A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN – Blu-ray review

As a Cubs fan, I’m still reeling from the team’s 101-loss season, but having “A League of Their Own,” one of my all-time favorite baseball movies, come out on Blu-ray for the first time is some consolation.

The 1992 film was an out-of-the-park homer, and not just because Madonna’s name was on the marquee. Director Penny Marshall (Laverne, of “Laverne & Shirley” fame) drafted some of her old television cronies and other pals in order to assemble an ensemble that was strong enough to go into extra innings. If you isolate the performances and compare them to baseball cards, there isn’t a dud destined to be traded or clipped to the spokes of a bicycle wheel—especially when you consider that no doubles were used for the baseball action.

AND now, here’s the line-up for YOUR Rockford Peaches:

C—Geena Davis, as Dottie Hinson. The “Queen of Diamonds” is the best player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that was formed during World War II when men’s baseball was shut down and team owners needed something to keep the sport alive. A handful of teams based at small Midwestern cities played from 1943-1954. “A League of Their Own” is based on this true story, but focuses on two players from a farm in Oregon—Dottie, married to a serviceman stationed overseas, and her younger sister who’s “as unmarried as they come.” Davis shines as the reticent star who manages the team in the early going and makes some amazing catches behind the plate (which, we learn in the extras, were really her own!).

P—Lori Petty, as Kit Keller, a kid sister with a big inferiority complex who’s as competitive in her sibling rivalry as she is on the mound. The fiery fireballer needs to be cooled off more than once, and though Petty plays it a bit over the top at times, she makes it easy for viewers to believe the love-hate relationship she has with big sis.

CF—Madonna, as “All the Way” Mae Mordabito. This chain-smoking female Charlie Hustle, who used to be a dime-a-dance girl, offers to spice up things by “accidentally,” ala Janet Jackson, giving fans a glimpse of her “bosom.” Marshall wanted Madonna because she needed a high-energy dancer for a roadhouse scene, but first the superstar had to pass the baseball test, like all the rest. Actresses had to show they could hit, throw, and run before they were even considered for a part. After consultants from the L.A. Dodgers told Marshall the material girl was “teachable,” she was in.

3B—Rosie O’Donnell, as Doris Murphy, Mae’s tough-talking toadie-style sidekick who hits for power and doesn’t pull any punches in her performance. The stand-up comic makes you believe she’s a “broad” from the Bronx.  It turns out that O’Donnell, like Petty, was a tomboy who was already a darned good ballplayer. O’Donnell was told to become Madonna’s best friend during filming, and the close relationship they developed carries over onto the screen.

2B—Megan Cavanagh, as really ugly duckling Marla Hooch. Though the league wanted “dollies” who looked good in short skirts, Hooch’s switch-hitting power was too beautiful to pass up. If you never heard of Cavanagh, that’s because she was a waitress at Ed DeBevic’s, a diner where the wait staff does outrageous things. She provides a good chunk of the comedy.

1B—Anne Elizabeth Ramsay, as Helen Haley, one of the sensible ones. That’s ironic, because most viewers will recognize her as Helen Hunt’s daffy sister on the old “Mad About You” television show.

LF/P—Tracy Reiner, as Betty “Spaghetti” Horn. Before you think that Rob Reiner’s daughter got the part just because her mom happened to be director, remember, she still had to pass the baseball test. And Mom, a great baseball player herself, apparently prepped her for the role when Tracy was still a young girl. Reiner turns in a sensitive performance as a player who experiences tragedy.

RF—Bitty Schram, as Evelyn Gardner, who keeps forgetting to hit the cut-off “man” with her throws, which, of course, raises the blood pressure of the manager and provides for some great comic moments—as does her delinquent little boy, whom she brings on road trips.

SS/P—Freddie Simpson, as Ellen Sue Gotlander, in a minor role.

Manager—Tom Hanks, as Jimmy Dugan, a former major-league star destined for the Hall of Fame who drank himself out of baseball. Hanks usually has the stage to himself, but even in an ensemble he brings great vitality to his part. When he pees in front of the girls, shuffles along in an alcoholic stupor, kisses the team’s chaperone (Pauline Brasilsford) thinking she’s one of the beautiful players, and constantly spits tobacco juice, he couldn’t be any more convincingly hilarious. Marshall directed him before in “Big,”  so she knew what she was getting.

Owner—Garry Marshall, as Walter Harvey, of Harvey Candy Bars, obviously patterned after P.K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate whose name is still on the stadium of the Chicago Cubs. Part of the film was shot at Wrigley, and in one of the extras the cast says how their wide-eyed entrance into that hallowed space wasn’t faked. They were genuinely awestruck by the Friendly Confines. Marshall is the director’s brother, and sitcom fans may recall he produced “Laverne & Shirley.” L&S alum Eddie Mekka (Carmine) makes an appearance in the big dance scene, while David L. Lander (Squiggy) turns up in the announcer’s booth.

Scout—Jon Lovitz, as the caustic Ernie Capadino, whose put-downs of the “milkmaids” he recruits would rival Don Rickles. Lovitz provides most of the humor in the early going, and the screenwriters reveal in one special feature that Lovitz was the only one they ever wrote a part for.

Though the frame that sets up a flashback main story tugs a little too hard at the heartstrings—kind of like “Stand by Me”—the main narrative is full of humor and strikes just the right tone. It doesn’t necessarily capture the feel of the ‘40s, but it certainly gives you an atmosphere that feels baseball-right, and it accomplishes Marshall’s side goal of drawing attention to these women . . . who may be in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown now, but most of their memorabilia is in storage. So much for equal rights. But it does make the title (already a pun) resonate with irony.

Video:
I wasn’t dazzled by the depth and detail, but the Blu-ray is most definitely an improvement over the DVD. Colors have just a little more pop, and there’s less grain noticeable in backgrounds. Edges are also more strongly defined. Black levels are sufficient and the colors pleasingly saturated when Marshall wasn’t deliberately going for a dusky look. nother bonus for fans is the dual presentation.

Audio:
The soundtrack is a huge improvement, though. The industry-standard English DTS-HD MA really has some sonic pop to it, with clear but energized dialogue, effects, and background music. The LFE channel really doesn’t get much of a workout, but ambient sound is channeled nicely through the rear speakers.

Extras:
Fans can relax. The bonus features from the Special Edition DVD are included here.

The commentary—with director Marshall and actors Reiner, Petty, and Cavanagh—gets off to a slow start because of the awkward reverence that the actors have for their director. But before you know it, they cut loose, and Petty even feels free to tell Marshall how much she hates the scene where the bus driver throws dirt in the face of the team’s chaperone. Jokes fly, but there’s also a ton of information, both trivial and film-related. Some of the footage was also shot across town at Comiskey Park, we learn, and the old women who play baseball and tour Cooperstown at the end were a mix of actors and real women from the baseball league who taught the actors their tricks. “Pickles” taught O’Donnell how to throw two balls at once to two catchers, and Petty recalls that the old-timers drank the young actors under the table and slept on benches overnight at the Hall of Fame in order to accomplish a marathon film session. I said when I reviewed the DVD that given Marshall’s dedication of the film to the original players, it’s odd and a bit disappointing that there’s no feature on the real players and league. But that’s the only disappointment.

Fans of deleted scenes will think they’ve died and gone to Wrigley. There are 15 LONG scenes that, if left in, would have taken the film in radically different directions, including a scene where manager Dugan kisses his star (married) player. Marshall provides the introductions.

There’s also a 52-minute documentary chopped up into nine segments (get it?) featuring Davis and others on camera interspersed with footage from the film and some behind-the-scenes stuff. Rounding out the extras is a Madonna music video featuring the song she wrote for the end-credits, “This Used to Be My Playground” (which, you can tell from the commentary, Marshall would have preferred to play opposite the opening credits and titles).

Bottom Line:
If you already have “A League of Their Own” and are wondering whether to upgrade, the answer is an emphatic YES. It’s a fun baseball movie that holds appeal for non-sports fans as well, with plenty of funny, quotable lines. HD makes it even better.

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