Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One of the Greatest Baseball Movies Ever: "Angels in the Outfield" (1951)

This 1951 film was the inspiration for the 1993 remake with Christopher Lloyd and Danny Glover. While the remake was not terrible, Hollywood shows us that they once knew how to do things right.

Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas) is the angry manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His team is losing, and he blows his top at the slightest provocation- from umpire calls he thinks are wrong to radio announcer Fred Bayles (Keenan Wynn), who rides Guffy's failures constantly. Home newspaper columnist Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh) is assigned to cover the Pirates' losing season from a new perspective. Things are going into the dumpster when Guffy hears the angel Gabriel one night after a game. The angels field a team of their own, compromised of great players who have passed on, and this team is helping the Pirates. Why the Pirates? The angels are answering the prayers of eight year old orphan Bridget (Donna Corcoran), who one day spots the angels at Forbes Field while on an orphanage field trip.

Soon, Jennifer and Guffy get involved, and Bridget works herself into Guffy's heart. Guffy starts following the angels' rules- no cussing and no fighting- rules Guffy finds hard to follow. The Pirates are suddenly in the run for the pennant, but Guffy loses his cool with Bayles once again and hits him. The angels pull their support, and Guffy and his team must rely on their collective talent. The final climactic game is classic.

Douglas is hilarious as the bachelor manager. Director Brown does a funny bit. Whenever Douglas is cursing, he speaks nonsense double talk, and Brown puts another vocal track of nonsense double talk on top of that. The effect is humorous, much like when Yosemite Sam would let loose with a string of "profanity" in the Warner Brothers cartoons.

Leigh is cute as the reporter, her veal recipe scene is very funny. Corcoran as Bridget is very good, without crossing over into saccharine emotions and over extending the heart strings. Wynn is great as always, he has a running gag involving his ruined bridge work after his fights with Douglas.

The film has some fun cameos from Joe DiMaggio, songwriter Harry Ruby, Ty Cobb, and Bing Crosby. Look for "Leave it to Beaver"'s Barbara Billingsley in a nonspeaking role as a hat check girl. "The Waltons"' Ellen Corby is here as an orphanage nun. Brown's direction is smart and understated. He wisely never shows the angels, and the audience gets to imagine what they look like from their description. To see the angels, you have to believe in them, maybe Brown is saying something bigger here.

The 1951 original "Angels in the Outfield" is wonderful, smart, and funny. I highly recommend it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.