The "Faust" legend gets a modern face-lift in this 1958 screen adaptation of the Broadway hit musical, "Damn Yankees." But instead of exchanging one's soul for youth, knowledge, power, wealth, or the hand of a fair young maid, it's for youth and the opportunity of becoming the greatest baseball player of all time. A tempting proposition. And a fun-filled movie.
The medieval Faust folklore has obviously been around for a long time, as a tale, as a play, as an opera, and as countless variations in literature and the movies. In such a story, the Devil offers a person the proposition of becoming rich or young or whatever in return for the person's everlasting soul. What is a soul, the Devil always argues; you can't touch it; you can't feel it; it's nothing. Literally, for those who believe, the Devil's proposal is to spend an eternity of servitude in hell; symbolically, it is to knowingly and willingly sell out to the dark side, to commit evil when a choice of good and evil is offered. Think of Jabez Stone in Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster" or Tom Walker in Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker." Or Homer selling his soul in an episode of "The Simpsons."
Nevertheless, "Damn Yankees" takes no such heavy routes. It's light and frothy all the way, the Devil a playful conjurer, and the pact one that we know will never hold together.
Here's the deal: We've got a middle-aged man named Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer), who spends six months of every year glued to his television set watching his beloved Washington Senators baseball team go through another losing season (to "those damn Yankees!"), all the while dreaming of those long-gone days when he could have made it to the big leagues himself. One night he makes the mistake of saying out loud that he'd "sell his soul for one long-ball hitter." Immediately, there enters Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston, repeating his Broadway stage role), the Devil, who makes him an offer he can't refuse. He'll make Joe young again, twenty-two, get him a job with the Senators, and help him become the best baseball player who ever played the game. But Joe is clever. He's a businessman and wants an escape clause. So the Devil agrees to give him until September 24th to get out of the deal, if he chooses.
And that's about it. Old Joe Boyd becomes young Joe Hardy, now played by Tab Hunter. Joe becomes the sensation of the baseball world, and the Senators are on their way to the pennant for the first time in their history. With two major complications along the way. First, Joe still loves his wife, Meg (Shannon Bolin), and it's hard for him to leave her. Second, the Devil sends his assistant, Lola (Gwen Verdon), to tempt Joe into staying young and not returning to his old self.
But the songs pretty much tell the story, so a quick rundown is in order on the titles involved. In "Six Months Out of Every Year" we hear Joe's wife venting her frustrations about her baseball-minded husband. In "Goodbye, Old Girl" Joe writes a touching letter of farewell to his wife. "You Gotta Have Heart" is an inspirational number sung by the Senators' coach and team members. "Shoeless Joe" is a song about the sensational new ballplayer. "There's Something About an Empty Chair" is another touching scene as Joe's wife grieves his absence. In "A Little Brains, A Little Talent" Lola brags about her unique talents of persuasion. Then there's the showstopper, "Whatever Lola Wants," Lola gets. In "Those Were the Good Old Days" the Devil reminisces about some of his successes. "Who's Got the Pain" is a mambo performed by Verdon and, in a rare screen appearance, choreographer Bob Fosse. "Heart" is briefly reprised by a group of kids, followed by the biggest production number of all, "Two Lost Souls," Joe and Lola commiserating in a night club full of dancers. Finally, "Empty Chair" is reprised at the film's climax.
Tab Hunter, who is usually considered something of a lightweight underachiever in Hollywood, got probably his best role in "Damn Yankees." He's a little stiff at first, but he's full of boyish innocence and charm and makes a perfect young Joe. Ray Walston as the Devil is a bit too much the stage actor in his first few scenes, overemphasizing every word although he were playing to the balcony, but once he loosens up, he's also perfect, a wonderful combination of mischievousness and malevolent glee. And Gwen Verdon is great; not the most beautiful woman in the world, but a terrific actress and dancer with a terrific figure; she makes a perfect sultry temptress.
"Damn Yankees" comes with the best credentials, written by George Abbott, based on the book "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" by Douglas Wallop. The movie was directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen ("Singin' in the Rain," "Funny Face," "Charade"). The original music and lyrics were composed by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross ("The Pajama Game"), and the choreography was supervised by Bob Fosse ("The Pajama Game," "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Sweet Charity," "Cabaret," "Chicago," "All That Jazz").
Today's audiences may not appreciate musicals as much as they used to, but given a chance "Damn Yankees" holds up pretty well. The songs are still engaging, the dance numbers are energetic, the characters are fun, and the story line is pleasingly familiar. If the movie sags here and there, forgettaboutit. What movie doesn't?
The picture quality is just about as good as I imagine it could be. The movie's original 1.85:1-ratio exhibition dimensions are mostly preserved in an image that stretches approximately 1.74:1 across my standard-screen HD set; it's anamorphic, enhanced for widescreen TVs, so its quality is further improved; and its bit rate is high for the utmost detail and distinctness. Colors are solid and lustrous, with blacks especially deep to set off the other hues. Facial tones are natural, and definition is reasonably sharp. There is a touch of grain during the opening credits, and the occasional grainy touch elsewhere, but otherwise this is quite an exemplary transfer.
It's disappointing in a big movie musical like this one to have the audio reproduced in monaural only, but that's the case. Dolby Digital processing helps a good deal in clarifying the sonics, but the sound is still slightly hard and edgy, particularly in the loudest passages. However, the all-important midrange is rendered clearly and realistically, even if the lowest bass and highest treble are mostly missing. Background noise is absent as well, so there is no difficulty in hearing every word of every song and every piece of dialogue.
There are practically no extras accompanying the movie, only a widescreen theatrical trailer and twenty-nine scene selections. English is the only spoken language provided, but there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
The interesting thing is the enduring popularity of "Damn Yankees." It is constantly being performed at schools and little theaters all around the country, and it had a successful Broadway revival a few years back starring Jerry Lewis as the Devil. And those damn Yankees keep winning, too; some things never change.
The movie's got a team-load of spunk and spirit that goes a long way toward entertaining an audience, and if it seems a tad old fashioned, well, it's meant to be. "Damn Yankees" is sure to please fans of stage and screen musicals, and it might even please the occasional baseball fan. Only bits and pieces of it seem slow; the rest is lively enough, I should imagine, to maintain most anyone's interest.