FILMS

Girls of summer

Why women took the ball field in wartime

Brian D. Johnson July 13 1992
FILMS

Girls of summer

Why women took the ball field in wartime

Brian D. Johnson July 13 1992

Girls of summer

FILMS

Why women took the ball field in wartime

The summer movie season is, as usual, heavy with male hormones. But while the men battle urban chaos in Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3 and Unlawful Entry, some women are pitching comic relief. First came Sister Act, a hit comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg as a nightclub singer who turns a team of nuns into a showstopping rhythm-and-blues act. Now, A League of Their Own, another screwball comedy about the joys of sisterhood, puts a distaff spin on the time-honored tradition of the baseball movie. Like most Hollywood treatments of the sport, it is full of free-swinging sentiment and loopy humor. And like The Babe, the recent clunker about Babe Ruth, it tries to pay homage to baseball history and keep the crowd amused with a lot of antic farce. The result is a long, well-spanked fly ball of a movie that shows promise, but drifts foul.

A League of Their Own does have its charms. Geena Davis, makes solid contact in every scene. And the movie sheds light on an under-mythologized chapter of baseball lore: the 11-year existence of the All American Girls Baseball League (1943 to 1954). The Second World War cut a swath through professional baseball. As the boys of summer left the diamond for the battlefield, professional baseball was in trouble. To fill the gap, chewing-gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley—candy-bar king Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) in the movie—helped set up a women’s league in the American Midwest. It recruited women from 17 states and (despite its All American label) from five Canadian provinces.

They were the girls of summer. Their ranks included housewives, models, teachers and farmers. Promoters used their sex appeal to sell the game. Although many were excellent athletes, they were forced to play in short dresses that showed off their legs—and made sliding into bases a painful proposition. And feminine grooming was an important part of basic training.

On paper, A League of Their Own boasts an impressive starting lineup. Fresh from her triumph as a housewife turned road warrior in Thelma & Louise, the wonderfully tall and talented Davis is ideally suited for the starring role. Madonna’s energies are contained in a tailor-made supporting role. And director Penny Marshall reunites with actor Tom Hanks (the star of Marshall’s first hit, Big), who plays the team’s slovenly manager.

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Directed by Penny Marshall

A League of Their Own’s fictional story focuses on the rivalry between two sisters, Dottie (Davis) and her insecure kid sister, Kit (Lori Petty). Recruited from an Oregon softball team, Dottie becomes the star catcher of the newly formed Rockford Peaches, while Kit works the pitcher’s mound—and struggles to emerge from her big sister’s shadow. Playing the caustic scout who recruits them, Saturday Night Live’s Jon Lovitz mugs his way through the movie’s funniest scenes. But his short-lived role sets a comic standard that the movie never regains.

Madonna, meanwhile, is cynically typecast as a sluttish centre fielder named “All the Way” Mae, a former dance hall hostess who treats baseball as just another flirtation with show business.

Trading off Madonna’s familiar personality, the cheap jokes about Mae’s sex-bunny ambitions become tiresome. Just as sophomoric are the ugly-girl gags at the expense of a pointedly unattractive power hitter named Marla (Megan Cavanagh). And comedian Rosie O’Donnell plays Doris, a loudmouthed bouncer from Mae’s dance hall who applies her strong-arm tactics to third base.

The film-makers have fielded a team of stereotypes, which would be less objectionable if they were funnier. Screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (the team behind hit comedies including City Slickers, Parenthood and Splash) keep reaching way out of the strike zone to get a laugh, straining credibility in the process.

The comedy is broad. And no character is more broadly drawn than Jimmy, the skeptical manager played by Hanks. A washed-up star from the big leagues, Jimmy spends the first half of the movie in an alcoholic stupor while the players manage themselves. Jimmy, like the fans, initially scoffs at the idea of female ball players. But gradually they win his respect, and he starts taking his job to heart.

Still, the players have to attract the fans by strutting their stuff for the press. In one scene, Dottie obliges a photographer by doing the splits as she slides into home plate. The girls wanted to be I taken seriously as ball play| ers, but they also had to play 8 ball with the 1940s’ rampant => sexism. And the movie itself manages to get caught up in the same conundrum—defending the league’s athletic honor one minute and trivializing it the next.

Most of the cast performs well despite the excesses of the script and direction. In a departure from the eccentrics she has portrayed in the past, Davis plays it admirably straight, remaining believable in the most implausible circumstances. And Marshall at least directs with heart, if not subtlety. Pushing the movie into extra innings, she saves some dignity with an epilogue that features aged versions of the characters (played by older look-alikes) visiting the Girls League exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame. For a brief moment, the movie’s errors are forgiven as it drives home z some honest nostalgia for a I time when professional baseo ball was a girl’s game too.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON