn" offensive, so Warner changed the film's title to What Lola Wants for its release across the pond.
Damn Yankees may not hit a home run when compared to other stage-to-screen adaptations, but this musicalized takeoff on the Faustian legend with a baseball backdrop scores big in plenty of departments. The memorable score, energetic Bob Fosse choreography, and adorable Gwen Verdon in a rare film performance make this movie a winner, and Warner Archive salutes it with a beautiful remastered transfer and robust audio. Recommended.