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Archive for the ‘DIRECTED BY: Stanley Donen’ Category

Damn Yankees

30 Mar

Damn Yankees – directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. Sports Musical. 1 hour 51 minutes, Color 1959

★★★★

The Story: A baseball nut sells his soul to the Devil so the lame Washington team can win the pennant against The Yankees but then the Devil must set a grande horizontale to sabotage the magical home-run hitter he created to achieve it.

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In the theater, it was originally conceived by its choreographer as a dance vehicle for his wife Gwen Verdon, and it remains that in the film.

Verdon had phenomenal ability as a show dancer, and she also had the rarer ability of being able to sing while she danced.

In her big successes, Sweet Charity, Chicago, Redhead, and here and after, however, you see her playing women who are not quite real. That is to say, the delivery of their lines suggest that her acting ability is less than her ability to dance, and that its naïve emotional range is not personal, or rather, not normal.

As a dancer of comic and specialty numbers, Verdon is without parallel, however. She was never to be a movie star, because emotionally she is a stage star. Broadway is her true milieu, her nation, the land of her birth. Her acting style is too broad and too backstage for film. If you set her next to Betty Grable, who was herself a deft comic dancer, and who danced with Verdon in movies, you can see that Grable’s acting dimension is perfectly suited to film. In movies, you don’t have to have a large Broadway style, like Verdon’s, because the screen is already large. Screen size is its actor’s projection. On Broadway you excused such acting as Verdon’s as a musical comedy convention and because her dance feats were actually taking place before your very eyes at that moment.

The show of dance as an art is not subtle; its subtlety is always telegraphed; you cannot mistake it. So Verdon’s big projection as a dancer does not stand in our way. Unlike her acting, its excesses are natural to dance, and Verdon achieves the comic feat of the dances with a suppleness, naturalness, and ease that is amazing.

The dances of course, are garish. They are all by Bob Fosse, who choreographed Verdon’s Broadway shows, of which this was one. Tight, tense choreography is his earmark; whatever he has borrowed from Cole and Kidd has been given its dose of Novocain. And here he even appears dancing with Verdon in Who Feels The Pain When They Do The Mambo? – a famous duet from the Broadway show, brilliantly executed here. However, she is the one you will watch, because she is so alive. He is too, but she more so.

Many of the actors from the Broadway Show are here, too, and the film welcomes their experience and talent. The reason it does is that there are five important singing parts for performers over fifty, from Jean Stapleton to Ray Walston who plays the devil. Their abilities with these parts being already in place make them essential to the integrity of the film, and we are fortunate to have them brought over. They lend a coherence that the direction of the piece lacks.

George Abbott, its Broadway author and director, is also brought over, and one wonders what he thinks he is doing here. He directs certain numbers exactly as they were directed on stage; you can tell this because there is no other reason why a great song like Ya Gotta Have Heart should fall flat. Stanley Donen, director of Singing In The Rain fortunately is co-director, and one suspects he directed the only parts of the film that work. In addition, the directorial storytelling style is triply uneven because the movie is so much a dance musical and Fosse predominates. Three different styles. Nothing holds the film together.

But there is an element that carries the film – and that is the presence of Tab Hunter as the athlete of the devil’s doing. He is perfectly cast. First because he was a superb athlete in his real life. Second because his great physical beauty works as a devil’s creation. But most of all because his natural modesty about himself is so beguiling that you can easily get behind him as the focal point of the story.

Tab Hunter’s ability as an actor grew with time in the craft. He is one of the great learners. He learned voice-placement, projection, truth. By the time of Damn Yankees you have no trouble accepting him as a good actor. He, quite rightly, was the biggest star on the Warner lot at this time.

The film is the best record we have of the uncanny ability of Gwen Verdon as a dancer, and anyone interested in great dancing will have a lot of fun seeing her strut her stuff. Talk about facility! Talk about dance energy! Talk about technique. She was a national treasure and a wonder of nature. She was litheness incarnate.

 
 
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