Damn Yankees was originally staged as a spectacular George Abbot Broadway show before it was turned into a big screen musicale by Warner Bros. in 1956. The plot of the story revolves around that All American sport known as Baseball and how one man’s obsessive love for the game led him to make a disastrous, love forsaking, life altering decision. At the beginning of the film, we are told about the lament of the baseball widows, those women whose husbands seem to forget they exist for 6 months or from April to September in the song “Six Months Out of Every year.
“ Then we are introduced to the central character of the story, Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) , a man of later years who is an ardent fan of the Washington Senators, a team whose only bragging right is that they have consistently lost all the games they have played in. As Joe watches a game where his beloved Senators lose yet again to those “Damn Yankees”. He frustrated blurts out to his wife Meg (Shannon Bolin) that all his team needs is one good long hitter. This lament is heard by the devil in the guise of Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston).
Applegate makes Joe an offer he cannot refuse. He can help the Senators win the pennant because Mr. Applegate can make him a young man with a remarkable talent for home runs and throws. The only problem is that the devil will own his soul at the end of the baseball series. After negotiating an escape clause for himself, Joe agrees to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the chance to help the Senators win. He leaves a note for his wife telling her “Goodbye Old Girl” before disappearing into a taxi with Mr. Applegate who has magically transformed him into a striking young man he names Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter) before Joe exit’s the house.
Joe makes the team with the help of the devil and catches the interest of the inquisitive reporter Gloria Thorpe who does not stop until she gets to the bottom of the reality of “Shoeless Joe”. Amidst all the excitement of baseball wins, Joe realizes that no love for the game can overtake the love he has for his wife. He goes back home in the guise of a man looking for a room to board in.
Mr. Applegate tries to stop him from going home to his wife by presenting him with Lolita Rodriguez ( Gwen Verdon), Lola, the devil’s best home wrecker. Sexy and immensely beautiful, Joe touches her heart after her seductive dance and helps her realize that she is not all evil after all. After Mr. Applegate realizes that he will lose the soul of Joe, he plants some false information with Gloria Thorpe and this leads to a commission inquiry into the real person behind Joe Hardy.
This is where the movie deal with albeit superficially on the issues that usually surround sports players such as accusations of game fixing, game throwing, mafia connections, etc. Realizing that he loves his wife more than wanting to see the senators win the pennant, Joe tries to exercise his escape clause during the final minutes of the commission inquiry but is prevented from fully executing it by his unknowing wife who, together with her friends, came to the inquiry to help clear his name of accusations brought forth by Ms. Thorpe.
In the climax of the movie, Joe is transformed by Mr. Applegate into an old man just as he makes the game winning catch that wins the Washington Senators the pennant before he disappears into the game dressing room, never to be seen again. He returns to his wife and through the help of song, manages to evade the devil’s attempts to take his soul. Of the major characters in the movie, I believe that the most memorable one is that of Gwen Vernon’s character Lola. Throughout the movie, we see the character transform from an evil, selfish, self gratifying character, as evidenced in the “Whatever Lola Wants” number, to a devil’s assistant with a heart and soul in “Two Lost Souls”.
Lola is a person who, though she lives her life via evil means, still have the conscience and understanding of a tender human being and would turn her back on evil in a second if it mean harming someone who had become her friend. The character of Joe Hardy is also memorable in the sense that his character had a distinct sadness about him. It was highly evident that he regretted having to leave his wife but had this desire in his spirit to find out the “what if” in his life. In this case it was “What if I was the best long hitter in the history of the Washington Senators?
Could I make a difference? ” He just had to know the answer for himself which is why he went on his journey of self discovery but still came home to that which he knew to be true, that his place and true happiness lay with being with his wife and not in the game he obsessed about. Of course everyone knows that Mr. Applegate is one of the classic movie devil characters of all time. He is the devil everyone loves but hates. Although deceitful and dishonest, one has to laugh at how Joe always seems to always have or gain the upper hand in dealing with the devil.
Never mind that Mr. Applegate had previously succeeded in getting Nero to fiddle while Rome burned and applauded the birth of Jack the Ripper, as he narrated in the number entitled “Those Where the Good Old Days“ . Possibly making him the most successful devil of all time. Just like all classic Hollywood musicals, the dance choreography in Damn Yankees helped the story to progress. The most story telling based choreography developed by Bob Fosse is best seen in the “Shoeless Joe” musical number. It told of the early beginnings of “Shoeless Joe” Hardy without using too many words.
One can easily understand the story that was being told through the dance movements of the actors. The dance spoke of the suppositions and imaginations that the team and the reporter had developed in their minds about the new kid on the block. Although a bit exaggerated at times, it was highly acceptable as the emphasis was being placed on a seemingly pantomime story telling moment. The movie in itself is a work of genius. Using early incarnations of today’s CGI effects, cunning editing had Mr. Applegate walking through walls and transforming Lola from a Queen of Beauty to an old hag.
We were given a ghost like appearance of the devil towards the end of the movie using the predecessors to today’s blue and green screen backgrounds. The lighting was fully utilized to convey the fight of good and evil within the soul of Joe Hardy at the start of the movie and his acceptance of living in the hot depths of hell in the red light and smoke filled club (possibly meant to signify the perennial flames and heat of hell that he is about to endure as a soul owned by the devil. ) “Two Lost Souls” song and dance number.
The costumes were perfectly chose to represent the light and dark sides of the movie. The older Joe was dressed in Gray and white colors to signify his being torn between his youthful love of the game and the more responsible man that he should be. Mr. Applegate always wore red and black somewhere within his costume as these colors are the most associated with the devil. Lola in her red and white baseball get up indirectly signified the internal battle raging in her soul. Lola was not all evil, but she was not all good as well.
The division of colors within the costume explains that Lola is half of everything that makes every person a human being. The theme of the movie is second chances and the fulfillment of youthful dreams. Topics that we are all familiar with as we all have some sort of regret during our lifetime. Having admitted that, one has to ask him or herself, to what extent are you willing to go in order to recapture lost youth and dreams? Now we come to the big question. What would I do if I were in Joe’s position?
Admittedly, every person at one time or another, for any given reason often says what Joe wishes in the movie. But would I really be willing to sell my soul to the devil for a moment of glory? There are times when I do get obsessed over something but I do not have it in me to even think of selling my soul for a moment of glory. There are more things going on in my life that are more important than a game, regardless of how much I enjoy it. I would not have done what Joe did in the movie because I realize what the real and important things are in life.
The professional ball players do it for a living and will be doing it for their lifetime. I on the other hand have a wife to think of. We have to remember that at the time the movie was set in, women were not that well equipped to handle life without a husband. In fact Meg Boyd sings about it in “There’s Something About An Empty Chair”. The actions of Joe Boyd were that of a selfish individual who is thinks of nothing else except self gratification. I am not and doubt I will ever be that kind of person.