Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Top baseball movies as listed by TCM

From TCM's press release, here is the complete list of TCM’s 10 Favorite Baseball Movies, listed in chronological order:

Speedy (1928) – Directed by Ted Wilde

Babe Ruth never got a decent shake on film. The two bios of him (one starring William Bendix in 1948, another with John Goodman in 1992) are among fans’ least favorite baseball films. The Sultan of Swat played himself in some film shorts and a few good scenes in The Pride of the Yankees (1942), but this 1928 slapstick comedy not only features him at the height of his career but also shows him in an actual game pitting the Yankees against the Chicago White Sox. As icing on the cake, it also features a walk-on by the notoriously shy Lou Gehrig and allows star Harold Lloyd, as a New York cabbie trying to save his future father-in-law’s trolley line, to capture the fervor of the baseball great’s fans. For movie buffs, Speedy is important as Lloyd’s last silent film. For sports fans, it’s a rare and loving tribute to one of the game’s greatest players.

The Pride of the Yankees (1943) – Directed by Sam Wood

Independent producer Sam Goldwyn’s relentless pursuit of quality, genius for casting and strong story sense helped make this the definitive sports biography. With a script focusing on the relationships that took Yankee great Lou Gehrig to the top – including his domineering mother, a sympathetic sports writer and a storybook romance with his wife – the film captured a human dimension many movie bios lack. With Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright perfect in the leads, it continues to win hearts with each new generation. For added authenticity, Goldwyn featured Gehrig’s teammates Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Mark Koenig and Bill Dickey, along with sportscaster Bill Stern. Ironically, Cooper played one of baseball’s most beloved players despite having no great affection for the game himself. During shooting, to turn the right-handed Cooper into the famed southpaw, director Sam Wood had signs and uniforms printed backwards, so the film could be flipped during editing.

The Stratton Story (1949) – Directed by Sam Wood

With his tall, lanky frame, James Stewart was perfectly cast as one of baseball’s great stars, but the Hollywood dictum that proclaimed sports films box-office poison kept him from doing it until 1949. Even then, MGM sold the film as “The True Romance of the Year,” hyping the marquee teaming of Stewart with June Allyson. But The Stratton Story was more than a romance. Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton’s fight to return to the game after losing his leg in a hunting accident is one of the sports world’s most inspirational stories. Stewart practiced ball five hours a day and consulted with physical therapists to get it just right. The result was a box office hit with an Oscar-winning screenplay. The best endorsement came from Stratton himself. After viewing Stewart – his personal choice to play himself on screen – he told the press, “He was more me than I am!”

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) – Directed by Busby Berkeley

In 1949, baseball got the MGM musical treatment, complete with choreography by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, crooning by Frank Sinatra, swimming by Esther Williams, comedy by Betty Garrett and Jules Munshin and direction by Busby Berkeley (his last directing credit). Kelly and Donen conceived the idea for a musical about the game’s early days and sold it to MGM for $25,000. They even named the film for the Major League anthem, a 1908 song introduced by Nora Bayes that began popping up at ball games in 1934. They also threw in a musical tribute to the infield double-play as Sinatra, Kelly and Munshin sang “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg.” Originally, the stars were to have joined real-life manager Leo Durocher for the number. But even without him, the film lived up to its advertising as “A Homerun of Laughter, Romance and Fun.”

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) – Directed by Alfred E. Green

Baseball players had appeared as themselves on screen before but, until 1950, there had never been a baseball biopic starring its subject. Then again, Jackie Robinson was used to doing what had never been done before. Made just three years after he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier as its first African-American player, The Jackie Robinson Story celebrates his athleticism and strength of character and provides a daring look at racism in America. That it mirrored the subject in a time of widespread segregation can be credited to the film’s positioning itself, in the narrator’s words, as “The story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American.” Supported by gifted actors like Ruby Dee and Louise Beavers, Robinson acquitted himself respectably on screen. In addition, the camera managed to capture his tremendous skills on the field, including the legendary hook slide he used for stealing bases.

Damn Yankees (1958) – Directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen

What die-hard baseball fan hasn’t considered selling his or her soul to the devil for a shot at the World Series? Warner Bros. released the screen’s greatest baseball musical by starting with a great baseball story. Joe Boyd signs a demonic contract for the youth and talent to take the Washington Senators to the top. Director George Abbott first made the show a hit on Broadway and, as he had done the year earlier with The Pajama Game, shared directing chores with Stanley Donen. He also imported most of the original cast, including Ray Walston as the Devil, Gwen Verdon as his seductive assistant Lola, and choreographer Bob Fosse, who joins Verdon for the number “Who’s Got the Pain?” For marquee power, Warner Bros. planned to feature James Dean as the rejuvenated “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal Mo.” His death gave teen heartthrob Tab Hunter the role of a lifetime – a challenge he more than met.

The Bad News Bears (1976) – Directed by Michael Ritchie

The screen’s most popular depiction of Little League baseball isn’t some dewy-eyed vision of innocent love for the game. It’s a genially foul-mouthed comedy about a team of misfits and losers with a grouchy, beer-swilling coach. Although the role seems a perfect fit for Walter Matthau, the era’s funniest curmudgeon, screenwriter Bill Lancaster modeled it on his father, Burt Lancaster, notorious as the grumpiest Little League coach in Southern California. The feel-good story, with Matthau bringing new life to the team by recruiting sassy female pitcher Tatum O’Neal and local bad boy Jackie Earle Haley, made the picture a box office winner that inspired two sequels starring Haley, a TV series and a 2005 remake. Its lasting appeal derives from the fact that there’s more to the film than dirty words and foul balls. It also offers a very funny take on the competition underlying both sports and modern life.

Bull Durham (1988) – Directed by Ron Shelton

Hailed by many as the definitive baseball movie, this 1988 romantic comedy captures both the legends of the game and its harsher realities. Writer/director Ron Shelton drew on his experiences as a minor league player to craft the story of an aging catcher (Kevin Costner) brought on by the minor league Durham Bulls to help train a powerful but uneven new pitcher (Tim Robbins). Shelton had the inspiration to tell the story through the eyes of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a baseball fanatic who “trains” one of the Bulls each year – in bed. With its witty script and career-building performances, Bull Durham not only regularly tops lists of baseball films but also lists of love stories and comedies. The spell Shelton and his actors cast is so powerful that even those who don’t care for the game of baseball end up, like Annie, a fervent believer in “the Church of Baseball.”

Eight Men Out (1988) – Directed by John Sayles

John Sayles captures one the saddest chapters in baseball history in this elegiac look at the loss of innocence. Set in 1919, when the sport was still young and far from tabloid headlines about steroids, the movie tells the story of how gamblers sought to bribe members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the 1919 World Series. Eight Men Out captures the beauty of the game, the bad working conditions that inspired the players to sell out and the heartbreaking aftermath when the team was dubbed the Black Sox and eight players were barred from baseball for life. It took Sayles 10 years to get his script to the screen, by which time he was too old to play one of the team as originally planned. Instead, he cast actors who played well and loved the game. The result was series of compelling character portraits from D.B. Sweeney as the virtually illiterate “Shoeless” Joe Jackson; John Cusack as the film’s moral centerpiece, third baseman Buck Weaver; David Strathairn as the conflicted pitcher Eddie Cicotte; and John Mahoney as manager William “Kid” Gleason, whose heart is broken by the scandal.

Field of Dreams (1989) – Phil Alden Robinson

Baseball as a poetic reminder of America’s past innocence is at the heart of this gentle fantasy based on a book by W.P. Kinsella. The tale centers on an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) who hears a voice in his cornfield telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” With encouragement from his wife (Amy Madigan), he sets out to build a baseball field on his best farmland, even though it could mean losing the entire farm. Once the field is complete, it becomes home to baseball greats of the past – including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), disgraced star of the Chicago White Sox – who emerge from the cornfield to relive their baseball dreams. Released on the heels of Costner’s baseball classic Bull Durham (1988), Field of Dreams helped cement the actor’s position as a major star. It also provides a great role for Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster in one of his last big-screen appearances. Field of Dreams has earned a special place in the hearts of everyone with fond memories of a simpler past, when the highlight of a boy’s day would be to play catch with his father.

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