I love baseball. And I love watching Gene Kelly dance! I recently had a chance to let those two loves come together as I watched the 1949 MGM musical Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
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Take Me Out to the Ballgame is a typical 1940's MGM musical with a fluffy nonsensical romantic plot, plenty of bright colors, and some wonderful song and dance numbers. A couple of things make this particular film notable: it was the last full film directed by Busby Berkeley for MGM, and it brings together the dynamic trio of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin, the three song and dance men who made a cinematic splash together in On the Town, another (and in many ways better) MGM film released the same year.
Although I grew up loving Kelly and Sinatra in both On the Town and Anchors Aweigh (made four years previously), for some reason I had never seen Take Me Out to the Ballgame in its entirety until the other evening. For me, this undiscovered movie was a treat, though it did take a while for me to warm up to the story which moves rather slowly at first.
It also took me a while to warm up to Kelly's character, Eddie O'Brien, the star shortstop for the fictional baseball team the Wolves. Kelly always tended to come across as self-assured and sometimes downright cocky, but usually his Irish twinkle and tender heart saved his characters from too much arrogance. In Take Me Out to the Ballgame, he seems to be playing a broader kind of comedy, and his womanizing (and frankly a bit sexist) attitude doesn't make him very appealing at the start. After a while, however, you realize the over-the-top nature of his character matches the overall tone of the film, which never takes itself seriously. And because he's such a bum at the beginning, it makes his romantic fall all the funnier when it comes.
Kelly's romantic opposite in the movie is Esther Williams. Williams was best known as MGM's balletic swimming star and was featured in lots of extravagant "aquatic musicals." Here she only gets one small swimming scene in a pool, and her only big musical number with Kelly, entitled "Baby Doll" was cut from the final film. One of the best features on the DVD extras is the restoration of a good part of this deleted number.
Williams plays K.C. Higgins. She's actually the team's new owner, a fact that none of the guys on the team (not just Eddie O'Brien) can quite believe. Considering that this 1949 film was playing homage a baseball era from much earlier in the century, their disbelief over a woman owner is (funnily!) one of the most realistic things about this very unrealistic story. What makes this even funnier is that K.C., who is of course gorgeous, is also a fine athlete. She really understands baseball and wants to have input into the managing of the team. She even goes so far as to come to batting practice and give the boys a few tips. O'Brien rolls his eyes over this, but scrawny second baseman Dennis Ryan (Frank Sinatra) falls head over heels for the pretty owner once he sees how brilliantly she can field a grounder.
Ryan and O'Brien are best friends who tour vaudeville together during the off-season. There's a good-natured rivalry between them for Miss Higgins' affections, though for a long time womanizing Eddie won't admit to anyone (especially not himself) that he's really fallen for her. And of course, since this is an MGM musical, it's never really in doubt who's going to end up with which girl.
With the exception of the title song, I had never heard any of the musical numbers performed. And while some were clever and well-done (especially "O'Brien to Ryan to Goldberg" where the three players, including Jules Munshin's Nat Goldberg, sing of their prowess in turning the double play) the movie's pace drags early on. It picks up considerably with the entrance of the incredibly energetic and slightly zany Betty Garrett, a talented singer and dancer who also appeared in a leading role in On the Town. For my money, Garrett is one of the best things going for this movie. She plays Shirley Delwyn, an aggressive baseball fan whose love of the game is eclipsed only by her adoration of second baseman Dennis Ryan. Garrett's comic timing is impeccable, and she and Sinatra play off each other brilliantly in the very funny song "It's Fate, Baby, It's Fate."
Sinatra's reluctance to accept Shirley's crush on him is complicated by his own adolescent crush on Miss Higgins. And the romantic entanglements get pretty convoluted as the plot spins its merry way through a pennant race and a brush with gamblers who want to make sure Eddie is out of the crucial game. This plot twist enables Kelly and Sinatra to do some fine comic acting. Along the way, Kelly also delivers the movie's best song and dance sequence, "The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick's Day." His Irish charm and amazing talent are both thick here, and Kelly fans will love every zestful minute.
The ending fizzles, but even the fizzling is funny. It's as though they all scratched their heads over how to end it and said "oh, let's go ahead and poke some fun at ourselves...why not?" Once the baseball plot wraps up, there's nothing left but the romance, and the film lets the entire wall between actors and audience collapse. Kelly, Sinatra, Williams and Garrett all show up for a dance number on a stage -- not as their characters, but as themselves -- and jokingly sing and tap their way through a finale where they explain to the audience (wink, wink!) that of course as their story ends Kelly gets Williams and Sinatra gets Garrett. They even throw in references to other MGM stars, including Judy Garland and Katherine Grayson, which really made me laugh because I'd just read on IMDB that both actresses were originally considered for Williams' part.
Besides the deleted "Baby Doll" number, the DVD includes another deleted song, Sinatra crooning "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" while strolling with Betty Garrett. It's quite lovely. Within the extras you'll also find the trailers for this movie, Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. A few biographical notes are included about the careers of Kelly and Sinatra, though no one else in the cast list is given a biography.
This is definitely not the best film in Kelly's career, or even the best Kelly and Sinatra collaboration, but for fans of either of them (or of the MGM musical in general) there is much to recommend. I wouldn't call it a home run, but this enjoyable musical comedy is a solid base hit.
If you like Kelly's films, you might be interested in the biography Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams
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