Monday, November 28, 2011

Why I Love week: Take Me Out to the Ball Game

By Bill

So it's been pretty gloomy around here lately. On the same day a bit over a week ago, Bill and TCM wrote posts whose titles began with "Why I Hate" -- first the new playoff format, then the new draft rules. Last week came the announcement of the new CBA, the magnum opus capping Bud Selig's diabolical twenty-year plan for the utter destruction of the national pastime. People are giving Michael Young MVP votes. There's just a lot to be bitter about right now. 

So we've decided to completely ignore all that and observe a cynicism-free week of utter frivolity and happiness (TCM Note: TCM does not promise to keep this site cynicism free.  Without cynicism, what would The Common Man be? He will, however, try and refrain from being a Negative Nelly once a day). Bill and TCM (Jason and Mark can certainly participate if they want to) will alternate providing daily posts celebrating one little baseball-related thing we love, or that helps explain why we love baseball.

I'm a big fan of Frank Sinatra, and I'm obviously quite into baseball. So I really don't know how I got through more than thirty years of life without ever becoming aware that there's a movie in which a singing-and-dancing Frank Sinatra plays the part of a turn-of-the-century big-league shortstop. But there is, and it's called Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and once I learned of this, of course, I had to see it.

It's a 1940s musical, which means a few things: (a) it's incredibly cheesy; (b) there's going to be a whole lot of jingoism and/or things that offend modern sensibilities; and (c) the backdrop -- baseball here, the Navy in Anchors Aweigh, a struggling winter resort in White Christmas, etc. -- is treated very lightly, and serves only as slightly different window-dressing for a lot of song, dance, and a silly romantic comedy plot. But if you come into it expecting all those things (especially (c), in this case), Take Me Out to the Ball Game is great fun.

Dennis Ryan (Sinatra) and Eddie O'Brien (Gene Kelly, who I like considerably less, but still like) are a duo both in-season and in the off-season: a double-play combo on the baseball field and (naturally) a vaudeville act in the winter. The film opens as they're wrapping up their tour -- singing a great version of the title song -- and showing up for (very anachronistic) spring training in Florida with their fictional, geography-free pro baseball team, the Wolves.

Upon a (late) arrival, Ryan & O'Brien regale the fellas with the (fictionalized, we come to understand) story of the girls they met in the off-season in "Yes, Indeedy," a catchy and funny but shockingly risque tune with kind of off-hand references to suicide, "first base" in something like the modern slang sense, and relations with an underage girl. (You kind of have to listen to it to hear why it's funny rather than horrible...or maybe you'll decide it is in fact horrible.)

Then we arrive at the central problem: we learn the team -- the defending champs -- will be under new ownership this season, which for some reason threatens to throw the whole team into disarray. The team immediately hates and distrusts this new guy, K.C. Higgins ... but wait 'til they find out that he (gasp!) is a she (Esther Williams)!!

To the film's great credit, and part of what makes it so much fun: it's a very progressive-for-1949 treatment of this sort of plot. Kelly's character, being the brash, self-assured star athlete, makes all kinds of Don Draper-esque assumptions about Williams' character, and shamelessly hits on her. But Higgins never takes the bait and holds her own. She gives O'Brien hitting advice that ends up fixing a hole in his swing, and when she inevitably does end up falling for one of the two leading men, it's very much on her own terms. I didn't have a lot of expectations coming into this film, but a savvy baseball- and businesswoman character wasn't among those expectations.

If you want to find something that offends your modern sensibilities, on the other hand, you might turn to Nat Goldberg (Jules Manshin), the team's big and, as you might guess, Jewish first baseman. He's the closest thing the film has to a traditional comic lead, though he's seriously underused. He figures most prominently in the song "O'Brien to Ryan to Goldberg," a silly and actually pretty delightful little song-and-dance number sung by the three characters chiefly about their proficiency at the double play, an obvious nod to "Baseball's Sad Lexicon." There's a very obvious reference to Goldberg's ethnicity (lyrics here), with accompanying Fiddler on the Roof-style music, but they reference each of their ethnicities (Ryan's English, O'Brien's pretty close to first-generation Irish), and I didn't get any sense that his Jewishness was being mocked or caricatured. At least one person has taken offense, and I'm in no position to say he's wrong. Personally, I find the completely unnecessary and awful patriotic song "Strictly U.S.A." -- which appears twice -- far more offensive, but your mileage may vary.

As I alluded to above, what baseball is in the movie is entirely superficial and ridiculous. You're not going to learn anything (and, in fact, most of our readers would be in danger of un-learning some things) about baseball as it was played in 1908. I can't imagine what impact a change in ownership could possibly have on a team entering a new season. As cool as Esther Williams' character is, her advice to Kelly's character -- "you're stepping in the bucket" -- is something you might be more likely to hear at a Little League game than in big-league batting practice. And the problem that leads to the climax -- gamblers conspire to impair O'Brien's game and eventually get him booted from the team, only to dramatically and heroically return in the season's final, deciding game -- is just off-the-map crazy (especially if you're a devotee of the WAR concept and have a good sense of how relatively little difference one single player can really make to a team in a handful of games).

But that's so not the point. It's just a little blast of escapist happiness, a fun celebration of song, dance, baseball (kind of), and, yes, of being American (the whole film doing a much better job of it than that one hit-you-over-the-head-with-it song does). The thing is that Sinatra, Kelly, Williams, second female lead Betty Garrett, and the team (which also brought us Anchors Aweigh! and On the Town) were damn good entertainers, and their music and humor can be a lot of fun, and can take you back to a different time (1949, that is, not by any means 1908) -- a wildly imperfect and probably not-at-all simpler time, but nonetheless a fascinating one. And if the tenuous and superficial (but often very fun) connection to baseball is enough to convince you to experience that, as it was for me, it's well worth it.

So that's the thing I love today: Take Me Out to the Ball Game, a delightful film that delivers all the fun and frivolity of the best mid-century movie musicals, with a refreshing progressiveness and, well, baseball (sort of).


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

I'll have to look for it. And Esther Williams does look great in those shorts.

TCM not a negative Nelly? Can't wait!

Great post, Bill

Jonathan C. Mitchell said...

I will definitely have to catch this. I also never knew it existed. Hoping to spin it as a chick flick to the wifey and make her pick since it is her turn to pick the next movie. =)