- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

Stanley Donen grew up a long way from the major leagues — in Columbia, S.C. — but his birthday coincides with the opening of each baseball season. Tomorrow, when he turns 85, it coincides with the home opener of the Washington Nationals.

No other famous filmmaker would be a more appropriate ceremonial guest on opening day, since Mr. Donen co-directed the screen’s most entertaining musicals with a baseball backdrop, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949) and “Damn Yankees” (1958).

Washington clubs play a conspicuous role in both yarns. The home team in “Ball Game,” the apocryphal New York Wolves, is envisioned as a top franchise while Theodore Roosevelt is president. They play their home opener against the Washington Senators, with Roosevelt in attendance.

The team that profits from a Faustian bargain in “Damn Yankees” is, of course, the long-suffering Senators of half a century ago. That collaboration linked Mr. Donen with George Abbott, the Broadway veteran who had directed the theatrical prototype.

Mr. Donen was not officially credited as a co-director on “Ball Game.” Busby Berkeley, at the end of his career, had been hired to direct the straight sequences by producer Arthur Freed. It was a sentimental gesture, and it’s no longer certain how much footage was actually supervised by Mr. Berkeley. Once he departed, the musical sequences, the indispensable aspects of the show, were filmed entirely under the supervision of co-star Gene Kelly and Mr. Donen.

At that time, Mr. Donen, a precocious 24, was still known as a protege and camera-wise problem-solver, specializing in technically arduous but pictorially astonishing production numbers. It was his ingenuity and patience that led to the “Alter Ego” number in “Cover Girl,” a double-exposure dance duet that matched Gene Kelly with himself, and then the enchanting dance interlude between Mr. Kelly and Jerry the cartoon mouse in “Anchors Aweigh.”

Professionally, “Ball Game” was a stepping stone for the partnership. The Kelly-Donen team received full directing credit on their next musical, the movie version of “On the Town.” In fact, it was already in production when “Ball Game” opened in April 1949. To cap off a banner year, “On the Town” was completed in time to become MGM’s holiday release at the end of 1949.

The second of three musicals that co-starred Mr. Kelly and Frank Sinatra (with the latter top-billed, which seems a bit curious in retrospect, given the overall superiority of the Kelly skills in the years 1944-49), “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” tends to get overshadowed. “Anchors Aweigh” was an enormous popular success during the last year of World War II — and ran about 45 minutes longer than the subsequent Kelly-Sinatra vehicles. “On the Town” was considered a seminal stylistic breakthrough for movie musicals, an impression that stemmed largely from the opening number, “New York, New York,” which integrated dance movement and quick-changing location shooting with a zest that remains irresistible.

The fact remains that “On the Town” spent only a week on location. Most of the film is as soundstage-dependent as other Metro musicals. Moreover, its estrangement from most of the original song score by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green — “Some Other Time” and “Lucky To Be Me” were scuttled, incredibly, in the transfer from stage to screen — makes the picture a freakishly tarnished good time. It recalls a period in which studio managements could be absurdly cavalier about adapting a hit show. I still wish someone would remake “On the Town” with the original score intact.

Despite its elevated prestige, “On the Town” wasn’t any more successful at the box office than “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The grosses were almost identical, with “On the Town” costing about $500,000 more. Contrived from scratch — a brief story synopsis by Mr. Kelly and Mr. Donen, who reasoned that once upon a time baseball players might have doubled as vaudeville entertainers during the offseason — “Ball Game” remains a sketchy pretext.

Thankfully, it was energized by some new tunes from Miss Comden, Mr. Green and associate producer Roger Edens (after the rejection of an entire song score from Harry Warren and Ralph Blane) and reinforced by some old ones, notably the title song, used to establish the co-stars as a song-and-dance act just about to depart for spring training.

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” has always been a happy reminder of a new and promising season in my experience. Let it remain so indefinitely. Play ball!

TITLE: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released by MGM in 1949, two decades before the advent of the film rating system; suitable for all ages)

CREDITS: Produced by Arthur Freed; associate producer Roger Edens. Directed by Busby Berkeley. Musical numbers staged by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. New songs by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Mr. Edens. Screenplay by Harry Tugend and George Wells, based on a synopsis by Mr. Kelly and Mr. Donen. Cinematography by George Folsey. Art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Daniel B. Cathcart. Musical direction by Adolph Deutsch. Costumes by Helen Rose and Irene Valles. Film editing by Blanche Sewell.

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes, plus supplementary material

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warner video.com

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