Film Reviews

Damn Yankees Stanley Donen and George Abbott

Rating - 4/10

Since its first published appearance in the late 16th century, the Faust legend has been one of folklore’s most influential and enduring fables. The story of an ordinary man making a pact with the devil in return for extraordinary abilities has been utilized or referenced in the literary works of J.W von Goethe, Thomas Mann, Christopher Marlowe, Mikhail Bulgakov, Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde; the music of Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Gustav Mahler; and cinematic works such as Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953), F.W Murnau’s Faust (1926) and George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s Damn Yankees (1958).

Originally designed for the Broadway stage from Douglass Wallop’s book The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant, with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, Damn Yankees was representative of many stage musicals transposed from Broadway to Hollywood in the mid-1950’s. Like Fred Zinnemann’s Oklahoma! (1955), Joshua Logan’s South Pacific (1958) and Abbott and Donen’s earlier Adler and Ross adaptation The Pajama Game (1957), an emphasis remained on replicating and maintaining an adherence to the original Broadway experience. Thus, original cast members were often retained, as were a high proportion of musical and dance numbers.
The subsidiary ripple effect of these strictures quickly became evident in the respective aesthetic approach and performances of such musical films. Since many of the performers and directors involved in these films lacked experience within a cinematic realm, an overt sense of theatricality and staginess tended to underline the look and feel of these works. These issues are evident in George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s Damn Yankees
The film centers around the actions of middle-aged baseball fan Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer), who makes a Faustian pact with the devilish Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston). Tired of witnessing his beloved, yet hapless Washington Senators lose another pennant race to the despised New York Yankees, Boyd offers to sell his soul for a decent outfield slugger. Upon hearing Joe’s plea, Mr. Applegate offers to accept Joe’s request on the condition Joe barters his soul in exchange.
After adding an escape clause into their contract, Joe Boyd is suddenly transformed into a twenty-something year-old ballplayer known as Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter). After a teary song, Joe collects his belongings and without much warning leaves his wife Meg (Shannon Bolin) for the big leagues. Joe’s arrival on the Senators team corresponds with their meteoric rise up the standings. But despite his fame and success, Joe soon misses his wife and wishes to opt of his contract. Desperate to keep Joe’s soul, Applegate calls upon the seductive Lola (Gwen Verdon) to thwart Joe from absconding from his deal.
Extremely popular with critics and audiences on its initial release, Damn Yankees continued Hollywood’s thematic Cold War musical interest in All-American activities such as baseball (Damn Yankees, Take Me Out To The Ball Game), state fairs (State Fair) and rural farm life (Summer Stock, Oklahoma!). Yet, the film is also a textbook example of the problematic nature of many popular Broadway adaptations in the 1950’s.
As with The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees kept virtually all of its Broadway cast with the exception of the lead role. Additionally, both films maintained the show’s original producer, George Abbott as the resultant film’s director; each time with assistance from Stanley Donen. Whereas Stanley Donen was already by 1958 a key progenitor in the visual style of the post-war American musical, Abbott’s only cinematic experience had been over twenty-five years earlier: directing a handful of films, including two Cecil B. DeMille remakes, between 1929 and 1931.
The bulk of Abbott’s work as a director had come on the Broadway stage and it shows in Donen and Abbott’s divided duties behind the camera in Damn Yankees. It is believed that while Abbott orchestrated the film’s staging and dialogue, Donen was centrally aboard to assist cinematographer Harold Lipstein, a veteran of B Westerns with only George Sidney’s Pal Joey (1957) as his sole foray into the musical genre, with transmitting Abbott’s ideas onto the screen. Donen also recruited Bob Fosse, the choreographer of Damn Yankees' original Broadway show, to the set with the license to autonomously direct the film’s musical and dance numbers as he wished.
The diverse set of artistic voices off-screen subsequently produced an untidy mishmash of visual styles and approaches on-screen. Despite having the ability to expand the film’s line of vision, Abbott and Donen’s co-direction is stiff and narrow. In contrast to the visual inventiveness Donen showed alongside Gene Kelly in On The Town (1949) or Singin’ in the Rain (1951) the camera barely moves throughout the course of the film and makes little use of the widescreen format. The film’s muddy colorization scheme, recycled baseball footage and crude thought clouds appear hideously vulgar: heightening the film’s overtly stage-bound tendencies in the process.
To complicate matters, the majority of the film’s cast also had limited experience in Hollywood: Walston had appeared in two other films, including Donen’s Kiss Them For Me (1957); Verdon’s previous experience had been restricted to bit-parts, while Tab Hunter’s only lead performances had been in two minor films both alongside Natalie Wood two years earlier. The lack of familiarity with the conventions of cinematic acting is evident in Damn Yankees. Overwhelmingly, the performances feel stilted and wooden. Walston is cheeky; Verdon is feisty, rather than erotic; while Tab Hunter blithely stands around in his anemic lead effort as Joe Hardy.
Where the film does pay off aesthetically is in the Fosse choreographed music and dance numbers. While the film’s musical numbers without Verdon are overwhelmingly languid, dull and unmemorable, the sequences containing her are given detailed attention and care. Although these elements do not contain the overt eroticism of Fosse’s later work in his own Cabaret (1974) and his masterpiece All That Jazz (1979) they do suffice to provide limited sexual intrigue within the confines of the Production Code. Perhaps had the Production Code not been in effect, the film’s famed “What Lola Wants, Lola Gets” number would have demonstrated Verdon’s on-stage seductive talents with far greater aplomb, but there is plenty of sass and panache in her on-stage dance routine alongside Fosse in the film’s “Who’s Got The Pain” mambo piece and the far superior, darkly lit jazz of “Two Lost Souls.”  
Damn Yankees is an old-fashioned theatrical affair lacking neither the cinematic sweep, the stylized conviviality nor the vibrant energy demonstrated in Donen’s other musicals during this period such as Funny Face (1957) or Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954). Instead Damn Yankees is a rather dour and often lifeless musical comedy that lacks the palpable visual and comedic flair necessary to fully engage the potential of its material. Despite its devilish subject matter, the film is rather morally tame and its celebrated raw sexuality appears rather muted due to the constrictions of censorship. Donen would later to return to the Faust legend for his 1967 film Bedazzled, whereas Abbott would never direct another film again. Arguably, the film’s biggest winner was choreographer Bob Fosse, who would return to Hollywood nearly a decade later to begin a short-lived, but vigorous career in the director’s chair.