Directed by George Abbott
Produced by George Abbott
Harold Prince (Associate Producer)
Robert E. Griffith (Associate Producer)
Written by George Abbott (play)
Douglass Wallop (play & novel)
Starring Tab Hunter
Music by Richard Adler
Cinematography Harold Lipstein
Edited by Frank Bracht
Distributed by Warner Bros.
September 26, 1958
Country United States
Damn Yankees is a 1958 musical film made by Warner Bros., a modern version of the Faust story involving the New York Yankees and Washington Senators baseball teams. The film is based on the 1955 Broadway musical of the same name.
The film version was directed by George Abbott, as was the earlier stage version, with assistance from Stanley Donen. With the exception of Tab Hunter in the role of Joe Hardy (replacing Stephen Douglass), the Broadway principals reprised their stage roles, including Gwen Verdon as Lola.
A notable difference between film and stage versions was Gwen Verdon’s performance of the song “A Little Brains”. For the film, Verdon’s suggestive hip movements (as choreographed by Bob Fosse and performed on stage) were considered too risqué for a mainstream American film in 1958, and so, in the film, she simply pauses at these points.
The film was released in the United Kingdom under the title What Lola Wants, to avoid use of the word “Damn” on posters, hoardings and cinema marquees. It was also possibly because the title’s pun, alluding to the American Southerner’s colloquial term for Northerners (“damn Yankee”) would be lost on foreign audiences.
Joe Boyd is a middle-aged fan of the unsuccessful Washington Senators baseball team. His obsession with baseball is driving a wedge between him and wife Meg—a problem shared by many other wives of Senators supporters. Meg leads them in lamenting their husbands’ fixation with the sport (“Six Months Out of Every Year”).
After seeing his team lose yet again, Joe rashly declares that he would sell his soul to the devil to see his team beat the Yankees. No sooner has he spoken than the devil appears before him in the guise of a suave conman, Applegate. Applegate claims he can go one better—he can restore Joe’s youth, making him the player who wins them the pennant. This was more than Joe bargained for. He agrees, but persuades Applegate to give him an escape clause. Applegate declares that Joe can back out at any time before the last game of the season—afterwards, his soul belongs to the devil.
Joe bids an emotional farewell to a sleeping Meg (“Goodbye Old Girl”), after which Applegate transforms him into a dashing young man, now called Joe Hardy.
The next day, the Senators’ practice is a fiasco. Their manager, Ben Van Buren (Russ Brown), gives the team a rousing pep talk (“Heart”). Applegate arrives and, introducing himself as a scout, presents his new discovery—Joe Hardy from Hannibal, Missouri. Joe promptly hits baseball after baseball out of the park in an impromptu batting practice. As he is signed to a Senators contract, female sportswriter Gloria Thorpe plans to quickly get Joe into the public eye (“Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.”).
With tremendous home runs and game-saving catches, Joe leads the Senators on a long winning streak into pennant contention and becomes a national hero. Joe misses Meg dreadfully, however, and keeps sneaking back to his old neighborhood for a glimpse of her. Realising this could ruin his plans, Applegate summons his demonic right-hand girl, Lola, a seductress who was once known as the ugliest woman in her territory, but sold her soul to Applegate in exchange for eternal youth and beauty.
She is ordered to make Joe forget his wife. Lola is confident that she can carry out this task (“A Little Brains, A Little Talent”).
Joe succeeds in getting close to Meg by renting a room in his old house; Meg is unaware of his baseball stardom. Applegate and Lola manage to corner Joe in the baseball team’s locker room, where Lola confidently tries to seduce Joe (“Whatever Lola Wants”). But she has her first failure—Joe dearly loves Meg, and does not fall for Lola’s tempting ways. Applegate angrily banishes Lola.
By the end of the season,the Senators are on the verge of overtaking the Yankees, so their fans hold a lavish tribute (“Who’s Got the Pain?”). Gloria, having returned from Hannibal, Missouri, where no residents remember a Joe Hardy, confronts Applegate about the player’s true identity. Applegate implies that Joe is actually Shifty McCoy, a corrupt minor leaguer playing under a pseudonym. By the end of the tribute, newspapers arrive accusing Joe of being Shifty. He must meet with the baseball commissioner for a hearing or else be thrown out of baseball—on the day he plans to switch back to being Joe Boyd.
At the hearing, Meg and her female neighbors arrive as material witnesses, attesting to Joe’s honesty and falsely claiming he grew up with them in Hannibal. The commissioner acquits Joe, but as everyone celebrates, midnight strikes. Joe realizes he’s doomed.
Applegate has planned for the Senators to lose the pennant on the last day of the season, resulting in thousands of heart attacks, nervous breakdowns and suicides of Yankee-haters across the country. He’s reminded of his other evil misdeeds throughout history (“Those Were the Good Old Days”.)
Following the hearing, Lola lets Joe know she’s drugged Applegate so that he will sleep through the last game. They commiserate over their condemned situation at a nightclub (“Two Lost Souls”).
Late the next afternoon, Applegate awakens to find the Senators/Yankees game well underway. Realizing Lola has tricked him—and worse, that Lola has actually fallen in love with Joe—he turns her back into an ugly hag.
They arrive at the ballpark by the ninth inning, the Senators up by a run. With two outs, one of the Yankee sluggers (Mickey Mantle) hits a long drive to the outfield. Applegate impulsively switches Joe Hardy back into Joe Boyd in full view of the stadium. Now paunchy and middle-aged, Joe makes a final lunge at the ball and catches it. Washington wins the pennant! As his teammates celebrate and fans storm the field, an unrecognized Joe escapes from the ballpark.
Late that night, as the public wonders why Joe Hardy has disappeared, Joe Boyd meekly returns to his house. Meg quickly hugs him with her tears and they sing to each other (“There’s Something about an Empty Chair”). Applegate materializes once again and tries to make amends by offering Joe the chance to resume being Joe Hardy in time for the World Series. Joe ignores him, and a tantrum-throwing Applegate vanishes for good.