Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
|October 9, 2012||Posted by Jess under Movies, Musicals|
Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, in the second of their three films together, play turn-of-the-century baseball players who spend the off-season traveling the country playing vaudeville houses. (This is what we call a concept that’s a little too high, folks. To wit: it makes no damn sense.) Take Me Out to the Ball Game came out four months before On the Town, but it feels like a pale copy of that more famous (and far superior) movie, since both also feature Jules Munshin as the third wheel on the Kelly-Sinatra star-wagon and the delightful Betty Garrett chasing a disinterested Frank. Which is a damn shame, because not only does it boast a generally fantastic cast, it was Busby Berkeley’s last film. It should have been great!
The movie opens with Frank and Gene performing the title song in a packed theatre, then racing down to Florida for spring training, where they discover that the team’s owner has died and left their team, the Wolves, to a young relative who turns out to be Esther Williams. She and Gene immediately dislike each other, mostly due to him sleazily hitting on her before he realizes who she is and then inexplicably being angry with her for it, but Frank falls madly in love once he sees her field a grounder. Serenading ensues, because what else are you going to do when you have Frank Sinatra in your movie? I assume the bobby soxers were swooning in the aisles.1
After some inconclusive love triangling between Gene, Frank, and Esther, the season begins. At the first game, Frank catches the eye of Betty Garrett, who immediately begins pursuing him aggressively because she is slightly less traditionally pretty than most 1940s movie stars and so it’s supposed to be funny that she has sexual desires, but also because she’s Betty Garrett and she does what she wants, Thor.2 The bulk of the rest of the movie is taken up with baseball montages and romantic hijinks, as Betty chases after Frank, who is pining after Esther, who has no time for this bullshit because she is running a damn baseball team, while Gene alternates between sleazing it up in her general direction and sulkily ignoring her. Eventually Frank realizes he and Esther have no chemistry while he and Betty have super hot makeouts, so he picks Betty, much to her delight.3
Since the only thing left for the movie to do is shove Gene and Esther together but there’s still 20 minutes to go, a subplot is abruptly shoehorned in wherein a nightclub owner who has bet against the Wolves decides to ensure that they lose the pennant by offering Gene a starring role at the club. So Gene’s too tired to play! So he quits! But then the nightclub owner tells Esther about the whole thing, so she fires Gene! But he plays anyway! So the nightclub owner sends his goons to “get” Gene! But Betty finds out! So she tells Frank! So he deliberately beans Gene with a hardball to keep him out of the game! But Gene recovers and they win the pennant! It’s all really stupid. Also, somewhere in there Gene and Esther decide they’re in love, long past the time when anyone else cares, including the audience.
Now, to be fair, plot is rarely the major selling point for a musical. Unfortunately, the musical numbers – which were heartbreakingly not staged by Berkeley – don’t have much to recommend them besides the obvious plus that they’re performed by one of the greatest singers and one of the greatest dancers who ever lived.4 Even when Frank and Gene are in their element, though, the material simply doesn’t live up to their potential. Frank’s serenade to Esther, “The Right Girl for Me,” is nice to listen to but eminently forgettable, and Gene’s tap solo, “The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day,” doesn’t have nearly the inventiveness and energy he was capable of – it’s just sort of long and dull, and I say this as someone who can watch tap dancing for hours. (Similarly, Esther’s one solo, a brief swim to the title song, feels sad and truncated without endless Busby Berkeley kaleidoscopes of bathing beauties surrounding her. BUSBY YOU HAD ONE JOB. ONE JOB!)
The boys’ duet on “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” just makes Frank’s lack of dancing ability painfully clear. The big ensemble production number, “Strictly USA,” though loud and aggressively patriotic, fails to use the frame in any really interesting ways (I’m guessing Gene didn’t choreograph this one, because his production numbers have always made tender love to the camera), and the lyrics are…well, bizarre, to say the least. (“Like a hot dog covered with mustard/ Or an amateur hometown play/ Like a circus parade/ Or lemonade/ It’s strictly USA.” The reprise at the end with the girls is kind of cute, though.) The best number in the film is definitely Betty’s “It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate,” but that’s mostly thanks to her selling it like it’s going out of style as she manhandles a baffled Frank, up to and including throwing him over her shoulders like a sack of potatoes. The worst, however, is undoubtedly “Yes, Indeedy,” Frank and Gene’s horrifying duet of womanizing where they joke, respectively, about a girl who supposedly killed herself, and making out with an eleven-year-old. Dear 1949: You can have your humor back, it is monstrous.
Finally, there’s “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg,” performed by Gene, Frank, and Jules Munshin in celebration of their double play skills. It’s mostly clowning set to music, but the ethnic component is fascinating. See, each singer gets a brief verse lauding him and an accompanying dance, and Gene (O’Brien) and Frank (Ryan) both get Irish jigs – but Jules (Goldberg) gets klezmer music, Jewish dancing, and a long bit about how his mother wanted him to play the violin. Jews were everywhere on and off the stage during the golden age of musicals, but they were passing like crazy, so to see an overt celebration of Jewish ethnic heritage – especially in a character who’s basically just a dudebro and not, like, a peddler or loan shark – was shocking and kind of amazing.5
Also fascinating: the subtextual queerness running through the film. It may seem odd if you only know the Sinatra of Guys and Dolls and From Here to Eternity and pretending to kill himself while on the phone with Ava Gardner and being totally mobbed up, but in the 40s when he was a 100-pound big-eared big-eyed teen idol, his stock in trade, at least in movies, was playing earnest, innocent and deeply ambivalent about girls. This movie wastes no time establishing this aspect of his character – as the boys head down to training, Gene extolling the virtues of chorus girls, Frank timidly offers that he’s started thinking about romance too, and gazes up at Gene with those big blue eyes. Gene suggests that they talk to some girls on the train, but Frank begs to go make friends with a group of men instead. He only falls for Esther when he sees that she can play ball like a boy, and his “pursuit” of her consists mainly of pantomiming catch with her. Meanwhile, as much as I love Betty Garrett and as much as part of me is charmed by their plotline, there’s no denying that Frank reacts with confusion, hostility, and straight-up headlong flight when she comes on to him, and his eventual decision to go for it with her is…sudden, to say the least.6 The oddest moment, however, is when Gene tells Esther a long story of how Frank is so in love with Esther that he kissed Gene in his sleep – and demonstrates by kissing her passionately. Gene is full of shit for about 120% of this movie, so I doubt the Sleepwalking Kiss of Sublimated Gay Longing actually occurred, but it’s a weird way to get someone in the mood for some hot fish-kissing action.7 Even talk of Frank’s heterosexual passions are filtered through the lens of homosocial/sexual encounters. I was going to say that I doubt the character was intended to be read that way – but some poking around Wikipedia informed me that Sinatra’s character in From Here to Eternity, the part he campaigned for and won an Oscar for, was a gay hustler in the book, so, uh, maybe all the queer subtext in Take Me Out to the Ball Game was actually intentional?8 Either way, it is blatant to 21st-century eyes, and kind of delightful.
I’ve been harsh on this movie, but the truth is I’m glad I watched it, because I love terrible classic musicals and I love these actors. Should you see this movie, though? Only if you are an absolutely diehard fan of one of the actors, or have a secret, insane goal of someday watching every movie musical ever made (ahem). (Or if you buy The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection on DVD, because that’s a pretty good deal.) In terms of the subtext…well, if you’re writing your dissertation on queer coding in the studio era I’d say it’s worth a screening; otherwise, just rewatch Some Like It Hot again.
Sorry, Frank and Gene. I love you guys, but this one wasn’t worth the price of admission for anyone less completionist than me.
- Esther, who has just finished singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” while dance-swimming because excuse you, she’s Esther Williams, is rocking a ruffly matching pale yellow bathing suit/bonnet/poncho number for the scene. I wish we still coordinated our swimming outfits from head to toe like this. ↩
- For proof that Betty is adorable and great, enjoy this. ↩
- By “makeouts,” of course, I mean what Anne Helen Petersen has dubbed “fish kissing”: “The mouth opens, the couple moves in, the lips touch, and then they just sit there, gills opening and closing for the allotted period of time.” It’s still pretty great. There was a reason Frank slept his way through Hollywood for three decades, and it wasn’t the voice. ↩
- Kelly’s not a bad singer himself, of course. The same can not be said for Sinatra’s dancing, but then Hollywood apparently loved pairing a triple threat with a non-dancing crooner, if the two stinkers Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby made together are any indication. ↩
- Conversely, Sinatra is obviously not playing Italian, and I’d love to know if that was just a quirk of the screenplay or because Italians were relatively recent immigrants in the 40s and not as assimilated as the previous century’s Irish and Jews. ↩
- Their romance in general is queered, of course, by the fact that she’s the aggressor, which was 100% coded as male in 40s movies. ↩
- Gene also spends a lot of time doing feminine/gay pantomime – you can see some in “Yes, Indeedy” and at the beginning of “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” – but I’m ignoring that because it’s pretty vile. Gene in general is pretty vile in this movie. As a lifelong, die-hard Singin’ in the Rain fan, one of the saddest things I’ve had to come to grips with as an adult is that Gene Kelly’s shtick was almost always “manipulative, womanizing asshole.” But then, this is the guy who originated the starring role in Pal Joey and took 30 years to apologize to Debbie Reynolds for treating her like crap on the set of Singin’ in the Rain, so I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised. ↩
- I still think proooobably not, but now I’d at least consider the possibility that someone was having a bit of fun. ↩