The Archivist #144: A Warner Archive Double-Header with ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD (1951) and DEATH ON THE DIAMOND (1934)

Baseball season may be over with a historic World Series in the record books (a first-time win for the Texas Rangers, making them no longer the oldest American professional sports team without a championship, since their founding in 1961). But if you’re not quite ready to say goodbye to watching America’s pastime just yet, we’ve got a couple of recommendations for classic baseball-themed movies – both older than the Rangers – from the archives at Warner and MGM!

Today’s matchup: it’s the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals in a double-header that covers the bases from charming family comedy to obscure murder mystery oddity.

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in a rut, and it doesn’t help that their abusive manager Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas) berates and lashes out at everyone from his players to the umpires, and even the media. Guffy’s quick to lay out anyone who crosses him, with his words or with his fists.

The film keeps things G-rated, cleverly and rather humorously masking Guffy’s profanity-laden screaming rants as a wall of garbled incoherence that’s the aural equivalent of grawlix.

Guffy’s rage-fueled antics aren’t just detrimental to his team’s performance, but to his entire organization, capturing the attention of journalist Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh), who makes no secret of being deeply unimpressed by his boorish behavior.

In a divine twist of fate, Guffy’s fortunes change one night when, while walking through the outfield alone, a heavenly voice speaks out to him with a proposition, explaining that someone out there has been petitioning on his behalf. Therefore if he can clean up his act, a heavenly team of angels (made up of former ball-players in life) will provide divine assistance to the flailing Pirates.

Guffy agrees to the angel’s terms, and begins making an earnest effort to temper his rage. When an orphan girl, Bridget (Donna Corcoran), sees the angels on the field, invisible to everyone else, she becomes Guffy’s advisor, and an unlikely friendship develops between the cranky manager, the precocious orphan, and the reproachful lady reporter who observes the change. After a life of loneliness and selfishness, Guffy opens up to the joy of loving other people.

The film came out just a few years after Miracle on 34th Street, and has a similar third act possibly inspired by that film: Guffy’s sanity is called into question and he faces an inquisition (essentially a trial) with the league. The trial’s arguments become a question of whether angels exist. This is raised as a point of gauging Guffy’s mental fitness, which seems intellectually dishonest and beside the point (many people believe in the existence of angels and other supernatural beings without impacting their ability to work). A better question would be whether heavenly assistance, if it exists, qualifies as cheating!

One minor observation I have is that Guffy looks and seems notably older than Jennifer, detracting a bit from their onscreen romance because his natural demeanor and position of authority make him come off as more fatherly than a romantic interest. In real life, the actors are indeed 20 years apart; when the film was made, Douglas was in his 40s and Leigh in her 20s. Not that there’s any problem with consenting adults having an age gap in a relationship, just pointing out that it’s a noticeable difference. Of course lots of other classic films like Charade and Sabrina have similarly pronounced age differences, though in these films it seems to be part of the plot, or at least acknowledged.

Angels in the Outfield was remade by Disney in 1994 as an effects-filled spectacle which is also quite charming (and which fittingly changed the team to the California – now Anaheim – Angels), but I really love the original as an enchantingly endearing and lovely film. On rewatching it, I found I loved it even more than the first time. The film also notably has some impressive cameos. These three legends – Joe Dimaggio, Ty Cobb, and Bing Crosby – still resonate today.

Angels in the Outfield is available on Warner Archive DVD, Digital HD, and streaming on Max.

Death on the Diamond (1934)

With their team’s ownership riding on the season’s outcome, the St. Louis Cardinals add a hotshot player, Larry Kelly (Robert Young) to their roster in an effort to seal their bid for the pennant.

With several powerful interests and gamblers invested in the Cardinals’ performance, things start to get dangerous and the team begins to suffer casualties, with never the same method of killing. At one point a mobster tries to get friendly with Kelly, who rebuffs. But as the body count increases, accusations fly and fingers start pointing – with “the new guy” as the prime suspect.

In a historical context, I think the film was made and released in a time where the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, in which several Chicago White Sox players conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series, was still a somewhat recent memory.

Major League Baseball reorganized and spent some years rebuilding its tarnished image, and fifteen years later enough time had passed that a movie about baseball scandal could be viewed as an evening’s entertainment rather than a commentary about present corruption.

The film isn’t gruesome or horrific, but the deaths are memorable. One particular POV shot, focusing on a rifle held by an unseen assailant as it locks onto an onfield target, feels both impactful and familiar, echoed in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (sniper at a race track) and Two Minute Warning (sniper at a football stadium).

The film has a strange tone which mixes a lot of zany comedy and a rather silly twist ending with its macabre murders, which some viewers may find off-putting. I kind of appreciate the oddness.

I’m a Cardinals fan so for that reason I’m a little predisposed to like this, and I do. But it’s definitely the less memorable and certainly less endearing of the two films.

Death on the Diamond is available on Warner Archive DVD.

– A/V out.

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