Tuesday, May 6, 2008

TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (MGM 1949) Warner Home Video

Given Busby Berkeley’s supremacy at Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s, the choreographer/director's tenure at MGM was decidedly a let down to both fans of his work and to Berkeley himself, who increasingly met with more temperament and power struggles that clashed with his authoritarian rule. Berkeley came to MGM via the good graces of producer Arthur Freed - who loved and respected the caustic Berkeley. But the move was made after a particularly nasty split from his alma mater, further complicated by severe and chronic alcoholism and a near fatal car crash. 

At MGM Berkeley was given every opportunity to helm big budget movie musicals. But the projects weren't always his to command alone and the studio's 'art by committee' approach to getting the job done did not bode well with Berkeley's need for absolute autonomy. Thus, when his tyrannical demands on Judy Garland midway through the filming of Girl Crazy (1943) resulted in the star suffering a complete mental collapse it was Berkeley, not Garland, who was replaced on the project.

In truth, Berkeley’s alcoholism was getting the better of him by the time he agreed to direct Take Me Out to The Ball Game (1949) – the second teaming of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Producer Arthur Freed had initially green lit a radically different concept written by Kelly and his co-collaborator, Stanley Donen that developed the character of K.C. Higgins (a part that eventually went to Esther Williams) as a chanteuse – not one of William’s strong suits.

In the Kelly/Donen synopsis was meant to be an inspired reunion for Kelly, Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson, who had triumphed together in Anchors Aweigh. Grayson was busy elsewhere, and Judy Garland - Donen's second choice, was unable to commit to the project for obvious health reasons. Reluctantly, the part was rewritten and recast with Esther Williams, necessitating the excision of any songs afforded her character, and, the insertion of an utterly needless swimming pool sequence to satisfy fans.

Nine songs were written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Roger Edens with the only memorable one being the 1908 title song written by Harry Van Tilzer and Jack Norworth. Berkeley, who had been hired to direct the film in totem relinquished his responsibilities on staging the musical sequences to Kelly and Donen – who conceived some brilliant, and some mediocre production numbers to fill the run time.

The plot eventually revamped by screenwriters Harry Tugend and George Wells follows Dennis Ryan (Frank Sinatra) and Edward O’Brien (Gene Kelly); a pair of turn-of-the-century ballplayers on hiatus from their jobs and enjoying a lucrative second career as Vaudevillian song and dance men. Though Ryan truly loves his baseball career, O’Brien prefers the female adoration and celebrity afforded him as a stage performer. Reunited at basic training with short stop, Nat Goldberg (Jules Munshin) the boys are informed by their General Manager, Michael Gilhuly (Richard Lane) that the new owner of the team, K.C. Higgins (Williams) will be coming down to supervise their exercises.

Assuming that K.C. Higgins is a man, coach Slappy Burke (Tom Dugan) misses her at the train depot, resulting in a rather awkward first ‘cute’ meet between O’Brien and Higgins who take an innate and immediate dislike to each another. Ryan, on the other hand, is smitten. While Higgins realizes that Ryan’s affections are genuine, her love/hate relationship with the egotistical O’Brien has her flustered and confused. Meanwhile, baseball groupie, Shirley Delwyn (Betty Garrett) has developed her own possessive love interests towards Ryan. These eventually blossom into an awkward, though mutual romance.

A wrinkle for the team’s pending season develops when mob boss, Joe Lorgan (Edward Arnold) attempts to buy off Ryan, the team’s star player. Either Ryan deliberately throws his games to satisfy a bet against the team or Lorgan will go to the baseball commission and demand Ryan’s disbarment from the sport for breaking curfew. Eventually, this double life weighs heavily on Ryan’s stamina and his game begins to suffer. Higgins, assuming that Ryan has, in fact, been working for Lorgan to ruin their season, suspends him from the team.

Presumably because this plot development has painted all of the characters into a very awkward narrative corner, the film ends on a distinctly convenient and very sour musical note. The characters step out of character and sing an implausible summation; “Sinatra gets Garrett, Kelly gets Williams, for that’s the plot the author wrote…” 

Despite its rather clumsy conclusion, Take Me Out to the Ball Game proved a winner with audiences, grossing $4,344,000.00 on its initial release. There is a lot to admire in this decidedly minor offering immediately following Kelly and Sinatra's gargantuan debut together in Anchors Aweigh. Yet, in every way, Take Me Out to the Ball Game is a poor cousin to that movie. Sinatra and Kelly do a fine tap routine to the title tune with Sinatra's dancing having immensely improved since Anchors Aweigh. He doesn't stare at his feet as he and Kelly trip the light fantastic. So too does Esther Williams - though not a first choice - fit in rather nicely with the boys, her comic timing keeping many a tired old gag afloat in the Tugend/Wells script. 

Sinatra's MGM persona, the antithesis of Kelly's exuberant all-American masculinity, seems strained herein at best, his confrontations with the libidinous Betty Garrett making for some real silly badinage and frisk-less foreplay. But adding Jules Munshin into this mix just seems too much; his third wheel buffoonery gilding the lily and becoming more ridiculous than funny before the final fade out.   

Warner Home Video’s DVD reissue is identical to the 1997 disc release. Colors are reasonably refined though not quite as punchy as one would expect. Flesh tones are at times a pasty pink. Fine detail is evident as is an occasionally distracting amount of film grain.

* It should be noted that 3-strip Technicolor was a grain reducing process registering silky smooth images with remarkable color fidelity and clarity. So, the grittiness to some of the scenes in Take Me Out to the Ball Game doesn't seem to me to be in keeping with what's on the original film stock but rather a post production flaw in the DVD mastering process. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include the film's theatrical trailer and a musical outtake - 'Baby Doll' sung by Kelly and mimed by Williams. It's an uninspired sequence that thankfully never made it into the final cut.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



No comments: