Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
In the summer of 1946, Gene Kelly and his dance collaborator Stanley Donen got the idea for a musical about baseball set at the turn of the century. They sold their story to MGM and began planning a film with producer Arthur Freed that they hoped would star Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Leo Durocher, the former player and current Brooklyn Dodgers manager who was famous for his flashy temper. But that plan was changed fairly quickly in just the first of many replacements and rewrites along this movie’s winding road to theaters.
Durocher’s Irish character “Shaughnessy” was changed to “Goldberg” when Durocher was replaced by Jules Munshin. And Donen, who had hoped to make the jump from choreographer to director, was disappointed when MGM assigned veteran Busby Berkeley to direct, instead.
It was Berkeley’s first film as director since 1946’s Cinderella Jones (which had actually been filmed in 1944), and it would also be his last. After this film, he switched to choreography and musical number direction. He was active in films until 1962, and his work included some of Esther Williams’ most extraordinary water ballets in Easy to Love (1953) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).
Donen would soon mimic Berkeley’s switch from director to choreographer but in the opposite direction. Donen worked on the choreography for this film with Kelly, but he would finally get his chance to direct with their next film, On the Town (1949). He would go on to direct several incredible films, including Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Funny Face (1957), and Charade (1963), among many others.
Apparently, no one was very happy with that casting, though Williams was delighted to be working with Sinatra. She had been a fan for years, and they became good friends while making this movie. But Williams had been the indisputable star in a series of big musicals starting with Bathing Beauty (1944), so she wasn’t thrilled to step into a movie where she was basically the third wheel to Kelly and Sinatra. Plus, Williams was famous for her work in the pool, not her dancing or singing ability, and this film didn’t showcase her talents. After all, a part written for virtuosic singers like Grayson and Garland is very different than Williams’ typical roles.
Here is our trio way back in 1944. Sinatra and Kelly were filming Anchors Aweigh (1945) when Bathing Beauty was released in the summer of 1944. They were photographed hanging around with some publicity for Williams’ first big movie.
More than the talent factor though, Williams was a very different “type” than Grayson or Garland. For one thing, those ladies were petite and projected a sweet vulnerability on the screen that worked well with Kelly’s confident swagger. But Williams was tall (taller than Kelly by a few inches, which he hated!) and athletic, and she couldn’t play meek and fragile if she tried. Star image is powerful, and Williams’ persona was built on her physical strength, stature, and confidence. She wasn’t “cute” so it’s understandable that a role designed for Garland didn’t quite fit.
Anyway, the script was rewritten when Williams was cast and even expanded to include a token and totally incongruous swimming scene, but the movie still feels slightly off, or at least the Kelly/Williams romance does. After all, Williams didn’t want to make this movie, and Kelly really didn’t want her to, either.
He hated that she was taller (I’ll be paying attention to the various ways he makes her appear shorter in this film), and he was disappointed not to be working with a true song and dance gal. Williams was different from Kelly’s first choices for the part, and as Williams recalled in her autobiography, Kelly “never let me forget that in this case he thought ‘different’ meant ‘not in his league.'” For example, Williams felt clumsy in the dance numbers, which isn’t unsurprising because she wasn’t a trained dancer. She remembered that Kelly “was nothing less than a tyrant behind the scenes–at least with me. He had to see that I was doing the best I could–and suffering through it.”
According to Williams, Kelly and Donen did not try to hide their disappointment at Williams’ casting, and they made the filming of this movie miserable for the mermaid. She became the “butt of their jokes,” and they didn’t shy away from expressing their disdain for the swimming musicals that had made Williams a star.
So, although I hate to admit it, this movie is not as enjoyable as I want it to be. Despite the stellar cast and behind the scenes crew, something doesn’t click. Williams and Kelly have zero chemistry, and in fact a too believable antipathy. Betty Garrett and Sinatra are adorable but don’t get enough screen time, and mostly Gene Kelly tries to turn it into a solo act despite the (literal) team theme.
The movie is structured around a double romance plot, which was a very typical formula for the time. A lot of movies, particularly musicals, feature two girls and two guys who shuffle around until they find their match (see Summer Stock, Texas Carnival, Easter Parade, Two Weeks with Love, Royal Wedding, Springtime in the Rockies, etc.) Some films even add another pair to the mix to make it a gang of six: see Hit the Deck and On the Town, for example.
But this film sticks with four principals with Jules Munshin thrown in for some musical numbers. But the poor guy doesn’t end up with a lady.
Plenty of songs enliven the fairly thin plot, though the score that ends up in the film was actually the second one written for the movie. The first effort was composed by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane, but it was scrapped when the first script was thrown out (probably when Williams was cast). Harry Tugend wrote the new screenplay and the songwriting duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green (behind Singin’ in the Rain, Good News, The Band Wagon, and My Sister Eileen) composed a new score.
To the film! It’s the turn of the century. We open on spring training for the world champion Wolves. But they’re missing two of their most famous players, Dennis Ryan (Frank Sinatra) and Eddie O’Brien (Gene Kelly). Dennis and Eddie spend their winters on the vaudeville circuit, and this year they’re late returning to baseball. (Just think about that: can you imagine if Manny Machado and Mike Trout had a club act in Vegas during the off season? Ridiculous!)
Eddie and Dennis capitalize on their baseball fame to help their vaudeville act; they perform “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” (a song composed in 1908 and a standard by this point).
Fun fact: this was Kelly and Sinatra’s second of three films together. They first starred in Anchors Aweigh (1945) with Kathryn Grayson, and they would make On the Town (1949) shortly after Ball Game.
After the number, we learn that Eddie loves performing and would rather be a vaudeville star than play baseball, but Dennis is eager to return to the field. Sinatra plays his typical shy, dorky character in this film opposite the typical brash, womanizing Kelly character. Skinny Sinatra was a long way from his legendary smooth persona at this point in his career.
The pair finally make their way to Sarasota, Florida where the team is delighted to see them. Apparently it’s fine to show up late to spring training if you arrive with a song!
But things turn sour when the Wolves learns that their owner died and bequeathed the team to a distant relative named KC Higgins. Higgins is heading to Sarasota and hopes to be very involved with the Wolves. The team is not pleased to learn that a stranger will be “interfering.”
The manager, Slappy (Tom Dugan), goes to the train station to meet KC Higgins, but he misses her because he assumes KC is a man. But it’s really Esther Williams, though he doesn’t realize it until he sees the initials on her bag.
So Miss Higgins makes her way to the team hotel alone. Once there, almost all of the players try to hit on her, though alpha male Eddie wins the day. Remember, none of the players know that this lovely lady is their team owner! Eddie makes a fool of himself and KC, now revealed to be Katherine, doesn’t forget his patronizing behavior.
Notice how Kelly sits on his heels on the sofa so that he looks taller than Williams! And I wouldn’t be surprised if a box or lifts were used to make him taller in scenes where we can’t see their feet. Her height was a real issue for Kelly, and Williams remembered that during filming she “wore flat shoes and curved my spine so deeply it felt like I had scoliosis, but still it didn’t work. Kelly just looked at me as though I was hopeless.”
Eddie didn’t learn his lesson: he is as much of a condescending jerk to Katherine when she shows up at practice the next day. But she shows him that she knows baseball by giving him some batting pointers. And a knock on the head.
Then she wows them all by fielding a grounder on her way out of the stadium. Well done, Katherine! You can watch the scene here. Imagine how differently it would have been with Judy Garland instead of Williams! Garland would get adorably flustered at Eddie’s inappropriate attentions, and then try to reject him in a spunky way. But Williams never loses her cool nor her confidence, so the “cuteness” of the scene just comes across as Eddie being a sexist jerk. Plus, it’s obvious that Katherine could flatten Eddie if she wanted to, so any domination Eddie attempts seems silly.
I know I’m biased, but I find Kelly’s character very unlikeable in this movie. He continues to harass and flirt inappropriately with Katherine even after he knows who she is. The other players come to respect her and accept her presence, but he is constantly fighting her. It comes off as childish and unsympathetic. And although Kelly is always a big, bold presence onscreen, he overplays everything in this film even more than usual, so it’s hard to see him as a person and not a clown.
Anyway, later on Eddie, Dennis, and Nat Goldberg (Jules Munshin) enliven the evening meal with a performance extolling their famous double play, “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg.” This might just be me, but when the characters sing in this movie it sounds tinny, as though you can hear the metallic microphone humming. It seems strongest with Sinatra–maybe something was slightly off during the recording process.
You can watch it here:
That evening, Eddie wants to go out on the town with some ladies, but the team has a strict curfew during training, and the players get fined $50 if they’re caught breaking it. While Eddie whines about this, he notices Katherine taking a swim in the hotel pool. She’s stunning in this obligatory swimming scene.
Dennis is particularly taken with her, so Nat and Eddie encourage him to talk to her. If they can convince Dennis to take her on a date, they can turn it into a triple date and evade curfew that way! Surely the team’s owner won’t enforce curfew if she’s partying with them! They push dear, shy, uncertain Dennis into saying hello.
Then he sings to her. Good thing she’s wearing such an historically accurate turn-of-the-century bathing suit! Kidding, it’s completely anachronistic.
Katherine is flattered but not really interested in him romantically, so she says goodnight and returns to her room to prepare for bed. So pretty!
But Eddie really wants to go out, so he climbs up to her balcony and tries to woo her while Dennis and Nat watch.
He thinks he’s doing a great job, but she sends him away. Then she rubs salt in his wounded pride by telling him how flattered she is that he broke curfew to come talk to her. She knows he won’t mind the $50 fine! Ha! She’s not going to fall for his oily routine. She knew exactly what he was doing.
So now he’s even madder. Meanwhile, spring training continues. There is a running joke about how skinny Dennis is and how he struggles to gain weight despite eating everything in sight. Poor Frank!
Before the opening game, O’Brien, Ryan, and Goldberg perform a comic skit to the delight of the crowd. Fun fact: The New York Times review of the movie in 1949 claimed that the clowning is inspired by Nick Altrock and Al Schacht. The pair were former players-turned-coaches in the teens and 1920s, and they entertained crowds with their antics on the field in the days before mascots. They also performed in vaudeville.
One fan is more delighted than anyone at the Wolves’ skit, though–yes, after nearly forty minutes of the movie, we’re finally going to meet Betty Garrett‘s character!
Her name is Shirley and she is quite taken by skinny Dennis…
During the game, Katherine gets mad at Eddie for heckling the umpire. She asks all the players to be polite and gentlemanly, which infuriates him. So he watches smugly when Katherine loses her temper at a questionable call and comes running onto the field to argue with the ump. It’s pretty great. She has to be dragged off the field!
The Wolves win, and after the game Shirley finds Dennis. She is determined to make him love her, so she chases him all over the stadium singing, “It’s Fate, Baby, it’s Fate.” Her efforts overwhelm the shy little guy.
Fun fact: a 1948 article in Parade stated that $38,000 of the film’s $2 million budget was spent on this scene. It was extremely complicated: it took two months to plan despite its short duration, and sixty crew members were on hand to capture the footage. During filming, the pre-recorded track was blared over the stadium loudspeakers so Sinatra and Garrett could lip synch. You can watch it here.
The team takes a break mid-season to attend a clambake. Naturally, Shirley is there chasing Dennis, and Katherine and Eddie continue their mutual push-pull between dislike and attraction.
You can watch the big number from the party here. Notice how the footage at the very end seems to have been rewound a few frames and played again?
This wasn’t the last film it shows up in: you can also see it briefly in The Belle of New York (1952):
And I think the blue one (second from bottom on the stairs) is Judy Garland’s dress from the same movie:
All of these are MGM films, so I imagine costume designer Helen Rose, who took charge of Ball Game as well as those other films, sent a wardrobe assistant to find vaguely turn-of-the-century dresses to clothe extras in MGM’s enormous collection. And that’s how the same costumes turn up in different films. Speaking of different films–look who stopped by! It’s Elizabeth Taylor in her Little Women (1949) costume chatting with Sinatra and Kelly!
Anyway, after the big number, Eddie takes Katharine aside and kisses her! She’s okay with it until Nat admits that Eddie had bet them he could kiss her that night.
She’s humiliated and furious. And also confused, because it was a very good kiss! So she kisses Dennis to see how that feels, and there’s “no kick.” Oh, dear. Strangely, Eddie looks sad when he sees her kissing Dennis. Perhaps he has real feelings for her after all.
Meanwhile, Katherine’s kiss is very confusing for Dennis because he thought he liked her. So he tries a kiss with Shirley, and boom! Kick!
Now our couples are mostly set. Fun fact: there was originally going to be a song by Dennis at the clambake called “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, II. Sinatra recorded the song, and he and Garrett shot the scene. But it was eventually cut from the film, though you can watch it here.
This poor song could not catch a break. It was written for Oklahoma!, but cut from the 1943 stage musical. Then it made another almost-appearance in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) sung by Judy Garland. You can listen to that version here even though it was cut from the film. Nowadays, the song sometimes shows up in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
Instead of a romantic song between Shirley and Dennis, we get Kelly in an Irish-themed solo that stretches on for a wild five minutes. Never forget, this is Gene Kelly’s movie! You can watch it here.
Joe Morgan (Edward Arnold) is the host of the clambake and also a mobster of sorts. We learn that he has bet against the Wolves to win the Championship even though they are clearly the best team. As he watches Eddie dance, he gets an idea of how to sabotage the Wolves–he’ll distract Eddie with dreams of show business!
Joe offers Eddie the starring role in the floor show of a nightclub he’s opening. Eddie is delighted until Joe explains that he needs him to start rehearsals right away. But he can’t start before the baseball season is over, right? But Joe needs him right away. So they work out a deal: Eddie will secretly rehearse at night and play baseball during the day. Perfect!
Until Eddie starts making mistakes on the field because he is so exhausted.
Fun fact: apparently Sinatra was partying pretty hard at night during production of this film, and he was worried that MGM was going to throw him off the picture if he kept showing up a little worse for wear.
He expressed his fears to Williams, and in her autobiography she remembers telling him, “Take a look at the dailies. Your voice sounds wonderful. You’re even matching Gene step-for-step in the dance numbers. So you’re painting the town after work, but it’s not affecting what you do on film.” Williams recalled that Sinatra didn’t forget her support, and “thereafter I was the beneficiary of his legendary loyalty to his friends. Whenever I saw him perform, I sat at ringside with my elbow on the stage.”
Anyway, unlike Sinatra, Eddie’s late night activities do affect his day job. No one can explain his sudden slump, but the manager thinks it’s because Eddie is lovesick about Katherine. He suggests that she spend some time with him to make him feel better, and she is delighted to try. She’s got a crush on him. Inexplicable, but necessary for the plot.
They go off in a quiet corner and discuss their feelings. Quickly (shockingly so!), they discover they’re in love! Hurray!
Notice how Kelly is sitting on his heel and then practically climbing on top of Williams as they kiss so that he looks taller!
As soon as they have expressed their love, Joe and his goons arrive and tell Katherine that Joe has betrayed the team by rehearsing at night. She is disgusted and kicks him off the team immediately.
But without Eddie, the Wolves play even worse than before. Joe’s plan has worked perfectly!
Their race for the pennant seems lost. But then Eddie gets an idea to rescue the Wolves. He goes to the final championship game and gets a bunch of kids to chant his name. The crowd takes up the call and soon the whole stadium is shouting for Eddie.
He appears in the midst of this welcoming chaos and the team is ecstatic to see him. Even Katherine relents and allows him to suit up. But Joe isn’t going to let Eddie ruin his plans!
Shirley hears him tell his goons to take Eddie out, and she runs to tell Dennis just before they perform their usual skit.
Now Dennis has a choice: let Eddie take his chances with Joe’s scary henchmen or keep Eddie out of the game himself. He chooses the latter and replaces the soft ball they usually use in their skit with a real baseball. Then he pelts Eddie in the head. Down he goes.
Eddie is taken to the locker room, but two of Joe’s guys pretend to be doctors and just keep knocking him out every time he regains consciousness. But don’t underestimate Shirley! She recognizes the goons and with Katherine’s help they rouse the Wolves who throw the guys out and save Eddie.
But when Eddie realizes that Dennis hit him with the ball on purpose, he is furious. But Dennis is on base, so Eddie takes all of his anger and hits a home run. He doesn’t seem to care about that, though; all he wants to do is catch up with Dennis and punch him. They fly around the bases, which wins the game and the pennant. Shirley and Katherine sprint behind to try and break up the fight.
It’s only when the crowd lifts the players up on their shoulders that Eddie realizes they won! Plus, the police arrest Joe and his gang.
Cut to a strange end where the actors break character and perform as themselves. Notice how Esther Williams is almost never standing up straight. Nice choreography, Gene.
They get meta with references to other MGM stars; for example, Gene Kelly sings about Judy Garland and Sinatra references Kathryn Grayson. In retaliation, Garrett mentions Bing Crosby, and Williams throws in Fred Astaire. It would be cuter, but it hits a little close to home if one knows about the behind the scenes drama between Williams and Kelly…
Bosley Crowther’s review of the film in The New York Times noted that it’s not really a baseball movie: “The studio has simply made this picture a rowdy-dow musical show featuring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra—who, incidentally, play a little ball. And ‘incidentally’ is the right word, for the brand of swat played in this film is strictly and clearly inferior to the dancing and singing done in it.”
He wrote that the plot isn’t great, and the best moments are the musical numbers: “Mr. Sinatra’s warbling of ‘She’s the Right Girl for Me,’ sung to a sodden Miss Williams who has just jumped out of a swimming pool to lend an ear, is perhaps the most melodic, while a great deal of pep has been crammed into a big Busby Berkeley production number, done to ‘Strictly U. S. A.'”
It must have been some vindication for Williams to read that Crowther enjoyed her performance, “As for the beautiful Miss Williams and her nominal contribution to the plot, she is much more endurable than it is. You can watch her with pleasure, but not it. Betty Garrett, who plays a flighty creature with a swooning Sinatra yen, is lively, at least, and does nicely by ‘It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate.'”
But overall, he couldn’t call the film a winner:
For all its high spots, however, the show lacks consistent style and pace, and the stars are forced to clown and grimace much more than becomes their speed. Actually, the plotted humor is conspicuously bush-league stuff. Don’t be surprised if you see people getting up for a seventh-inning stretch.
Despite that, the movie was a hit at the box office, and helped convince producer Arthur Freed to give Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly a chance to direct On the Town (1949), which also starred Sinatra, Munshin, and Garrett. Williams went back to the pool and made Neptune’s Daughter (1949), also with Garrett. But Williams didn’t forget how unpleasant the production of this movie was, so when MGM tried to assign Stanley Donen to direct her in Pagan Love Song (1950), she used her considerable clout to get Robert Alton in the director’s chair, instead.