Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Baseball Week Countdown: #4 - A League of Their Own

Two major advantages of baseball films is their ability to tap into the history of America, therein creating a wonderfully nostalgic appeal, and their ability to develop a wide, colorful cast of characters.  What is so wonderful about this next film is how it takes the conventions of an ensemble baseball cast and flips the script to show an important portion of the sport in this country. 

#4 - A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own focuses on a time in American when World War II was sending any and everyone overseas to fight the Nazis, thus leaving baseball high and dry.  We all know how women at the time were asked to step up and do their part, but a select few were chosen to star in an all girls baseball league while their men fought in the war.  From inside this set up, the film focuses on two lucky sisters chosen to play in the league, the married Dottie Henson (Geena Davis) and the kid-like Kit Keller (Lori Petty).  Dottie is a superior athlete, Kit the younger spitfire with the chip on her shoulder.  One day, a scout (Jon Lovitz) comes calling and wants Dottie.  She will only go if Kit can come along.

This trio serves as a channel into the tryouts where we meet the cast of female ballplayers.  There is Mae and Doris (Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell, essentially playing versions of themselves, Betty 'Spaghetti' Horn, soft-spoken Evelyn Gardner, and of course Marla Hooch, a homely super athlete played by Megan Cavanagh.  Once the teams are separated the field of actors slims down enough where it is fairly simple to identify the satellite players.  Of course, these teams all need a manager, and this is where an inspired bit of casting balances the film and adds great comedy.

The owner of the Rockford Peaches, the team at the center of the film with Dottie and Kit, employs former superstar Jimmy Dugan to manage his team.  Jimmy, played perfectly by Tom Hanks, would be in the War had he not torn his knee to shreds some years earlier.  Now out of the game, and a fairly comical shabby drunk, Dugan reluctantly takes the gig because he needs the cash, but doesn't take it seriously.  This is evident in his first meeting with the team where he arrives fully in the bag, bitter, and disinterested in the events on the field.  Naturally, the friction between Dugan and the team dissolves thanks in no small part to Dottie's superior play and no nonsense attitude towards Jimmy's bitterness.  But not before there are some laugh out loud moments between Jimmy, his frustrations, and the alteration he must undergo into order to manage women.  Sensitivity is not his strongest trait early on.

A League of Their Own takes the conventions of a baseball film, the team aspect, the superstar, learning to win together, and adds freshness in putting us into the short-lived All-American Girls Baseball League.  And the baseball scenes, plenty of them along the way, are all very well done.  There was not a moment where you are taken out of the action by clumsy blocking or a phony feel.  Director Penny Marshall keeps the pacing up and keeps the wit sharp.  This is often an overlooked baseball picture because it is anything but conventional with its casting, but there is wonderful heart and soul at the core of A League of Their Own.