Cult Classics: Damn Yankees

damn yankees indexThere’s been many films made about Faustian pacts, where someone exchanges their soul for the chance to live out their dream, but Damn Yankees (also known as What Lola Wants in the UK as people supposedly might have been shocked by such terribly bad language) is easily one of the most fun takes on the story, a rollicking musical which includes some impressive choreography from Bob Fosse.

My Favourite Martian star Ray Walston plays Mr Applegate, who very clearly is the devil in disguise, and who offers the surly Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) the chance to be young again and play for his favourite baseball team, the almost always unsuccessful Washington Senators. Boyd’s initially sceptical though so the devil throws in an escape clause, where if by a specific date Boyd wants to return to his old life he’ll be able to do so.

Because he’s quite the shitty husband Joe decides to accept the deal and is transformed in to Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter) who heads off to Washington with Applegate in tow, where Joe soon starts helping the team win game after game. The press are suspicious of where this wunderkid has suddenly emerged from though, and Joe starts to miss life with his wife Meg (Shannon Bolin), and it looks like he might back out of the deal with the devil, so old Satan gets in contact with his mistress Lola (Gwen Verdon) and demands she seduce Joe.

Many a musical at the time went on for hours on end and even as a huge fan of the genre I sometimes worry they might never end, but this is a pretty tight hour and fifty one minutes, and it’s largely enormous fun. The songs are packed with funny lines, with the funniest moment being where the Devil laments “That glorious morn Jack the Ripper was born / Those were the good old days”, while there are some wry observations about how poorly women are treated by sports obsessives in “Six Months Out of Every Year”.

It’s clearly a little dated in places and at one point Meg ponders “What’s a wife without a husband?”, but otherwise this is packed with some very strong comedy from start to finish. Walston is superb as the twisted and petulant devil, Hunter is cute as a bright eyed boy who can’t believe his luck, while Verdon intentionally hams it up as the seductive Lola who’s only successful when she stops laying it on thick and genuinely falls for Joe.

The script, songs and performances are so strong that even if you have absolutely no interest in baseball then it should be a film which entertains, especially as the dance sequences are inventive and don’t outstay their welcome. Okay, you might be able to guess how it all ends after about five minutes but the journey is such a charming and engrossing one that you won’t mind in the slightest.

★★★★

Alex Finch.
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