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Damn Yankees

Damn Yankees(1958)

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Home Video Reviews

What with Major League Baseball making an imminent return to the nation's capital, the timing seems perfect for the film adaptation of Damn Yankees (1958), the popular Broadway musical that blended the national pastime with the Faust legend, to have its debut on DVD. The enduringly engaging nature of the show's story and score have been demonstrated by its several successful revivals over the years, and this recent release from Warner Home Video should be a regarded as a grand slam for its devotees.

By and large, the film retained the players from the show's initial stage run to reprise their efforts for the camera. The narrative opens in the suburbs of D.C., where middle-aged Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) is resigned to another interminable summer of watching his team spiral downward in the standings while those insufferable New York Yankees make their inevitable run at the American League pennant. Joe's frustrated offer of his soul for just one Senators championship spurs the arrival on his doorstep of a dapper gent answering to "Mr. Applegate" (Ray Walston), reeking of brimstone and ready to take him up on the bargain.

A savvy businessman, Joe demands and receives an escape clause on the deal, leaving him until September 24th to back out. Applegate holds up his end of the bargain by transforming Joe into a young Adonis (Tab Hunter) with a MVP-caliber hitting stroke, and re-dubbing him "Joe Hardy." Leaving only a vague note for his baseball-widow spouse Meg (Shannon Bolin), Joe follows Applegate to the Senators' home field, where his "agent" wrangles him a tryout. A few prodigious shots into the bleachers later, the Senators decide to take a chance on the unknown. Within a matter of weeks, Joe has placed the team on his back, and the perennial sad-sacks find themselves playing with a confidence they'd never before experienced.

Applegate, for his part, is kicking himself for leaving Joe an out, and is less than thrilled that the sudden superstar continues to pine for his abandoned wife; Joe goes as far as to knock on his own door and ask Meg if she needs a boarder. Applegate counters by summoning his top-rated seductress, the statuesque Lola (Gwen Verdon), in order to entice Joe into missing the deadline. Joe's challenge to save his soul as well as the Senators' postseason carries the story to its conclusion.

Playwright George Abbott shared director's credit with Stanley Donen, and their matched sensibilities (together with the hummable Richard Adler/Jerry Ross score and the customarily nifty choreography of Bob Fosse) ensured that the play's verve would be well preserved in the adaptation. Damn Yankees offered two of the principals from the show's original Broadway run what would be their best showcases in Hollywood. In committing her Tony-winning performance to celluloid, Verdon is sinuous and smoky, almost palpably fogging the lens with the show-stopping "Whatever Lola Wants", and demonstrating her chemistry with future spouse Fosse in the mambo number "Who's Got The Pain." Walston is consistently amusing in his gleeful malice, never more so than in the staging of the darkly hilarious "Those Were the Good Old Days."

While Hunter's status as the hunk of the moment began to decline after Damn Yankees, he looks the part of the star jock, and he's more than serviceable in bringing across the film's gentler moments. Other nice supporting work was delivered by Rae Allen as the lady sports reporter desperate for dish on Joe's too-shrouded past; James Komack, Albert Linville and Nathaniel Frey as the teammates; and Jean Stapleton, seen in her film debut as an annoying spinster friend of Meg's.

Thankfully, Warner provided a exceedingly rich video transfer for this DVD, presented in its original 1:85.1 aspect ratio; the colors pop, and the definition is remarkably sharp. If any fault is to be found with this release, it's in the relative lack of extras; the only inclusions is a theatrical trailer, ostensibly for the British market since it bears the film's U.K release title of What Lola Wants.

For more information about Damn Yankees, visit Warner Video. To order Damn Yankees, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg