Baseball’s back in full swing, and as part of Forgotten Films‘ baseball blogathon, I’ve chosen to cover a very fun baseball movie that, admittedly, is perhaps not the most stellar example of actual gameplay: 1949’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game. It’s a fun, somewhat historical counterpoint to many baseball movies that choose to focus on real ball players or, you know, real ball games. But no matter, because what this one may lack in authenticity of sport, it more than makes up for in movie musical cred: it’s directed by Busby Berkeley, produced by Arthur Freed, with a story by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and choreography by Gene himself. It’s also one of three glorious instances where we see Gene teamed up with Frank Sinatra, so, really, there’s not too much to complain about.
Gene and Frank star as Eddie O’Brien and Dennis Ryan, two Irish-American ball players in 1908, in a pretty comfortable position as the star second baseman and shortstop for the champion Sarasota Wolves. In the off-season though, they pursue their real passion, moonlighting as song-and-dance men on a popular touring stage show on the vaudeville circuit. However, when they return to the clubhouse for the new season, they discover that their club owner has died, leaving the team under the charge of his relative, one K. C. Higgins. The boys voice their dissent on the nepotistic hire vociferously, though when Esther Williams arrives into the scene, they incorporate a small amount of flirtation along with their badmouthing of the new hire. But, they soon discover that Williams herself is K.C., the object of their insults (short for Katherine Catherine—they couldn’t decide which way to spell it), and the boys sheepishly have to accept her rules. Despite their protests, she turns out to know a thing or two about the game, ably fielding grounders and even helping a stubborn Eddie with his batting stance. Eddie and Dennis spar, briefly, for K. C.’s attentions, though once the inimitably brassy Betty Garrett comes into the picture, throwing Frank Sinatra over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes, it becomes clear about who’s going to end up with whom (or rather, that Betty’s made her selection—and everyone else can figure it out among themselves).
The film is set in 1908, firmly in the midst of baseball’s “dead-ball” era, and the movie reflects the more casual style of the day, albeit heightened to the point of comedy: Eddie and Dennis do comedy routines between innings, and some of the other players are seen casually smoking cigars during practice. And while baseball is not at the forefront of the plot, it does function majorly in the film’s climax and as a backdrop to all the proceedings. There was actually more gameplay than I’d remembered from previous viewings—we don’t really see a full game until the end, but there are a few montages in which we see that the Wolves’ performance correlates with the emotional states of our leads. At one point, an underhanded gambler attempts to affect the Wolves’ winning streak by offering Eddie the lead in a new musical, for which he must sneak out to rehearsals following the day’s ball game, after hours. As one might expect, this does not improve the Wolves’ standings, and his teammates are forced to take action to correct the freefall. The film ends, as I’m sure many of this week’s entries will, at the bottom of the ninth, with two men on base and two outs. I’ll let you watch the movie to find out whether or not they get that crucial hit…
The movie was clearly made with a love of the game, and there were a few real-life baseball connections to the film as well. The sidekick role ultimately played by Jules Munshin was originally intended for Leo Durocher, a real-life shortstop and manager—non-baseball folks may recognize him as the Dodgers manager during Jackie Robinson’s tenure, played by Christopher Meloni in the movie 42. Kelly also said that he based the two lead characters on Al Schacht and Nick Altrock, coaches for the Washington Senators in the early ’20s who were famous for their clowning routines during games.
So while the baseball in the movie isn’t entirely serious as it might be in another picture, and the romances are deemed much more important, baseball is certainly imbued within the plot, and I think it’s a fun time. Baseball fans may find a few lines particularly romantic, like the great bit of charming praise: “Not bad for a dame who can field a hot grounder.” And ultimately, when Eddie must make a final decision between his two passions, it’s a pure, simple sandlot game that pushes him back in the direction of baseball.[One last bit of research I was compelled to do based on an aside reference—when the other players notice that Gene Kelly is doing pretty well with the new manager, one of them remarks that “he just met her and he’s rounding third!” Now, he was doing well, but I wasn’t sure if this was a subtle implication of anything more serious… but no, calm down, Mr. Hays—at this time, baseball metaphors were used more to indicate general progress towards your goal. It wasn’t until the 1960s that specific acts would start being assigned to the various bases.]
Check out the rest of the Big League Blogathon entries at the Forgotten Films page here!