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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

Having lived in the States during my formative years, I do not share the British prejudice against American baseball movies. At least I understand the game (which people here dismiss as girly game "rounders") which is more than I can say about American football.



In fact there have been any number of memorable films over the years taking baseball as their theme, from some rather super biopics through some gentle comedies like this one. It benefits from basing the story on a real team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, although as the blurb at the beginning states, it could be the story of any team. They have been having a bad losing streak and are languishing at the bottom of their league, not helped by the fact that the players are at loggerheads with their acerbic manager played by Paul Douglas. He is a foul-mouthed bully -- but unlike more modern movies his language is carefully muddled on the soundtrack which makes this a suitable fantasy for all ages -- and he has a violent relationship with baiting sports broadcaster Keenan Wynn. One evening after another losing game, he goes out on the pitch to look for his lost 'lucky charm' when he is addressed by a voice from above (a never-seen James Whitmore) offering angelic help if he can mend his ways. It seems that a young 8-year old girl at the local orphanage run by Spring Byington has been praying for the team. Meanwhile Janet Leigh playing a womens' writer on the local newspaper attends a game to give the female prospective when she learns that the youngster claims to have seen angels on the field.



The story escalates especially as the team begins winning games and moving up towards the pennant, and the growing relationship between Douglas and the young girl on the one hand, the girl and Leigh on another, and Douglas and Leigh on the third (although no obvious romance is suggested since he is much, much older than she) fills out the story. There are some lovely cameos from baseball legends Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb commenting on the likelihood of angels, along with one from Bing Crosby on the golf course. With one important game left to play, Douglas again gets into a fistfight with Wynn and the angels threaten to desert him; it is all down to Douglas and his revised relationship with his players to save the day, even to his allowing has-been pitcher and erstwhile friend Bruce Bennett to pitch his last game. That's the chokey bit of the film which sits nicely with the various chuckles. There's a lot more to savour when the skeptics at Douglas' suitability hearing and even the crusty Keenan find themselves forced to admit that perhaps angels really do exist.



The story was remade by Disney with the same title in 1994 with Samuel L. Jackson as the potty-mouthed coach and Christopher Lloyd as the now visible angel. It's a pleasant enough movie, but really not quite in the same family-friendly league mixed with genuine baseball action. And being a latter-day remake, the script has the Bennett character due to die because he has been smoking over the years! Lord save us from this sort of nannyish moralising.
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