Tuesday, 21 February, 11am – Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
NOTE: If you haven’t met my fellow viewer Pat, be sure to check out my previous reviews before embarking on this one.
Back into Gene’s ‘great’ period this morning with a musical that is criminally underrated. Pat thought he had heard of Busby Berkeley before and as I explained who he was and how Gene was diametrically opposed to his directorial style via the “back to 1930” story — Berkeley was instructing the camera to go “back, back, back” and Gene was heard to mutter “Yeah, back to 1930” — Pat barked rather abruptly: “Kelly should have known his place! There were other people around then, too. I mean, who did he think he was?” Hmm… Maybe this so-called “Astaire man” isn’t quite ready to join the Gene Appreciation Society just yet, or maybe this morning’s choice of music, Ritchie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’ (chosen, I’m quite certain, by cinema staff specifically to irritate the old curmudgeon), had put him in a worse mood than I thought.
Again, Gene’s performance here in Take Me Out to the Ballgame is one of his best, particularly in the ‘Umpire’ scene and in the dinner scene with the rest of the ball team, which is so good, in fact, that I can forgive him that woefully unfunny impression of a cooch dancer. Since Gene and Stanley Donen wrote the story, it’s reasonable to assume that the scene where Gene and Jules Munshin coach Frank in his attempted seduction of that big amphibious broad with shoulders like Johnny Weismuller is a conceit of Gene’s and a result of his affection for Cyrano de Bergerac. Whatever its genesis, it’s played with genuine comic flair and had the audience hooting with delight.
Jules Munshin adds another dimension to Gene and Frank’s obvious chemistry, his Jewish sense of humour a perfect foil for the Irish hoofer and the Italian crooner – quite a cosmopolitan trio when you think about it. The ‘O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg’ number is a constant source of joy and Jules shines with his violin/baseball anecdote. I gather he divides Gene fans and that’s understandable, I suppose, given that his type of humour could be perceived as a bit too broad for some and his dancing is barely average, but I have nothing but a deep and abiding affection for him. I feel exactly the same way about Betty Garrett, she is an irresistible little bundle of joyous energy and visibly sizzles in her scenes with Frank – the ‘It’s Fate’ number an obvious forerunner of On the Town’s ‘Come Up to My Place.’
It’s impossible to know for sure exactly how much of the film was directed by Berkeley and how much of it by Gene and Stanley, the latter standing in for the former on several occasions due to his personal problems. There certainly wasn’t much scope for Gene to push the boundaries of dance on film, but with one of the great American perennials and a simple Vaudevillian construct for the opening number, who’s complaining? Another Comden and Green script helps immensely and with the added caveat of their lyric. Also, how many songs can you name that reference college suicides and the age of sexual consent in certain southern states? They also provided Gene, possibly with the help of an uncredited Roger Edens, with the only opportunity he ever had to do an ‘Oirish’ number: ‘The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore,’ complete with Emerald green cocked ‘tile,’ shillelagh and noble expression while tin whistles, bodhrans, and bagpipes segue seamlessly in and out of The Wearing of the Green. His footwork in this number is mesmerising — clean, crisp and hinting at the greatness that was to follow.
As much as I adore this film there is one moment that just… Well, two words: Look away. And is that the guys who minced around with June Allyson in that lame medieval number in Words and Music (1948) on the team? The twins that pass Jules the bread at dinner, I mean. Pat was nonplussed at the end, I’m afraid to say, and quickly went off to complain about the temperature in the cinema, Baltic, while I popped into the toilet to whistle ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’
Oh, I read somewhere that Berkeley wanted to showcase Esther Williams in one of her usual ridiculously overblown water features, but Gene vetoed the idea… God bless that guy.
The entire series may be found here: Glasgow Film Festival.