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It's almost emblematic of the Eisenhower Years that the President's favorite movie was Angels in the Outfield (1951), a comedy about a troupe of angels who come down from heaven to help the Pittsburgh Pirates win the pennant. But although MGM sought to maximize its appeal by releasing it in October 1951 just before and during the World Series, it didn't really become a widely treasured gem until it first played on television ten years later - in the Kennedy Era. A remake was released in Summer 1994, complete with special-effects angels bearing wings and halos (this earlier version didn't show that), but most people found it dull and lifeless, especially compared to the original, directed by MGM veteran (and one of Garbo's favorites) - Clarence Brown.
Paul Douglas plays Guffy McGovern, the gruff, foul-mouthed manager of the perpetually losing Pirates. But one night after a game he runs into the Archangel Gabriel on the second base line. The invisible messenger, spokesman for the "Heavenly Choir Nine," tells Guffy to look for a miracle in tomorrow's game. When the team suddenly wins, Guffy knows he's getting some divine help, but he stays mum about it. Then a pretty blonde newspaper reporter (Janet Leigh) is assigned to cover the sport from "the women's angle" and she interviews a little orphan girl from St. Gabriel's Parish who attends games with some baseball-loving nuns. The child swears she can see an angel standing beside each Pirate player as if in answer to her prayers to help the team win. When Guffy is beaned by a line drive, he suddenly opens up about his deal with heaven, and a vindictive sportscaster (Keenan Wynn) that Guffy had fired from the Pirates announcers booth starts a smear campaign against the manager that results in a baseball commission hearing on the day of the crucial pennant game.
Douglas was a rather unlikely candidate for stardom, but for a few years in the late '40s to mid-50s, this burly middle-aged guy enjoyed a good measure of popularity with movie audiences. A former pro football player and radio sports announcer, Douglas made his name on Broadway playing mobster Harry Brock in the comedy Born Yesterday. Although he had made his movie debut at the age of 42 in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and made two other pictures that year, including another baseball fantasy-comedy It Happens Every Spring (1949), he turned down the film version of Born Yesterday (1950). But that decision didn't set him back; a string of pictures followed, often comedies in which he made bearish bluster humorous and appealing. Although it was one of his most popular films, Douglas once described Angels in the Outfield as "a pretty crummy movie," but after his death in 1959, his widow, actress Jan Sterling, insisted he had been kidding.
One aspect of the McGovern character that presented a problem for the studio was his frequent unabashed swearing. Putting words like "fudge" and "darn" in his mouth would have been ludicrous and out of character. So the MGM sound department came up with the idea of having Douglas mouth the epithets then record them backwards on the soundtrack so they sounded like gibberish. At least that was the story that went out. But Hal Erickson, author of the book Baseball in the Movies (McFarland and Co.), claimed he taped a swearing scene on reel-to-reel and ran it backwards, only to discover that the lines still sounded like gibberish. Apparently, MGM wasn't taking any chances that some smart-aleck projectionist might flip the reverse switch. Douglas' gruff performance also did much to make the character's tendency to curse convincing. In one scene, Guffy gets into a heated argument with an umpire, but because he's vowed to abstain from swearing, he substitutes quotes from Shakespeare for the curses.
Much of the film was shot on location - unusual for the time - at the Pittsburgh ball field (with some shots done at Los Angeles' Wrigley Field) using actual Pirates game footage. A touch of comic reality was also injected by using baseball legends Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio, songwriter Harry Ruby, and Bing Crosby (who owned 15% of the actual Pittsburgh Pirates) as themselves in mock interview sequences. Also check the cast for Ellen Corby (the future Grandma Walton of TV's The Waltons) as a sports-fan nun, Lewis Stone (Judge Hardy from the popular Mickey Rooney series) as the baseball commissioner, and Barbara "June Cleaver" Billingsley in an uncredited bit as a hat check girl.
Because distributors didn't think European audiences would catch the baseball reference to "outfield" in the title, the picture was renamed for foreign distribution. Apparently no thought was given to whether audiences paying to see The Angels and the Pirates would be expecting a swashbuckling adventure story.
Producer/Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Dorothy Kingsley, George Wells, Richard Conlin
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Editing: Robert J. Kern
Art Direction: Edward Carfagno, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Paul Douglas (Guffy McGovern), Janet Leigh (Jennifer Paige), Keenan Wynn (Fred Bayles), Donna Corcoran (Bridget White), Lewis Stone (Arnold P. Hapgood), Bruce Bennett (Saul Hellman).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon