Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN: 25th Anniversary Blu-ray (Columbia 1992) Sony Home Entertainment

Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own was a film I really didn’t want to see in 1992. Back then, I was not particularly interested in ‘sports movies’; of a preconceived notion one had to be intimately acquainted with the sport being extolled to sufficiently be entertained by the experience of seeing it depicted in a movie. So a flick about all-girl’s professional baseball was way down on my list of ‘must see’ movies. That attitude, I now realize, was genuinely misguided. In fact, A League of Their Own is primarily responsible for a complete renaissance of that opinion, inspiring me to investigate other ‘baseball-themed’ sports movies like Pride of the Yankees (1942) and Field of Dreams (1992). Both have since become cherished additions to my movie-going experience, along with The Natural (1984), to say nothing of the countless other sports movies I have since come to know and love. That admiration has only continued to exponentially grow over the years. Reflecting on my ignorance then, I think part of my problem was that, like many, I had never heard of the All-American Girl’s Professional Baseball League. I mean, it was never even glossed over in any of my history classes, not even by some of my more outspoken feminist professors in university – and there were more than a handful of those preaching the anti-patriarchy gospel back then. So, the complete absence of any sort of acknowledgement for this watershed chapter in American sports history was something I really could not figure out – or forgive.
Truth told, the reason I fell in love with A League of Their Own the first time had absolutely nothing to do with extrapolating any such feminist interpretation of the movie. As is the case for me now, back then I worshiped movies for the stories they told. Tell me a good story and you have me hooked from main title to end credits. And A League of Their Own proved to be an exceptionally good story indeed, set during WWII; an epoch reflected upon ad nauseam in movies devoted to some harrowing heroism abroad but, and with very few exceptions, left a complete mystery about life on the home front (see also, 1943’s The Human Comedy and Selznick’s Since You Went Away, 1944, as exemplars). In hindsight, the other aspect of A League of Their Own to leave a warm soft spot in my heart (or perhaps, head) was its central character, Dottie Hinson (superbly played by Geena Davis as the young ‘dirt in the skirt’ scrapper/war bride; Lynn Cartwright as the sage grandmother with continued feistiness, even as her own dreams to play pro ball were sacrificed in order to preserve the integrity of her marriage and heal the competitive wounds of an oft-strained relationship with her younger sister, Kit Keller (the great and sadly underrated Lori Petty for the flashbacks; Kathleen Butler briefly seen in the emeritus years). We really must admire director, Penny Marshall for her daring to eschew the tried-and-true ‘aged’ makeup route, forcing youthful actors to interpret (often badly) what the ravages of time can do to a taut bod. And while lots of movies before and since A League of Their Own have cast two people to play one part, dividing the acting duties between youth playing young and the elderly being themselves, I do not think I have ever seen it done more convincingly than in this movie. I had to blink twice to assure myself Lynn Cartwright was not Geena Davis in the future; her looks, behavior and diction uncannily on point and alike.
In the years since A League of Their Own’s general release I have done a fair amount of reading on women’s baseball during the war and can more fully appreciate the exceptional level of verisimilitude achieved in Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s screenplay (cribbing from a story idea by Kim Wilson and Kelly Candaele); itself an engrossing fictionalized ensemble piece with poignant, true-to-life reflections to touch upon not only the emotional strength of these trail-blazing ladies, but also with an astute, subtle social commentary on the sexual/racial politics of these more conservative times. It really is a tightrope walk. A League of Their Own neither preaches to the choir nor ever becomes heavy-handed in its desire to teach the rest of us ‘a life lesson’. Personally, I have grown exceptionally weary of today’s Hollywood beating to death a good yarn with their liberalized mantras front and center, indoctrinating instead of entertaining the audience. But A League of Their Own makes its points and it does so under the radar. That’s grand. Better still, Bill Groom’s production design and Tim Galvin’s art direction (ably abetted by Miroslav Ondrícek’s cinematography) get the ‘period look’ of the piece just right. A League of Their Own has the yellowed gravitas of a vintage Kodachrome memory excised from those war years, but with a decidedly fresh sense of humor about itself; decidedly, not like a movie desperately trying to convince us of its authenticity. And lest we forget that it takes more than vintage accoutrements neatly rearranged within the frame to give meaning, depth and purpose to the time frame. Yet from beginning to end, what’s here has that ‘lived in’ appeal of your grandmother’s favorite memory; very homey, richly textured and rewarding.
Weaving a seamless tapestry of comedy, drama, history and sentiment is never as easy as it appears, and, at times A League of Their Own veers dangerously close to losing its emotional center. The trick and the wonderment is it remains true, not just to its characters, but also the period. The movie works on virtually every artistic level one may wish to ascribe it, not the least for its cleverly executed balancing act between the ‘hearty laugh’ and the ‘good cry’. Some might call this a shameless manipulation of sentimentality run amuck. Respectfully, I disagree. A League of Their Own hails as exceptional movie-making craftsmanship, perpetually to tickle the fancy as it effortlessly massages the heart into rose-colored yearnings for that simpler time and place when life had a more even cadence.  There is an all-pervading, corn-fed, bucolic ‘feel good’ at play here; joyously impervious to even the obtrusively contemporary slant lent ‘All-the-way’ Mae Mordabito, a character transparently emulated by Madonna. The picture has other stars to account for: Tom Hanks as the crusty but benign, former all-star, now drunkard cum manager of the Rockford Peaches; Jimmy Dugan, and Rosie O’Donnell (typecast as loudmouth butch 3rd base, Doris Murphy).  Yet in hindsight, A League of Their Own’s greatest innings derive not necessarily from these bigger names in its batting roster, but from the participation of character actresses like Tracy Reiner (Betty ‘Spaghetti’ Horn), Megan Cavanagh (wallflower Marla Hooch), Anne Ramsey (pin-up Helen Haley), Bitty Schram (Evelyn Gardner) and Ann Cusack (Shirley Baker), whose names meant absolutely nothing to me back in 1992, and – regrettably – have rarely been given such opportunities to make as big a splash elsewhere since.
We begin in 1988 with a very reticent Dottie Hinson (Lynn Cartwright) being prodded by her daughter to attend the induction of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. It’s been so long since Dottie played ball. She is not even sure anyone will remember her. Still, her passion for the sport never died, even after retirement these many years. And Dottie Hinson was huge back in 1944; renowned as the ‘Queen of Diamonds’ and making the cover of LIFE magazine for her impromptu ‘split’ save. So, off Dottie goes; surprised, in fact, when former teammates Mae (Eunice Anderson), Doris (Vera Johnson) and Marla (Patricia Wilson) not only recognize, but welcome her back into the fold with open arms.  Their camaraderie rekindles the sights and sounds of a different time. We regress with Dottie back in time to 1943 – the height of the war.
Recently married, Dottie (now played by Geena Davis), whose husband, Bob (Bill Pullman) is off fighting in Europe, and her younger sister, tomboy Kit (Lori Petti) live on their parent’s dairy farm in Oregon. They play baseball in their spare time for a local women’s league. Although both are passionate about the sport, Dottie is the true believer with the innate talent. Baseball is in her blood. Still, Kit has heart. Moreover, she desperately wants a different life for herself. Kit realizes that, left to her own accord on this bucolic backdrop, she will always live in the shadow of her older sister. Dottie is prettier, more amiable and the better all-around athlete. But when candy bar magnate and Chicago Cubs owner, Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) decides to rescue major league baseball from a hiatus by creating an all-women’s pro league to sub-in for the men, he orders promoter, Ira Lowenstein (David Strathairn) and agent, Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) to seek out the best of the best and quickly sign them to contracts for the duration of the war.
The irascible Capadino takes an immediate interest in Dottie and why not? She is a hell of a catcher, a solid pinch hitter and a real ‘dolly’ – exactly the sort of ‘poster girl’ Harvey is looking to promote. Unfortunately, Dottie politely turns Capadino down. That is, until Kit begs her to reconsider. Dottie tells Capadino she’ll sign, but only if Kit can play too. Capadino is not particularly interested in Kit, but reluctantly agrees to Dottie’s terms. On route to basic training Capadino and his new recruits stop to scout another young hopeful, Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh); a phenomenal switch-hitter/slugger who unfortunately has about as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville.  Insulted by Capadino’s immediate dismissal of Hooch solely on the basis of her ‘plain Jane’ looks, Kit and Dottie refuse to budge until Marla is also signed, leaving Capadino no choice but to once again cave in to their demands.
Arriving at Wrigley Field for basic training, the girls are introduced to other hopefuls; tough talking taxi dancer, Mae Mordabito (Madonna), her best friend, Doris Murphy (Rosie O'Donnell), right fielder, Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram), illiterate left fielder, Shirley Baker (Ann Cusack), left fielder Betty ‘Spaghetti’ Horn (Tracy Reiner) and former beauty queen turned pitcher, Ellen Sue Gotlander (Freddie Simpson). After some very intense tryouts the ladies, along with Kit, Dottie and Marla, are all drafted into the Rockford Peaches, managed by former Cubs all-star, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks). Unfortunately, Dugan, who proudly declares women are something you sleep with - not coach - is a very bitter man. Once the headliner, Dugan blew out his knee during a drunken brawl; an injury that forced him into early retirement. He has since turned to the bottle to medicate his depression and insecurities. Unable to reconcile his current plight with those more lofty ambitions and failed dreams, Dugan is condescending to the women at first and treats his coaching duties with general disdain, forcing Dottie to take on most of his responsibilities to keep the morale high among her fellow team members. Dugan and Dottie frequently clash over game-time decisions, but gradually a mutual respect begins to develop between these two adversaries.   
Despite Harvey’s high hopes, the initial debut of the AAGPBL garners little public attention. Attendance is so low the owners begin to grumble about the league being a waste of both their time and money. Determined to prove everyone wrong, Lowenstein informs the Peaches he has brought in a LIFE magazine photographer to craft a story about women’s baseball and encourages the team to do ‘something spectacular’ to get his attention. Hence, when a pop fly goes behind home plate, Dottie obliges Lowenstein’s request by catching it while doing a dramatic split. The photo is taken and generates a national craze for women’s baseball. Kit, who had hoped a change of venue – from farm to baseball diamond - would allow her to step away from Dottie’s shadow and find her own way in life, quickly realizes Dottie has already become Rockford’s star. Resenting her sister’s success, Kit confronts Dottie; the two striking a bitter sibling rivalry that boils over after Jimmy pulls Kit for a relief pitcher on Dottie's advice. Later, Dottie informs Lowenstein she has decided to quit the league in order to salvage her relationship with Kit. Instead, Lowenstein arranges a trade. Kit is sent to the Racine Belles.
The middle act of A League of Their Own diverges ever so slightly from Dottie and Kit’s story and becomes a more ensemble piece. We learn a little about the other players, just enough to make each one more memorable. Evelyn informs Dugan her husband is forcing her to take their son, Stillwell (Justin Schiller) on tour with the team. The child turns out to be a handful, trying both Dugan and the team’s patience. Marla meets her unlikely soul mate, Nelson (Alan Wilder) after becoming intoxicated at a roadhouse. This ‘cute meet’ is, in fact, one of the movie’s most delightful vignettes; Mae spiking the team’s chaperone, Miss Cuthbert’s (Pauline Brailsford) drink to ensure her confinement while the girls sneak off to partake of some hot swing music, cool brews and chance rendezvous with amiable men on leave. Learning of their disappearance, Miss Cuthbert, half recovered, is on her way to turn the girls out into the street. Barring the rules of the league, they are not allowed to fraternize with men after hours. Dottie beats Cuthbert to the roadhouse, driven in a jalopy by an underage ‘would be’ lady’s man (played by fifteen year old Ryan Olsen). “Hey, doll body,” the kid suggests, “How about you and me get in the backseat and you make a man out of me.” “Why don’t I just slap you around for a bit?” Dottie smarts back, to which the kid playfully inquiries, “Can’t we do both?”
Sometime later, Betty is informed her husband has been killed in action. Dottie suffers a terrible bout of anxiety, quelled when Bob suddenly arrives to collect his wife at the team’s boarding house, wounded but otherwise out of service for the duration of the war. The next morning, Dottie tells Dugan she is quitting the league to return to Oregon with Bob; a decision he is certain she will live to regret. As the World Series commences, it becomes clear the Rockford Peaches will be pitted against the Racine Belles and Dottie, having reconsidered her love of the game with Bob, unexpectedly rejoins the team for this penultimate showdown. The reunion, however, becomes even more personal, exacerbating Dottie and Kit’s sibling rivalry. The Peaches and the Belles square off. Dottie tells Ellen Sue about Kit's fatal weakness for high fastballs. But after predictably missing the first two pitches, Kit surprises everyone by belting a line drive that sends the Peaches into a game-changing frenzy. Ignoring all stop signals from her teammates, Kit rounds third and heads for home plate. It is up to Dottie to tag her sister out and win the game. It remains unclear whether Kit legitimately conquers the field by slamming into Dottie and dislodging the ball from her glove, or whether Dottie has decided to throw the game by dropping the ball on purpose.  Regardless, Racine wins the World Series and Dottie leaves the field with a sense of pride. Kit has at last been afforded her moment in the spotlight. 
We return to the present with Dottie and her teammates sharing a sentimental tour of the museum exhibit in Cooperstown dedicated to their former glories. Dottie is reunited with Stilwell (Mark Holton) who informs her that his mother, Evelyn has since passed away. He has come to Cooperstown to honor her memory. Ellen Sue strikes up an impromptu rendition of the team’s pep song and as everyone joins in Dottie and Kit are reunited in a reconciliation that is truly heartfelt. Dottie is at last able to admit, if only to herself, just how precious those years she spent with the league were. In these penultimate moments, A League of Their Own achieves one of its primary objectives; the good cry. But until this shameless tear-jerker of a movie-land moment, much of it plays like a flag-waving patriotic comedy of errors; a sort of ‘Bad News Bears’ for adults with a backdrop of a sisterly bonded feminism dressed up in a sports motif. This isn’t as terrible as it sounds. In fact, despite its rather discernible stereotypes and the obviousness in some of its clichéd comedy, A League of Their Own consistently hits one out of the park with an enviable batting average.
Part of the film’s success is heavily anchored in its casting decisions. Virtually everyone is a character’s character – imbued with memorable (if oft’ cartoonish) traits that make them easily identifiable and even more readily loveable and endearing for the audience: Tom Hanks’ forgivable slob, Geena Davis’ stern sass, and Madonna, playing to her pop iconography as the gal whose racked up almost as many bedpost notches off the field as innings on; Rosie O’Donnell’s smart-mouthed sidekick and Lori Petty’s willful spitfire adding to the milieu and mileage director, Penny Marshall gets from her highly sentimentalized and glowing tribute. These performers unequivocally make A League of Their Own the stellar ensemble piece that it is, full of meaningful interactions and sincerity that lingers in our hearts and minds long after the houselights have come up. Penny Marshall’s direction should also be cited; slick and stylish – making its points and moving alone without a moment’s drag or lost opportunity. Miroslav Ondricek’s cinematography perfectly visualizes the vintage look of wartime America while Hans Zimmer’s noteworthy score recreates a lush orchestral palette that elevates the emotional content of the story. In the final analysis, A League of Their Own is precisely the sort of ‘bases loaded’ crowd-pleaser Hollywood doesn’t seem to make – or even want to make – anymore; not because it is a perfect movie, but because it has so obviously been made by people working in front of and behind the camera who have women’s baseball coursing through the very fiber of their souls. 
Batter up, and play ball…again! I am still trying to fathom the executive logic behind this 25th Anniversary Blu-ray release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, particularly since there was absolutely nothing wrong with their 20th Anniversary Blu-ray from five years ago. Herein, we get the very same immaculate transfer in 1080p. As with its predecessor, this Blu-ray exhibits impressive colors that are vibrant and occasionally eye-popping. Good solid contrast levels, deep blacks and lifelike skin tones reveal an impressive amount of fine detail and film grain. There are several brief shots that appear slightly softer than anticipated, but otherwise this is a gorgeous hi-def transfer that will surely delight those who have had to contend with the rather unimpressive DVD incarnations over the years. The 5.1 DTS audio is equally identical as before. There’s an impressive clarity. Dialogue sounds extremely natural and the music tracks soar and envelope.
Extras are all carry overs from the DVD release and include a director and cast audio commentary, an extensive gallery of deleted scenes, Madonna’s ‘This Used to be My Playground’ music video and ‘Nine Memorable Innings’ – a nearly hour long documentary divided into 11 featurettes that effectively covers reflections on the making of the film. For the 25th Anniversary, Sony has added a retrospective clocking in ad a miserly 12 minutes: Bentonville, Baseball & The Enduring Legacy of A League of Their Own – in HD, and also the movie’s original trailer, again in HD. Ho-hum. It would have been nice to see Sony go the extra mile (for which they are oft known and appreciated) and remaster the image in 4K with a true 4K and Blu-ray release in tandem. No soap, alas. Bottom line: A League of Their Own is a great movie. But if you already own the 20th Anniversary, pass on this inning and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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